The NFL season is set to kick off in just over 48 hours when the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks play host to the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field. All of Seattle's 31 NFL counterparts will begin their quest to unseat the champs, with the remainder of the week 1 slate to be played out by next Monday night.
As for the perenially competitive NFC South, the opening weekend of football sets up nicely as the division's four teams will square off in a pair of intradivision matchups which will see New Orleans travel to Atlanta and Carolina head south to Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon.
The Panthers will look to defend their NFC South crown, while the Saints hope to build off of their return to the playoffs, a run which came to an end when they fell to the eventual champion Seahawks last January. Meanwhile, the Falcons and Buccaneers will look to put miserable 2013 seasons in the rearview mirror once and for all, with week 1 ushering in a new year of hope and confidence.
Here are some updates from around the NFC South, with week 1 officially just 4 days away:
QB Cam Newton sat out Wednesday's practice as he continues to battle a rib injury. Newton and coach Ron Rivera have said that there is "no doubt" the 2011 Rookie of the Year will be ready to rock against Tampa, though his absence from the always-critical "installation day" of practice will cause some concern.
Newton is expected to wear a flak jacket, a cumbersome, yet effective device designed to alleviate contact to the torso area. Newton will likely remain wrapped in cotton wool during practice, as the team does not want to risk further damage to its best player, who also underwent ankle surgery earlier in the offseason.
Notoriously tough, expect Newton to handle his usual workload against an improved Tampa defense this Sunday.
New Orleans Saints
The news of the day from the Big Easy revolves around linebacker Junior Galette's new contract. Galette, a former undrafted free agent, is coming off a career-best 12 sacks in 2013, while appearing in all 16 games. Galette has put pen-to-paper on a new four-year, $41.5 million deal which will keep him in Black and Gold until 2019. The deal includes a reported $23 million in guaranteed money.
Galette was already under contract at a valuable rate for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, but had the chance to void his deal and become an unrestricted free agent next spring if he was able to match last season's sack total or appear in at least 60% of the team's defensive snaps in 2014. Fresh off a new deal, Junior Galette will look to bring the heat on Matt Ryan and the Falcons this weekend.
Now that Galette is signed, the Saints can shift their long-term focus to locking up DE Cameron Jordan. The team exercised their 5th-year option on the former 2011 first-rounder earlier this offseason, and will hope to keep their young and strong defensive front core intact, a group which also includes Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins.
The Saints' defensive play improved dramatically in 2013, thanks in large part to the effectiveness of the aforementioned quarter and their respective fits in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's scheme.
RB Steven Jackson says he is ready to roll ahead of Sunday's matchup with the Saints. Jackson, 31, has battled nagging hamstring problems throughout training camp and preseason, and is coming off a year in which he rushed for a career-low 542 yards.
The Falcons hope that a healthy Jackson will be able to give them the proven, capable ground option they crave to pair with their potent passing attack, which is built around QB Matt Ryan and his trio of receivers, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. Jackson battled a string of injuries last season, his first with Atlanta, after spending the first nine years of is pro career with the St. Louis Rams.
If the veteran endures another setback, Atlanta will be forced to turn to the likes of Antone Smith, Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman. The Falcons will hope to get the most out of Jackson in an attempt to take some of the pressure off Ryan and their passing game, while establishing balance in their overall offensive attack. Expect the talented Freeman to take on a bigger role as the season progresses.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With rookie RB Charles Sims likely out until November at the earliest, it appears that RB Doug Martin is ticketed for an even bigger role in 2014, similar to the one he played as a rookie two years ago.
In 2012, Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns while also grabbing 49 receptions for 472 yards and an additional score en-route to a Pro Bowl appearance and a spot on the NFL's All-Rookie team. A shoulder injury wrecked his 2013 campaign, but the Boise State alum is poised for a major bounce-back season under new coach Lovie Smith.
Josh McCown has been brought in to lead the offense from under center, having thrived in a handful of starts in Chicago last season while Jay Cutler nursed groin and ankle injuries. With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the outside, McCown was able to shine by getting the ball to his giant playmakers, while being supported by the reliable Matt Forte on the ground. Doug Martin is hoping to return to his rookie form.
Now in Tampa, McCown is surrounded by somewhat similar weapons in the form of Martin, Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. Like Forte, who rushed for 1,339 yards and 9 scores last year, Martin is a capable receiver. Forte caught 74 balls for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns in Marc Trestman's Bears offense last season, and though Jeff Tedford will be calling the shots in south Florida, Martin could be in store for a similar role to that of Forte.
The Bucs have solidified and significantly improved their offensive line with the addition of All-Pro guard Logan Mankins, who has perenially graded out as one of the game's best run-blockers per Pro Football Focus. This important addition should help boost Martin's value and chances of making up for an injury-riddled 2013 season. It should also aid McCown's chances of replicating his success from his time in Chicago by giving the quarterback better protection and more time to make decisions with the ball.
Sims was drafted with an eye on handling third-down and obvious passing duties, which would have left Martin as more of a two-down back. However, with the rookie out for weeks, if not months, the opportunity to handle a higher volume of work will be in place for Martin, who will look to grab this chance with both hands. Bobby Rainey and Mike James will provide insurance behind the 5-9 215 Martin.