NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (14-4)
OPEN CAMP: July 24.
LAST YEAR: Led by Drew Brees' single-season NFL record 5,476 yards passing, and aided by emergence of second-year TE Jimmy Graham and addition of versatile running back and returner Darren Sproles, Saints rolled to second NFC South crown in three seasons. Season ended in divisional-round loss at San Francisco in which 49ers scored winning TD in final seconds.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: LB Curtis Lofton, G Ben Grubbs, DT Brodrick Bunkley, LB David Hawthorne.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: G Carl Nicks, WR Robert Meachem, CB Tracy Porter, DT Aubrayo Franklin, LB Jonathan Vilma (suspension), coach Sean Payton (suspension).
CAMP NEEDS: First, Saints must adjust to being without Payton, suspended for season in connection with bounties scandal. Defensive players must continue to hone new system installed by new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, with Lofton calling formations from middle linebacker spot Vilma occupied in past four seasons. On offense, Saints will want to see which of their young receivers best fills void left by Meachem, one of Brees' top deep targets.
EXPECTATIONS: Despite absence of Payton, the mastermind of New Orleans' prolific offense, Saints are optimistic roster full of proven talent will keep them in playoff contention. When Payton broke leg in sideline collision last October, he handed over play-calling to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. for last 10 games of regular season; Saints went 9-1. Saints also hope addition of Spagnuolo, revamped linebacker corps and another year of experience for several young defensive backs will make them stingier.
ATLANTA FALCONS (10-7)
OPEN CAMP: July 25.
LAST YEAR: Fourth straight winning season significant for franchise which had not managed back-to-back winning seasons before coach Mike Smith was hired in 2008. But regular-season success no longer sufficient for owner Arthur Blank or fans. Lopsided home loss to Giants left Smith and QB Matt Ryan 0-3 in playoffs. Only two of team's 10 wins came against teams that finished with winning records.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: CB Asante Samuel, MLB Lofa Tatupu, OG Vince Manuwai, S Chris Hope, G-C Peter Konz, FB Bradie Ewing.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: MLB Curtis Lofton, FB Ovie Mughelli, WR Eric Weems.
CAMP NEEDS: Fifth season with Smith comes with new coordinators, Dirk Koetter on offense and Mike Nolan on defense. Samuel joins Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes to make CB a strength, and Robinson must adjust to moving inside when all three are on field. Tatupu will compete with Akeem Dent to replace Lofton at middle linebacker. Smith opened competition across offensive line, and clear starters need to emerge. Rookies Konz and Ewing could win starting jobs. Nolan is trying to stick with strengths by keeping 4-3 as the base defense but adding 3-4 looks.
EXPECTATIONS: In what could be last year for tight end Tony Gonzalez, there's increased urgency to win now. Team wins in regular season, but hasn't won in postseason with Smith and Ryan. Julio Jones was impressive in offseason and expected to top his rookie production and perhaps move past Roddy White to become Ryan's top target.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (6-10)
OPEN CAMP: July 27.
LAST YEAR: Made solid four-game improvement in win total last season over year before, but most importantly found hope in form of QB Cam Newton, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. For first time since 1995, Panthers seem to have legit franchise quarterback. Offense should be strong, but big question is whether team can stay healthy and improve on defense.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: FB Mike Tolbert, S Haruki Nakamura, S Reggie Smith, G Mike Pollak, OT Bruce Campbell, P Nick Harris.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: LB Dan Connor, LG Travelle Wharton, WR Legedu Naanee, OT Geoff Schwartz, RB Mike Goodson, TE Jeremy Shockey, P Jason Baker.
CAMP NEEDS: Panthers anxious to see how LB Jon Beason's Achilles holds up when they get to camp. Newton needs to improve and for younger receivers to emerge. WR Brandon LaFell gets shot with starters with Naanee gone. David Gettis is No. 3 receiver. Could use body or two on defensive line if inexpensive option comes along.
EXPECTATIONS: High hopes of competing with Falcons and Saints for NFC South title. Expectations spawned by major improvements on offense last season (32nd to seventh overall). Tolbert should be key weapon on short-yardage situations and as receiver. WR Steve Smith could be in for another big year if others take pressure off him.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12)
OPEN CAMP: July 26.
LAST YEAR: Felt they were headed in right direction after winning 10 games and narrowly missing playoffs in 2010, but after promising 4-2 start last fall, defense totally collapsed and QB Josh Freeman took step back during 10-game losing streak to end season. Team yielded NFL-worst and franchise-record 494 points and coach Raheem Morris, who served as his own defensive coordinator, was fired.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: S Mark Barron, WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright, RB Doug Martin, TE Dallas Clark, coach Greg Schiano.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: TE Kellen Winslow, S Tanard Jackson, C Jeff Faine, CB Elbert Mack, S Sean Jones, LB Geno Hayes.
CAMP NEEDS: Schiano left Rutgers to replace Morris, and the new coach's top priority is getting Freeman back on track. After throwing for 25 TDs and six interceptions two years ago, the young QB finished with 16 TD passes vs. 22 interceptions in 2011. Defensively, Bucs hoping on third-year tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price to stay healthy for the first time as pros and bolster the pass rush as well as shore up the middle against the run.
EXPECTATIONS: In quarterback-driven NFC South, it's difficult to imagine Bucs overtaking Drew Brees' Saints, Matt Ryan's Falcons and Cam Newton's Panthers without Freeman reverting to form of two years ago. Schiano wants to take pressure off quarterback with solid ground game built around first-round draft pick Martin and third-year pro LeGarrette Blount. Addition of free agent receiver Jackson could make a difference, too, giving Tampa Bay a legitimate deep threat for the for time in years. Getting the team's other first-round pick, Barron, acclimated could be vital to making necessary improvement needed defensively to have any shot at going from worst to first - or even playoff contention - in tough division.