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NFC South training camp preview: Key issues, players to watch

It might feel like the dog days of summer for football fans, but the 2017 campaign is rapidly coming down the pike. With training camps opening later this month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr, Kevin Patra and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here's the NFC South camp primer:

Atlanta Falcons

Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 26).
Location: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

Most important position battle: Right guard. The Falcons return the bulk of their NFC championship roster. Few positions are up for battles, but there is a glaring question at right guard. Chris Chester announced his retirement in March, leaving the position up for grabs between fourth-year player Ben Garland and second-year guard Wes Schweitzer. Neither has ever started an NFL game. The quickest way to the quarterback is up the gut, which means one of these men will play a huge role in how much heat Matt Ryan faces this season.

Newcomers to watch: Rookie defenders.Takkarist McKinley is the biggest name to watch. The Falcons need immediate juice from his relentless pass rush. Can he step in Day 1 and produce? The pass rusher could reportedly sit out the start of training camp with a labrum issue. Takk isn't the only rookie to monitor, however. We saw Dan Quinn successfully trust several first-year players last year. That formula could work again for Atlanta. Third-round pick Duke Riley enters camp as the favorite to win the weak-side LB duties. Fifth-round pick Damontae Kazee will battle for the nickel gig. Quinn isn't afraid to trust rookies, which makes them key players to watch as camp progresses.

Looming camp question: How will Steve Sarkisian's offense differ from Kyle Shanahan's? The Super Bowl hangover questions will be a daily nuisance, but they're certainly not the most interesting or relevant queries for this team. Last year, the Falcons' offense was a well-oiled, pick-your-poison, motion-heavy offense that led the NFL with 33.8 points per game -- more than 4.5 points more than the next-closest team (Saints). How much will even subtle changes from Sarkisian alter the offense? How is the relationship between the OC and QB coming along? The answer to these questions will have a lot more to do with the Falcons' success or failure in 2017 than the hangover from an epic Super Bowl loss.

Carolina Panthers

Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 25).
Location: Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Most important position battle: Right tackle. If Michael Oher is healthy, this battle ends quickly. Sadly, the offensive lineman continues to deal with concussion issues, and we have no indication as to when he'll return to play. Until Oher is cleared, the battle will be between Daryl Williams and second-round rookie Taylor Moton. Williams struggled in pass protection in 10 starts last year. Moton is a massive man at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, but he didn't face many elite, athletic defensive ends at Western Michigan. Moton has the upside -- especially in run blocking -- to win the gig if he shows improvement through camp.

(UPDATE: The Panthers announced Thursday that Oher had been released with a failed physical designation.)

Newcomers to watch: Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. The Panthers head into the season planning to tweak the offense to get the ball out of Cam Newton's hands faster. McCaffrey (mostly from the backfield) and Samuel (mostly from the slot) will play major roles in the offensive transformation. How quickly the rookies grasp the offense will indicate how far Mike Shula can move away from the QB runs with Newton early in the season. With McCaffrey missing most of the offseason work, his practices will be particularly interesting to track.

Looming camp question: How much will the GM situation hover over the players? The Panthers announced Wednesday that ex-Panthers GM Marty Hurney will return in an interim role after the shocking firing of Dave Gettleman earlier this week. What's old is new again in Charlotte, apparently. While the firing of Gettleman and hiring of Hurney for the 2017 season should change little of what happens on the field, it will be a question asked of every player -- especially those with contract situations like Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen. When there is unrest in the front office, it can trickle down to the field.

New Orleans Saints

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 19), veterans (July 26).
Location: New Orleans Saints Training Facility in Metairie, Louisiana.

Most important position battle: Left tackle. The linebacker battle will be a good one to keep an eye on, but we'll get to the defense in a bit. A torn labrum for Terron Armstead spawned major questions about Drew Brees' blind side. With Armstead out for a significant period of time, the gig could fall to rookie Ryan Ramczyk. Assuming the first-round pick will step right in, however, could be faulty. Ramczyk is coming off a hip injury of his own this offseason. He also played just one full season at Wisconsin. He'll have to fend off veterans Khalif Barnes and Bryce Harris for the job.

Newcomer to watch: RB Adrian Peterson We've already had 2,352 stories on Peterson since he signed in New Orleans. Expect 3,521 more in the coming weeks. The Saints have talked up Peterson, leading many to speculate he could swipe the lead role from Mark Ingram. How will "All Day" adjust to sharing the backfield? If he is indeed the Peterson of old, will he relegate Ingram to an afterthought? If he struggles to return to form, will he be fine taking a backseat? It is going to be fascinating to see how Sean Payton uses Peterson this season.

Looming camp question: Is the defense actually, finally, at-freaking-last better? For the 25th straight season, the Saints attempted to improve a lackluster defense. The addition of first-round corner Marshon Lattimore opposite Delvin Breaux should give the Saints a stellar secondary. The questions up front persist, however. The heart condition that sent Nick Fairley to the NFI list was a blow. An already-flimsy defensive front became that much shallower. A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o were uninspiring signings at linebacker -- unless you like average-footed players with limited range. Stephone Anthony struggled mightily last season, even when healthy. There is still no long-term sidekick to pass-rushing demon Cameron Jordan. If we are to see any defensive improvements this season, it starts by figuring out who will win the starting battles in camp.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 25), veterans (July 27).
Location: One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Florida.

Most important position battle: Kicker!!! The battle between Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk should get plenty of play on "Hard Knocks." Aguayo's struggles as a rookie were thoroughly tracked last season. The second-round pick made just 22 of 31 attempted field goals and missed two extra points in 2016. His longest field goal make was from 43 yards. Folk has a career field-goal percentage of 81.3 and a strong leg. Aguayo was up and down this offseason, making his grasp on the job tenuous, even if the front office would prefer the high draft selection win the gig.

In the non-kicker realm, the safety spot is one to watch. The Bucs signed J.J. Wilcox from Dallas and drafted Justin Evans in the second round. Keith Tandy made plays when inserted into the lineup last season, which could give him a track to a starting spot. Then there is Chris Conte, whom the Bucs re-signed and fans love to hate.

Newcomer to watch: TE O.J. Howard Tampa brought in a host of intriguing offensive weapons this offseason. DeSean Jackson will take the top off defenses. I love third-round pick Chris Godwin, who should feast on one-on-one matchups with defenders focused on Mike Evans and Jackson. Howard is the one to watch in training camp. The uber-athletic tight end brings an intriguing element to an exciting Bucs offense. Tight end is historically a difficult position at which to make the transition from college to pros. How impressive Howard is during camp and the preseason will tell us the role he'll play as a rookie.

Looming camp question: Will Mike Smith's defense take a big step forward? The Bucs' defense made significant strides down the stretch last season, yet ended up middling overall -- 23rd in yards allowed per game (367.9), 22nd in pass yards per game allowed (250.8) and 22nd in rushing yards per game given up (117.2). The potential is there for a massive leap in 2017. Adding defensive tackle Chris Baker could turn out to be the most underrated signing of the offseason. Tampa has playmakers at every level on defense -- Gerald McCoy, Noah Spence, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Brent Grimes, etc. If Smith's defense stays healthy, it could be the unit that propels Tampa into the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Follow Kevin Patra on Twitter @kpatra.

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