NFC South training camp capsules
CAMP CALENDAR: Full squad reports July 27; practice starts July 28; camp breaks on Aug. 16.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Finding a pass rush: The Falcons are counting on improved play from defensive end/linebacker Vic Beasley, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, defensive tackle/end Derrick Shelby to generate a pass rush. The Falcons are hoping to have better coverage against running backs and tight ends which may give the rush more time to reach the quarterback. They'd prefer to stay in their cover three-zone and not have to blitz to create pressure, but that may not be their best option.
--Get Julio Jones some help: Roddy White, the franchise all-time leading receiver was released and there is a big void opposite of Jones. They signed Mohamed Sanu, who's been a No. 3 of No. 4 receiver in Cincinnati. He's never had more than 56 catches of 790 yards in a season.
Ryan is determined to have a bounce-back season. He has spent a great deal of his time over the offseason trying to master the footwork in the outside zone scheme. He believes that he can fix a lot of the things that led to his 16 interceptions last season. Schaub, who played in the system while in Houston, was brought in to help. Renfree was the backup the past three seasons. He played in two games and was 3 of 7 for 11 yards and had one interception. Simms, after spending last season on the practice squad, is fighting for a roster spot.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - RB Devonta Freeman, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups -- Tevin Coleman, Terron Ward, Gus Johnson, Brandon Wilds, FB Will Ratelle.
The Falcons' focusing on their rushing attack is key this offseason, while Freeman had a 1,000-yard season, the attack was not very potent over the long haul. That explains why the Falcons plan to use both Freeman and Coleman. The Falcons averaged 100.4 yards rushing per game last season, which ranked 19th in the NFL. The Falcons averaged just 3.82 yards per rush, which ranked 25th in the league. The Bills led the league with 152 yards rushing per game and at 4.78 yards per carry. DiMarco helped pave the way as a solid lead blocker.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Jacob Tamme. Backups - Levine Toilolo, Austin Hooper, D.J. Tialavea, Joshua Perkins.
Tamme, who is headed into his eighth season in the league, had his second most productive season in the NFL in 2015. Tamme caught 59 passes on 81 targets. In 2010, while playing for the Indianapolis Colts he caught 67 passes on 93 targets. Tamme appears to be the Falcons tight end for 2016, while they get third-round pick Hooper ready for the long haul. Hooper was the second-rated tight end in the draft behind Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry, who was selected in the second round by the San Diego Chargers. Toilolo has turned into a solid blocker.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu. Backups -- Justin Hardy, Devin Hester, Devin Fuller, Jordan Leslie, Eric Weems, Nick Williams, Aldrick Robinson, J.D. McKissic, Daje Johnson, David Glidden.
Jones had already taken over as the team's No. 1 wide receiver, but in 2016 he must fill the leadership vacuum created by the release of Roddy White, the franchise's all-time leading receiver in catches (808), yards (10,863) and touchdowns (63). The Falcons replaced him by signing Sanu in free agency. Jones has been helping him learn Kyle Shanahan's offensive system. Sanu, 26, has caught 61 percent (152 of 249) of his targets in four seasons with the Bengals. He has amassed 1,793 yards and 11 touchdowns. Hardy showed some promise as a rookie and will have a shot to earn the No. 3 wide receiver spot.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jake Matthews, LG Andy Levitre, C Alex Mack, RG Mike Person, RT Ryan Schraeder. Backups - T Tom Compton, T Bryce Harris, T Laurence Gibson, G Wes Schweitzer, G Shabaz Ahmed, G Chris Chester, G Collin Rahrig, G Michael Huey, C Ben Garland, C Jake Reed.
Mack was signed in free agency to a five-year, $47.5 million contract. He's expected to add some moxie to the unit. The rushing attack was more potent after ranking 24th in the NFL while averaging 93.6 yards per game in 2014. The Falcons averaged 100.4 yards per game and were ranked 19th in the league. The offensive line, which gave up 32 sacks and 89 quarterback hits, paved the way for running back Devonta Freeman to rush for 1,056 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Levitre has to eliminate his penalties. He led the team with 11 penalties that led to eight stalled drives. Levitre had five holding penalties, four false starts, one illegal block above the waist and one unnecessary roughness on the league's official penalty report. Matthews and Schraeder are a solid tackle tandem.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Derrick Shelby, DT Tyson Jackson, NT Grady Jarrett, DRE Adrian Clayborn. Backups - E Brandon Williams, E Vic Beasley Jr., E Ivan McLennan, E Malliciah Goodman, E Nordly Capi, T Jonathan Babineaux, T Cory Johnson, T Derrick Shelby, T Ra'Shede Hageman, T Joey Mbu, T Chris Mayes.
The Falcons had 19 sacks, 70 quarterback hurries and 75 quarterback hits on 561 pass plays. That's an anemic pass-rush ratio of 3.42 percent. Their sack ratio of 3.39 percent was last in the league. The Falcons are hoping that better coverage on tight ends and running backs will give the pass rush more time to close in on quarterbacks. Beasley, who had four sacks, 22 hurries and five quarterback hits as a rookie, will move to strong-side linebacker in the base defense. He was a factor on 31 plays. Defensive line coach Bryan Cox said they have to find a way to turn some of those 22 hurries and five hits into sacks. He will rush from defensive end in the nickel defense. The Falcons are also counting on improvement from Clayborn, who led the team with 15 quarterback hits.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB De'Vondre Campbell, MLB Deion Jones, SLB Vic Beasley. Backups - WLB Sean Weatherspoon, WLB De'Vondre Campbell, WLB Torrey Green, WLB Ivan McLennan, MLB Paul Worrilow, MLB LaRoy Reynolds, SLB Philip Wheeler, SLB Brooks Reed, SLB Courtney Upshaw, SLB Tyler Starr.
The speedy Jones is being counted on to unseat the gritty Worrilow. He's a run and hit backer, who can cover running backs out of the backfield. Beasley looked good dropping into coverage and will still have opportunities to come off the edge as a blitzer. The coaches were force-feeding Campbell at weakside. If they can't get him ready to go, Weatherspoon is available if he can stay healthy as he tries to revive his once promising career.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Desmond Trufant, RCB Robert Alford, FS Ricardo Allen, SS Keanu Neal. Backups - CB Akeem King, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, CB C.J. Goodwin, CB Devonte Johnson, CB Jalen Collins, CB David Mims II, CB Jordan Sefon, S Robenson Therezie, S Sharrod Neaseman, S Brian Poole, S Charles Godfrey, S Kemal Ishmael, S Damian Parms.
In addition to filling the right cornerback spot during Collins' four-game suspension, the Falcons must find some depth at nickel and outside. The Falcons must find out if King, a converted safety and seventh-round pick in 2015, is ready for action. Alford could actually start at right cornerback in the base until Collins is ready. Then slide inside in the nickel while King comes in at right cornerback. The Falcons, who looked at veteran cornerbacks Leon Hall and Brandon Boykin over the offseason, must decide if King is a viable option. Van Dyke could be an option. An intriguing prospect is Goodwin, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound converted wide receiver and former college basketball player.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Matt Bryant, K Nick Rose, P Matt Bosher, LS Josh Harris, KOR Devin Hester, KOR Eric Weems, KOR Justin Hardy, KOR Devin Fuller, KOR David Glidden, KOR J.D. McKissic, PR Devin Hester, PR Eric Weems, PR Justin Hardy, PR Devin Fuller, PR David Glidden, PR J.D. McKissic.
Bryant must hold off a challenge from the strong-legged Rose. Bosher is expected to continue to be a weapon with his directional kickoffs and punts. Hester is trying to make it back from offseason foot surgery. A host of young receivers are behind the dependable Eric Weems. The Falcons were 22nd in the league in the Dallas Morning News special teams rankings.
CAMP CALENDAR: Full squad reports July 27; first practice July 28; camp breaks Aug. 16.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Figure out cornerback situation: The Panthers hope their latest positional makeover becomes a foundation for the future. Many around the league are still perplexed that general manager Dave Gettleman let Pro-Bowl corner Josh Norman walk, but Carolina is confident they'll survive the upcoming growing pains. Bene' Benwikere, who is coming off a broken leg, has starting experience, and the front office thinks second-round pick James Bradberry could turn into a steal. What's perhaps more puzzling is how the Panthers will deal with speedy, smaller players like Saints slot man Brandin Cooks when they go into a nickel defense.
--Stay healthy: A goal for all 32 teams, this one is on the Panthers' wish list because of what happened last summer. They somehow overcame a season-ending injury to top wideout Kelvin Benjamin, but they may not be able to do it again if something happens to one of their other stars.
Listing all of Newton's 2015 accomplishments would take a while, so here are just a couple: He led the NFL with 45 total touchdowns, becoming the first player with at least 30 passing touchdowns (35) and 10 rushing touchdowns (10) in a single season. But he came back down to earth in the Super Bowl, both on the field and in his poorly handled post-game press conference. When needed, Anderson has proven to be a solid backup. Webb, who has turned into a special teams ace, hasn't attempted a pass in a regular-season game since 2011.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Jonathan Stewart, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups - Cameron Artis-Payne, Brandon Wegher, Fozzy Whittaker, Jalen Simmons, Devon Johnson.
Despite missing the final three games of the regular season, Stewart's 242 attempts in 2015 were a career best, and his seven total touchdowns were his most since 2009. The Panthers' offense functions best when he's the workhorse, complemented by Whittaker, Artis-Payne and Tolbert. Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Marshall, could be groomed to one day take over for Tolbert.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Greg Olsen. Backups - Ed Dickson, Scott Simonson, Beau Sandland, Braxton Deaver, Marcus Lucas.
Olsen led the Panthers in receptions (77) and receiving yards (1,104) last year, becoming just the seventh tight end in NFL history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Dickson has been OK during his two years in Charlotte, but the Panthers are hoping to develop a guy like Sandland or Deaver into more of a pass-catching threat.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess. Backups - Brenton Bersin, Philly Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Stephen Hill, Kevin Norwood, Damiere Byrd, LaRon Byrd, Avius Capers, Keyarris Garrett, Cobi Hamilton, Tobais Palmer, Miles Shuler.
When Benjamin went down with a torn ACL last summer, most assumed the season was over. The Panthers proved doubters wrong, and now they get Benjamin back. After a slow start to his rookie year, Funchess started showing Benjamin-esque promise and could be in for a bigger second season. Ginn destroyed his career high with 10 touchdown catches, doubling his total from his 2013 season in Carolina. Assuming Ginn isn't able to replicate his double-digit scoring output, the Panthers hope Brown continues his improvement through a third season. They'll also give one more chance to former Jets second-round pick Hill, who like Benjamin, tore his ACL in last year's camp.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Michael Oher, LG Trai Turner, C Ryan Kalil, RG Andrew Norwell, RT Mike Remmers. Backups - C/G Gino Gradkowski, C Matt Masifilo, G Reese Dismukes, G Tyler Larsen, G David Yankey, G Chris Scott, T Daryl Williams, T David Foucault, T Donald Hawkins, T Jordan Rigsbee.
After a disastrous season in Tennessee, Oher resurrected his career by solidifying Newton's blind side. But the strength of the Panthers' line is in the middle. Sandwiched between mean and talented second-year guards Turner and Norwell, Kalil made a fifth Pro Bowl. Remmers held off Williams at right tackle last year, but Remmers' job won't be so secure after his Super Bowl struggles. The Panthers needed to find a backup center this offseason, so they signed Gradowski, who can play both center and guard.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Charles Johnson, DLT Star Lotulelei, DRT Kawann Short, DRE Kony Ealy. Backups - DE Mario Addison, DE Rakim Cox, DE Ryan Delaire, DE Wes Horton, DE Arthur Miley, DE Larry Webster, DT Chas Alecxih, DT Vernon Butler, DT Eric Crume, DT Paul Soliai, DT Robert Thomas, DT Kyle Love.
The Panthers like to slide ends like Ealy into the middle, but they may opt to keep him mostly on the outside now. Johnson, Addison and the young guys should combine for a solid pass rush, but Ealy has the highest ceiling. Short destroyed a franchise record for sacks by a defensive tackle with 11.0 in 2015, tied for the most in the NFL. Lotulelei wasn't as prolific, but his role is more about taking up space than racking up stats. Soliai, who fell out of favor in Atlanta, should be a good backup, and the Panthers were thrilled about what they saw in spring workouts from Butler, their first-round pick.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Thomas Davis, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Shaq Thompson. Backups - Ben Jacobs, A.J. Klein, David Mayo, Jared Barber, Brian Blechen, Jeremy Cash, Jared Norris.
There isn't a whole lot to say about Kuechly and Davis that isn't already known. Despite missing three games in 2015, Kuechly set a career high with six interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns in the postseason while playing with a sore shoulder that required offseason surgery. In Davis' 10th season, he made his first Pro Bowl with career bests of 5.5 sacks and four interceptions. As the No. 3 linebacker on a unit that mostly plays nickel, Thompson saw just one-third of the possible defensive snaps as a rookie. But he flashed all sorts of potential, and along with Klein and Mayo, the Panthers have plenty of depth.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Bene' Benwikere, RCB James Bradberry, SS Kurt Coleman, FS Tre Boston. Backups - CB Robert McClain, CB Teddy Williams, CB Lou Young, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Zack Sanchez, CB Daryl Worley, S Marcus Ball, S Travell Dixon, S Trenton Robinson, S Colin Jones, S Dean Marlowe.
The Panthers shocked the league when they rescinded Josh Norman's franchise tag in April, setting up a cornerback makeover. They used three straight picks on the position in the draft, and Bradberry spent most of the spring at a starting spot. The Panthers still plan to move Benwikere from No. 1 nickel to a full-time role on the outside, but he may be needed in the slot if Sanchez isn't ready as a rookie. Safety is a bit thin, too. Coleman was a pleasant surprise last year, and Boston has starting experience, but the secondary could be a weak spot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, P Mike Scifres, P Swayze Waters, KOR Fozzy Whittaker, PR Ted Ginn, LS J.J. Jansen.
What was a sometimes disastrous unit in 2014 improved at least a bit last year. The biggest problem for Gano wasn't accuracy, but that four of his six missed field goals were blocked. The Panthers let Brad Nortman take more money as a free agent in Jacksonville, so the punter position will be a question mark in camp. Scifres spent the last 13 seasons with San Diego, so he has a leg up on Waters, who has never punted in a regular-season game. Ginn still has juice as a punt returner, but Whittaker doesn't provide much on kickoffs.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
CAMP CALENDAR: Full squad reports July 27; practice with Patriots, Aug. 9-10; practice with Texans, Aug. 18-19; camp breaks Aug. 25.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Find a run defense: While the Saints gave up an NFL-record 45 touchdown passes, the front seven didn't render much help when they couldn't stop the run on a consistent basis. The Saints ranked next-to-last in the league in allowing 129.4 rushing yards a game and gave up a whopping 4.9 yards per carry. The Saints' brass recognized that, which is why they used their top pick in the draft on defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and brought in middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive tackle Nick Fairley as their top free agents on that side of the ball. The hope is with some more resistance up front, teams won't be able to pick on the secondary as much as they did a year ago.
--Find their starting guards: It appears the Saints, who didn't draft a guard this spring, will have to do with what they have on their roster when it comes to the starting spots. But that might not be the worst thing in the world as second-year pro Andrus Peat, their top pick in the 2015 draft and a projected tackle down the road, could fill the bill temporarily. He could be asked to step in for six-time Pro Bowl pick Jahri Evans, who was released in March, at right guard. Assuming the Saints go that route, that would leave Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete to vie for the starting job on the left side.
Brees is still very much in control of Sean Payton's offense at the age of 37 and will be going after his 11th consecutive 4,000-yard passing season. While Brees and team management still haven't come to an agreement on a contract beyond this season, Payton is confident that Brees, a consummate pro and leader, won't let it be a distraction for himself or his teammates. Brees is poised for another big season after throwing for 32 TDs with only 11 interceptions while posting a passer rating of 101.0 in 15 games a year ago. McCown proved to be a capable fill-in when Brees missed a game with a shoulder injury, but Grayson will try to make a move to take over as the backup after a solid spring and summer.
After ranking 24th in the NFL with 93.2 rushing yards per game and getting just 3.8 yards per carry a year ago, the Saints know that must improve dramatically in order to have a more effective offense this season. But Ingram, Spiller and former running back Khiry Robinson, who is now with the Jets, all dealt with injuries that limited their effectiveness. The Saints are hoping that Ingram and Spiller will be able to return to form to field a nice 1-2 punch with Hightower and Cadet serving as the primary backups; Hightower as the big back to give Ingram a break and Cadet to be the speedy third-down back who can be the receiving threat that Spiller was with the Buffalo Bills.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Coby Fleener, Michael Hoomanawanui. Backups -- Josh Hill, RaShaun Allen, Garrett Griffin, Chris Manhertz.
The Saints lost Benjamin Watson after a breakout season at 35, so they signed Fleener to a rich contract and gave Brees the vertical target he needs at the position. Fleener, who is eight years younger than Watson, could slip right into the role Watson seamlessly inherited following the trade of Jimmy Graham a year and a half ago. The Saints value the position so much that they spent a lot of money on Fleener and also got Hoomanawanui and Hill re-signed. Hill is a willing blocker and Hoomanawanui, who was acquired in a midseason trade, is valued as a blocker who often lined up as a fullback and was a capable receiver as well. Allen could get a long look after being on the practice squad in 2015.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas. Backups -- Willie Snead, Brandon Coleman, Reggie Bell, R.J. Harris, Vincent Brown, Kyle Prater, Tommylee Lewis, Jared Dangerfield, Jordan Williams-Lambert, Jake Lampman.
The speedy Cooks broke out and showed the skills the Saints thought they had when they traded up in the first round of the 2014 draft to grab him. He caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards and had nine TDs and formed a nice duo with Snead, a former practice-squad player who had 64 receptions for 984 yards and three scores. The Saints replaced 10-year veteran Marques Colston, the team's all-time leader in most receiving categories, with Thomas, a second-round draft pick. A big, rangy receiver like Colston, who was a dominating physical presence, Thomas looked the part in OTAs and minicamp. Coleman showed some flashes last season after a year on the practice squad, but may have to fight off Harris and Brown, among others, to be the fourth wideout.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Terron Armstead, LG Tim Lelito, C Max Unger, RG Andrus Peat, RT Zach Strief. Backups -- G/C Senio Kelemete, G Kaleb Eulis, G Cyril Lemon, T Joe Cheek, T Ryker Mathews, T Avery Young, T Tyrus Thompson, G Landon Turner, G Jack Allen, G Marcus Henry.
While the Saints protected Brees very well, the running game struggled. Part of that had to do with the numerous injuries the Saints had in the backfield and wasn't necessarily an indictment of the players up front -- especially with injuries to Strief and right guard Jahri Evans, who was released in the offseason. Armstead became a steady player in only his second year as a starter and was rewarded with a rich contract, while Peat will be another key piece, likely as the replacement for Evans. Unger is a solid anchor in the middle going into his second season after being obtained in the Jimmy Graham trade. The question mark will be at left guard where Lelito and Kelemete will battle. Beyond those six, however, the Saints don't have a lot of quality depth.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE Cameron Jordan, DT Sheldon Rankins, NT John Jenkins, DRE Bobby Richardson. Backups -- DE Obum Gwacham, DE Darryl Tapp, DT Nick Fairley, DT Tyeler Davison, DT David Onyemata, DT C.J. Wilson, DT Ashaad Mabry, DE D.J. Pettway, DT Virgil Lawrence.
The Saints had some issues here last season even though Jordan earned a second trip to the Pro Bowl. They had trouble rushing the passer and stopping the run, two areas they have to improve in if they expect to move up from 31st in the total defense rankings. Jordan had 10 of their 30 sacks and Richardson had a decent season as a starter after making the team as an undrafted free agent. Outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha was expected to be one of their top edge rushers, but he tore his ACL in offseason workouts, which forced the Saints to pick up Tapp for experience purposes. Gwacham showed a lot of promise off the edge as a rookie and could get more work. Rankins, Jenkins, Fairley and Davison, who played extensively as a rookie, will be tasked with trying to shore up a run defense that allowed a staggering 4.8 yards per carry.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Dannell Ellerbe, MLB James Laurinaitis, SLB Stephone Anthony. Backups -- SLB Hau'oli Kikaha, WLB Kasim Edebali, MLB Craig Robertson, WLB Nate Stupar, SLB Michael Mauti, WLB Davis Tull, WLB Tony Steward, MLB Dillon Lee, WLB Jeff Schoettmer.
While Anthony was a star in the making in the middle last season, the Saints made the decision to move him outside when they had the opportunity to sign an accomplished and experienced defender in Laurinaitis. Ellerbe will be trying to shake off two injury-filled seasons and give the Saints a solid defender against both the run and pass. They suffered a blow when Kikaha, who was switched to defensive end and was going to play both positions as one of their top edge rushers, was probably lost for the season with a knee injury. Edebali could be a big part of that scheme along with Gwacham after recording five sacks a year ago. Stupar and Robertson could also be key figures after joining the team as unrestricted free agents.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Keenan Lewis, RCB Delvin Breaux, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro. Backups -- CB Damian Swann, S Vonn Bell, S Roman Harper, CB P.J. Williams, S Erik Harris, CB Brian Dixon, CB Tony Carter, CB Brandon Dixon, S Trae Elston, CB Ken Crawley, CB De'Vante Harris, S Alden Darby, CB Jimmy Pruitt.
The Saints have to hope that Lewis, who was limited to just six games because of two different injuries last season, returns to form as their top cover corner and teams with Breaux, who was a star in his first NFL season. Breaux had a team-high three interceptions while making the transition from the CFL and appears to be a star in the making. Vaccaro had a solid season after a down year in 2014, but Byrd must shake off injuries to live up to the big contract he signed, which carries a hefty $10.9 million cap hit. Swann did well after taking over the nickel spot, but three concussions landed him on IR. Bell, a second-round draft pick, and Harper, who returns after two seasons in Carolina, are being counted on to shore up the back end with their hard hitting and playmaking ability.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Kai Forbath, K Connor Barth, P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher, KOR/PR Marcus Murphy, KOR Travaris Cadet.
Forbath was 9-of-13 in field goals after taking over for Zach Hocker and had a career-long 57-yarder that helped earn him another shot even though Barth was brought in to provide some competition in training camp. Morstead was bothered by a quadriceps injury throughout the season, but still averaged 45.6 gross yards and 40.7 net yards with 20 punts downed inside the 20. Drescher was a little shaky at times for the first time in his career. Murphy had some nice returns, but was injured later in the season and was upstaged by Cadet -- which means they could battle for one return spot.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
CAMP CALENDAR: Veterans report to training camp on Wednesday, July 27. First workout is Thursday, July 28, at 8:45-10:30 a.m. Bucs will have joint workouts with the Jaguars in Jacksonville on Aug. 17-18. Bucs will have joint workouts with the Cleveland Browns in Tampa on Aug. 23-24.
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
--Stabilize the defensive secondary. New defensive coordinator Mike Smith has to improve a secondary that was porous last season. First-round pick Vernon Hargreaves and Dolphins free agent CB Brent Grimes will figure heavily in that plan, but Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks must factor in as well.
--Improve the passing rapport between quarterback Jameis Winston and his receivers. At the start of the off-season, coach Dirk Koetter said Winston and wide receiver Mike Evans needed to get on the same page, particularly in trying to connect on the deep ball.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Jameis Winston. Backups -- Mike Glennon, Ryan Griffin.
Winston slimmed down in the off-season and become a better athlete, which should help his ability to avoid the rush and withstand the rigors of a 16-games season. Reducing the number of interceptions will be key for Winston, who enjoyed a Pro Bowl season as a rookie, passing for more than 4,000 yards with 22 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Another big year is expected of Winston, who will have more responsibilities and latitude at the line of scrimmage. The Bucs believe Glennon, who is in the final year of his contract, will be an NFL starter and may still opt to deal him before the trading deadline.
Martin was the big off-season signing as a free agent and returns as the second rushing leader in the NFL. When healthy, Martin has proven he can rush for at least 1,400 yards in a season. Sims gives the Bucs a 1-2 punch and had more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving last season. The Bucs plan to use Vitale at tight end but he likely will be the blocking fullback for Martin as well.
TIGHT ENDS -- Starter: Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Backup -- Cameron Brate, Luke Stocker, Brandon Myers and Tevin Westbrook.
Seferian-Jenkins is an enigmatic player. He played two great games last season and showed flashes of his big-play ability before a shoulder injury knocked him out for about 10 weeks. Brate established great chemistry with Winston and had three touchdowns. The Bucs would like to use some two tight end sets with ASJ and Brate. Stocker is the team's best in-line blocker at TE and can play FB if needed.
Evans had a dozen dropped passes last season but still managed to have 1,200 yards receiving. However, his touchdowns fell from 12 in 2014 to three in 2015. The Bucs believe he can be more consistent under new receivers coach and offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Jackson, 33, played in only 10 games last season because of a series of knee injuries. He still provides the Bucs with a big No. 2 option. Murphy is coming off an ACL injury while Humphries and Dye played a lot of football as rookies. The X factor this season may be Kenny Bell, a fifth-round pick from Nebraska in 2015 who provides some speed.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Donovan Smith, LG J.R. Sweezy, C Joe Hawley, RG Ali Marpet, RT Demar Dotson. Backups -- RT Gosder Cherilus, G/C Mike Evans, T/G Kevin Pamphile, G Dominique Roberton.
A strength of the Bucs last season was their offensive line, which has a mix of young players and veterans. Donovan Smith was probably a little underrated as a rookie and Marpet excelled as a run blocker. The Bucs lost a big piece when G Logan Mankins retired. But his replacement, J.R. Sweezy, is another dominant run blocker. Still, Winston was hit too many times last season and there is room for improvement. A testament to the offensive line's production is that the team had a 4,000-yard passer, 1,400-yard rusher and 1,200-yard receiver.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN -- Starters: LDE Robert Ayers, NT Clinton McDonald, DT Gerald McCoy, RDE Noah Spence. Backups -- DE Jacquies Smith, DT/DE William Gholston, DE Kourtnei Brown, DE George Johnson, DE Howard Jones, DT Akeem Spence.
The Bucs tried to improve their pass rush in the off-season by adding Ayers, a free agent from the New York Giants, who is coming off a career-high 9.5 sacks in 12 games last season. They also used a second-round pick on Noah Spence, one of the best pure pass rushers in the draft. McCoy, the four-time Pro Bowl player, could use some help inside. The Bucs' decision to use second and third round picks to take K Roberto Aguayo prohibited them from addressing more needs on the defensive line. Therefore, they will be banking on the emergence of Noah Spence and a bounce back year from McDonald, who spent most of last season in IR with a torn pectoral muscle.
LINEBACKERS -- Starters: WSLB Lavonte David, MLB Kwon Alexander, SSLB Daryl Smith. Backups -- Cassanova McKinzy, Josh Keyes, Jeremiah George.
The Bucs have arguably one of the fastest linebacking corps in the NFL. David is a Pro Bowl player who led the team in tackles. Alexander, a fourth round pick in '15, is a difference-maker. He burst onto the scene as a rookie and made plenty of splash plays with three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Alexander was suspended the final four games for PED use and the Bucs lost all four. Both Alexander and David will benefit from the addition of Daryl Smith, who played for defensive coordinator Mike Smith in Jacksonville.
DEFENSIVE BACKS -- Starters: LCB Vernon Hargreaves, RCB Brent Grimes, FS Chris Conte, SS Bradley McDougald. Backups -- CB Johnthan Banks, CB Alterraun Verner, S Major Wright, S Ryan Smith, S Keith Tandy, CB Jude Adjei-Barimah, CB Josh Robinson.
The Bucs struggled in the secondary last season. Opposing quarterbacks completed more than 70 percent of their passes and had 33 touchdowns. To that end, the Bucs signed Grimes, the Dolphins free agent who has 13 interceptions in the past three seasons, and used their first-round pick on Hargreaves, the Florida star who returns to his hometown of Tampa. Hargreaves might start the season as the nickel corner with Verner playing outside. But eventually, he will take over the starting job, maybe as early as the preseason. The Bucs are thin at safety, opting to re-sign Conte. McDougald took a step back in his play in 2015.
SPECIAL TEAMS -- K Roberto Aguayo. P Bryan Anger. LS Andew DePaola. KOR Charles Sims, PR Kenny Bell.
The Bucs used a second and third round pick to Aguayo, the most accurate kicker in NCAA history. It's a risky move, considering their more glaring needs on defense. But Aguayo's leg strength, accuracy and ability to place kickoffs was coveted by the Bucs, who lost at least two games as the result of a poor kicking game. What the Bucs didn't invest in is their return game. Bell has good speed and could help on punt returns but Sims will be taking over a new role.