Preseason has come to an end, and as teams scramble to shape their 53-man rosters and practice squads over the next several hours, week 1 preparations are about to begin in earnest across the NFL.
For fantasy football owners, week 1 preparations may as well have begun after last weekend's slate of preseason dress rehearsals, with managers already wrestling with lineup decisions and roster moves.
The NFC South kicks off week 1 with a pair of intradivision matchups, as the New Orleans Saints travel to Atlanta to face the Falcons, while the Carolina Panthers will take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in south Florida next Sunday afternoon.
All four teams have key fantasy cogs intertwined with their on-field endeavours. As week 1 sits within reach, here is a quick roundup of news and notes from around the division:
There should be no reason for Panthers fans or fantasy football owners with a vested interest in QB Cam Newton's ribs to be worried. Both Newton and head coach Ron Rivera have calmed fears that the quarterback's week 1 status could be up in the air following an injury suffered in last weekend's preseason game against the New England Patriots.
Newton says there is "no doubt" he will be ready to roll for next Sunday's matchup at Tampa Bay, and his game is not expected to change much as Rivera stated that no specific alterations to the play-calling will be made. Cam Newton will once again be tasked with carrying a huge load on his shoulders in 2014.
In other words, expect Newton to handle his usual workload, including the designed zone-read plays where he can be so effective making plays with his legs. Supported by a now-healthy Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, Newton will look to bring along his new crop of receivers, highlighted by the impressive rookie Kelvin Benjamin, who has formed a tight bond with his quarterback throughout the offseason. Greg Olsen remains a formidable tight end, and should continue to prosper as a reliable safety net and red zone threat in the team's passing attack.
In addition to his rib scare, Newton continues to shake off the lingering rust from his offseason ankle procedure, but the signal-caller remains confident in his body and health as he leads his team into week 1. The Panthers will face a plucky Bucs defense next week, but Newton should be able to deliver reasonable production for fantasy owners. His continued development as a passer will be vital as the team looks to defend its NFC South crown. Look for offensive coordinator Mike Shula to keep things simple in the passing game early, as the Panthers' receiving corps will, in all likelihood, take some time to gel.
New Orleans Saints
It looks like business as usual for Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints offense. The team dazzled in last Saturday night's 23-17 dress rehearsal victory over the Indianapolis Colts, moving the ball with ease, converting third downs and stringing together long, efficient scoring drives.
Drew Brees made his return from a nagging oblique injury, and hardly showed any rust. In what was only his first preseason action, the quarterback looked to be in mid-season form, distributing the ball to the open man, establishing the tempo and displaying mobility to evade the pass rush. Drew Brees looked in mid-season form against the Colts last weekend.
Brees remains a shoo-in top-3 fantasy football quarterback. He has a tasty week 1 matchup on the road in Atlanta. In last November's matchup at the Georgia Dome on a Thursday night, Brees was efficient, posting a 23/33, 278 yard, 2 touchdown performance against a reeling Falcons squad. The Saints were balanced, rushing for over 100 yards, keeping things simple, for the most part, on a short week.
The Saints should have a much more aggressive game plan in store for week 1. Look for a healthy Marques Colston to be involved, with Jimmy Graham and rookie Brandin Cooks very much in the mix. The running back position should continue to be a cloudy situation for fantasy owners, but Pierre Thomas is still a major part of the team's plans, and his experience and mastery of the passing game will be a key commodity on the road in a hostile environment. Thomas caught 5 passes for 57 yards, while compiling 73 yards on just 10 carries in last season's tilt in Atlanta. Expect the veteran to be a big part of the week 1 game plan, while the usual suspects such as Brees, Colston and Graham deliver in their own right.
Keen to put last season's nightmare behind them, Matt Ryan and the Falcons will be eager as ever to kick things off next Sunday. Watching HBO's Hard Knocks will show that the team's desire to bury last season's memories for good is not only strong, but palpable.
Ryan and his offensive teammates could look to test New Orleans CB Patrick Robinson next weekend. Robinson seems likely to start opposite Keenan Lewis following the Saints' decision to part company with Champ Bailey, and the former first-round pick, who missed all but two games last season with a serious knee injury, could be tasked with covering Roddy White.
White was banged up throughout the 2013 season, but is healthy now and has his running mate back in the form of Julio Jones, who missed several games in 2013 due to foot issues. Jones will see plenty of Lewis, leaving Robinson to match up with White. Though he has been one of the Saints' most improved players throughout the offseason, Robinson has struggled in coverage at times, and the Falcons figure to put the ball in the air early and often with question marks still surrounding the offensive line and rushing attack. Matt Ryan and Roddy White could be in for a productive week 1.
Sam Baker has been lost to another serious knee injury, while Steven Jackson continues to fight nagging ailments of his own. Atlanta will need Ryan to post high-end numbers to give them a chance at success. Both he and White could be in for a strong week 1 performance if they are able to exploit Robinson on the outside. Otherwise, the Saints' secondary is as strong as ever, thanks to the presence of Lewis, Kenny Vaccaro, Jairus Byrd, and Rafael Bush, who the Falcons unsuccessfully attempted to sign as a restricted free agent.
If Atlanta can not produce enough on the ground from Jackson and promising rookie Devonta Freeman, look for Ryan to sling it, and expect White to see plenty of targets.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Looking to solidify and upgrade their offensive line and protection for QB Josh McCown, the Bucs made a move earlier this week, shipping tight end Tim Wright and a draft pick to New England in exchange for guard Logan Mankins. As a Patriot, Mankins developed into one of the league's best run-blockers, and has been elected to six Pro Bowl appearances.
Mankins has routinely graded out as a high-end run-blocker according to Pro Football Focus. PFF has administered a top-10 run-blocking grade to Mankins for seven consecutive years, and his presence will not only bolster McCown's confidence, but will have a strong impact as the team looks to re-establish Doug Martin as an effective runner. Doug Martin is looking to return to rookie form.
Martin had a superb rookie campaign in 2012, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. A shoulder injury ruined his sophomore campaign, limiting him to just six games and 456 rushing yards. Coach Lovie Smith, in his first year at the helm in Tampa, knows he must get Martin back on track as the Bucs hope to synergize their offensive attack with McCown and a pair of larger-than-life playmakers on the perimeter in the form of Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans.
McCown shined in the Chicago Bears' passing attack last season, when called upon to fill in for an injured Jay Cutler. With a reliable back in Matt Forte to count on, McCown was able to take advantage of the size and skills of his receivers, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Jackson and Evans have similar physiques and athletic skill sets to Marshall and Jeffery, and McCown will look to his experience in Chicago, as well as his time spent in Arizona with a young Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to bring a more consistent passing attack to Tampa.
If the Bucs can re-establish Martin and balance the run game with an effective and efficient passing game, the team could have a chance to surprise in 2014. Mankins' addition can not be underestimated, and the week 1 home tilt against the Panthers could come down to which team runs the ball with more sustained success.
We like Martin as a strong week 1 play. Keep in mind, like Forte, Martin can be an effective piece of the passing game as well. He caught 49 passes for 472 yards and an additional score as a rookie, and seems likely to be playing a three-down role outside of the occasional rest.
Despite the inconsistencies throughout his long career, McCown has shown that he can get the ball to his big receivers. He may not be in Marc Trestman's quarterback-friendly system anymore, but the pieces are in place for Tampa Bay's offense to come together.
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