Carolina lost its top four wide receivers from last year including Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns. They couldn’t afford to keep free agents Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. NFL Coach of the Year Ron Rivera expects first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who has earned a starting spot, to emerge as the No. 1 receiver and work alongside veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.
Tampa Bay was 30th in scoring and last in passing in 2013. Coach Lovie Smith is banking on career backup QB Josh McCown being a big part of the solution. The 35-year-old is coming off his best season, throwing for 13 touchdowns and one interception while going 3-2 as a starter as a fill-in for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago.
Atlanta’s offensive line was a concern even before left tackle Sam Baker was lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. First-round pick Jake Matthews moved from right to left tackle and Lamar Holmes, who made 15 starts as a rookie in 2013, will battle with Gabe Carimi at right tackle. The line already had a new look with both Matthews and free-agent addition right guard Jon Asamoah moving in as new starters. Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and was pressured 203 times, most in the NFL in 2013. The Falcons ranked last in rushing.
The Saints spent money upgrading their secondary, though it’s unclear how those moves will pan out. New Orleans brought in three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. Byrd had offseason back surgery and has been limited during training camp, while the 36-year-old Bailey went down with an unspecified leg injury early in camp and remains limited. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, a 2012 first-round pick whose comeback from knee surgery showed promise early in camp, has been battling an undisclosed leg injury. At 35 years old, quarterback Drew Brees recently gave ulcers to opposing NFC South coaches saying he feels healthy enough to play another 10 years. He’s thrown for more than 5,000 yards and no fewer than 39 touchdowns in three straight seasons. He’ll be aiming to reach such numbers again with the help of star tight end Jimmy Graham, Saints all-time leading receiver Marques Colston, and first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks out of Oregon State.
— The Associated Press