The Associated Press breaks down how the Saints’ rivals in the NFC South are set as they also get ready to begin training camps this week.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (12-5)
OPEN CAMP: Saturday, Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina.
WHEN DO THEY PLAY THE SAINTS?: 7:25 p.m., Oct. 30, at Carolina; noon, Dec. 7, in the Superdome
LAST YEAR: Won NFC South and earned first-round bye, but lost at home to San Francisco in divisional playoffs. Coach Ron Rivera got extension.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WRs Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood; TE Ed Dickson; CB Antoine Cason; Ss Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud; DE Kony Ealy.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WRs Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr.; LT Jordan Gross; G Geoff Hangartner; CBs Captain Munnerlyn and CB Drayton Florence; S Mike Mitchell.
CAMP NEEDS: Getting QB Cam Newton healthy following offseason ankle surgery; he should be ready to go for camp. Newton has new group of receivers, so developing chemistry is priority. Secondary remains question with potentially three new starters in Cason, Harper and DeCoud. Offensive line is young, team needs stability at left tackle and both guard spots.
EXPECTATIONS: Panthers are looking to make playoffs in back-to-back seasons for first time, which won’t be easy given free agent departures. If Panthers are to be successful, they need to develop cohesiveness quickly on offense.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-12)
OPEN CAMP: Friday, Tampa, Florida.
WHEN DO THEY PLAY THE SAINTS: noon, Oct. 5, in the Superdome; noon, Dec. 28, at Tampa Bay
LAST YEAR: Season began with expectations of contending for playoffs quickly spiraled out of control, including the early demotion and subsequent release of QB Josh Freeman. Addition of star CB Darrelle Revis didn’t help defense much. Offense sputtered with rookie QB Mike Glennon, finishing 30th in scoring, last in passing and total yardage. Nonstop chaos claimed jobs of coach Greg Schiano (11-21 in two seasons) and GM Mark Dominik.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Coach Lovie Smith; defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier; offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford; QB Josh McCown; DE Michael Johnson; WRs Mike Evans and Louis Murphy; CB Alterraun Verner; OT Anthony Collins; C Evan Dietrich-Smith; DT Clinton McDonald; TEs Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers; RB Charles Sims.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Darrelle Revis; WR Mike Williams; OT Donald Penn; G Davin Joseph; C Jeremy Zuttah; LB Dekoda Watson.
CAMP NEEDS: New coaching staff means new offenses and defenses. Smith is counting on McCown, career backup coming off best season (in Chicago), to take charge, help transition of draft picks Evans, Seferian-Jenkins and Sims from college, and instill confidence in unit that also figures to include three new line starters.
EXPECTATIONS: Bucs haven’t made playoffs since 2007, but Smith insists he isn’t beginning rebuilding project. He believes McCown can be consistent QB lacking for more than decade, and that personnel changes he and first-year GM Jason Licht made will meld with holdovers Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Mark Barron, Dashon Goldson, Doug Martin and Vincent Jackson.
ATLANTA FALCONS (4-12)
OPEN CAMP: Friday, Flowery Branch, Georgia.
WHEN DO THEY PLAY THE SAINTS: noon, Sept. 7, in Atlanta; noon, Dec. 21 in the Superdome
LAST YEAR: Ended streak of five straight winning seasons with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan. Slowed by string of injuries, team finished last in rushing and next to last against run. Ryan couldn’t carry team with arm alone, especially after star receiver Julio Jones broke his foot and Roddy White was slowed by ankle and hamstring injuries.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: WR/KR Devin Hester; OGs Jon Asamoah and Gabe Carimi; CB Javier Arenas; OT Jake Matthews; DEs Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman; RB Devonta Freeman; LB Prince Shembo; DT Paul Soliai; QB T.J. Yates; S Dwight Lowery; OL coach Mike Tice and DL coach Bryan Cox.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: TE Tony Gonzalez; CB Asante Samuel; LBs Sean Weatherspoon, Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas; RB Jason Snelling; S Thomas DeCoud; OL Garrett Reynolds; FB Bradie Ewing; QB Dominique Davis.
CAMP NEEDS: They finished 2013 with 11 players on injured reserve, need to keep injuries from being prominent story line for HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Jones, held out of minicamp, is trying to return to 2012 Pro Bowl form. RT Matthews, first-round pick, is expected to start on line that needs LT Sam Baker back at full strength after missing 12 games in 2013 (knee). Defense is shifting toward 3-4 base look, which means new responsibilities at outside linebacker for ends Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi and Stansly Maponga.
EXPECTATIONS: Return to playoffs is Atlanta’s goal, a big jump from 4-12. Falcons are off to bad start with Weatherspoon rupturing his Achilles tendon while working under supervision of trainers. Ryan no longer has superstar TE Gonzalez, but passing game can still flourish if Jones and White are healthy, and Matthews and Asamoah hold down right side of line.