Summer Scramble: NFC South Position Battles to Watch
It's July, the slowest month of the year for the NFL, and it's driving you nuts. You need a fix. A hit. Anything NFL to pull you through the dog days. FanHouse is here to help with an in-depth look at each division that should have you plenty prepared for training camp. We're calling it the Summer Scramble, and today we look at the NFC South's looming position battles.
·Buccaneers Quarterback: The Bucs let go of veteran Jeff Garcia, then brought in Byron Leftwich to compete with Luke McCown for the starting spot. But as those aren't exactly inspiring choices, they went ahead and picked Kansas State's Josh Freeman in the first round of the draft. During minicamp, coach Raheem Morris (who coached at K-State during Freeman's freshman season, said Freeman looked good enough to merit consideration for the starting QB spot right now, and that the battle was wide open. Whether he was just saying that to light a fire under McCown and Leftwich (the latter was said to have struggled badly during minicamp) remains to be seen. Freeman is huge and athletically gifted, but he's generally thought of as a project who would struggle if thrown into the NFL fire right away. The Bucs, however, don't project to be very good this year, and so there might be little to lose by taking the chance with the kid.
PREDICTION: Leftwich shows enough in training camp to win the battle as the lesser of three evils, but he's just holding a spot. Freeman gets a couple of starts in December when the season is out of reach.
·Saints Running Back: Deuce McAllister, the Saints' all-time leader rusher, is gone. His replacement will ... probably not be former No. 2 overall pick Reggie Bush. Make no mistake, Bush will still be around, on the field in those certain situations that take advantage of his spectacular abilities. He'll get his carries and his catches and his breathtaking touchdowns. But the featured running back role is likely to fall to Pierre Thomas, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007 and has impressed the Saints' coaching staff filling in for McAllister the past few years. He's got the strength, power and toughness to handle the full-time duties, and he should get plenty of opportunity to show his stuff in training camp.
PREDICTION: Thomas emerges as a breakout running back, and Bush continues in the role he occupied when McAllister was still in New Orleans.
·Panthers Left Defensive End: Now that the Julius Peppers saga seems resolved (for one year, at least), the Panthers can turn to the very interesting issue of who plays the DE position on the side of the line opposite from Peppers. Adding second-round pick Everette Brown to this mix makes it interesting, this year and for 2010 and beyond. The starter at left DE is likely to be Tyler Brayton, who was the starter last year. But last year on passing downs, the Panthers moved Brayton to tackle and played pass rusher Charles Johnson at end. That's an arrangement that could continue in 2009, but if Brown shows enough during camp, he could push Johnson for some of that third-down action. Brown is a possible replacement for Peppers should the veteran leave after this year, so the Panthers will want to get a look at him in game situations, assuming he's capable of handling it.
PREDICTION: Brown overtakes Johnson by the second half of the season and maybe even fills in as a starting end if Brayton struggles or one of the starters gets injured.
·Falcons Strong Safety: The story of Falcons camp will be new faces in defensive places. Atlanta must replace five defensive starters, and there are position battles all over the field on that side of the ball. The one we've selected for this exercise is strong safety, where there's a battle to replace Lawyer Milloy. The heir apparent appeared to be Thomas DeCoud, the 2008 third-rounder who appeared in 10 games last year. But the Falcons added some competition to that spot when they picked Missouri's William Moore in the second round this year. Moore is thought of as a strong run defender already, and if he competes close to DeCoud in training camp, he could well be the starter in Week 1. At the very least, he's likely to make an impact on special teams right away.
PREDICTION: If the Falcons really thought DeCoud was the answer at the spot, why did they take Moore? Moore becomes the starter early in the season, if not in training camp.
Tomorrow: NFC South Burning Questions and Prediction
Thursday: AFC South Position Battles to Watch
Friday: AFC South Burning Questions and Prediction