The New Orleans Saints are expected to re-take the NFL's NFC South division championship by a large margin this season after two years as also-rans.
In a survey of The Sports Xchange football staff, the Saints were a unanimous pick at No. 1 in the south, leaving a wide margin between them and the rest of the division, which was closely grouped with Tampa Bay second, defending champion Carolina third and the Atlanta Falcons last.
Here is an in-depth, unit-by-unit look the NFC South as analyzed by reporters from The Sports Xchange who cover each team (using roster information as of Sept. 2):
1st -- NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Drew Brees. Backups -- Luke McCown.
The 35-year-old Brees proclaimed at the outset of training camp that he believes he can play for another 10 years, which might be a stretch for most quarterbacks. But he's thrown for more than 5,000 yards for three consecutive seasons and isn't showing any signs of slowing down after finishing 2013 with 5,162 passing yards, 39 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. Brees completed 68.6 percent of his passes and had a 104.7 passer rating. The only problem was he was sacked a career-high 37 times, some of which he blamed on himself for holding the ball too long. So expect that number to go down. McCown held on to the backup job after a spirited battle with Ryan Griffin, an undrafted free agent in 2013 who has been impressive while learning from Payton and Brees. Griffin made the initial 53-man roster, but was waived Tuesday when the Saints re-signed K Shayne Graham.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Mark Ingram, FB Austin Johnson. Backups -- Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson, FB Erik Lorig, Travaris Cadet.
The Saints know they need to run the ball better after finishing 25th in the league for the second year in a row, which they believe they can do despite trading away shifty Darren Sproles. Payton is a proponent of a backfield-by-committee approach, which worked in 2009 and 2011 when they ranked sixth and won 13 games each time. One of the keys is having Ingram healthy for a full season. He averaged 5.8 yards a carry in the final nine games of 2013 and will be complemented by Robinson, a find as an undrafted free agent last year, and Thomas, a steady vet who's been a tough runner and a superb receiver -- especially on screens. Cadet will be a contributor in the return game as well. Lorig, valued in free agency for his blocking ability, probably won't be ready for the first part of the season because of an injury, but Johnson can fill in.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jimmy Graham. Backups -- Benjamin Watson, Josh Hill.
Graham lost his grievance this summer to be called a wide receiver, but he was still paid handsomely for his first four seasons in the league. Armed with a new four-year contract, he's ready to be the All-Pro he was last season when he had 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and an NFL-leading 16 TDs -- all despite playing the final 10 games with a plantar fascia injury. Watson, a solid veteran, was a nice addition last season as a threat in the passing game when teams tried to double Graham and is a solid blocker as well. Hill made the team as an undrafted free agent last year and will contribute as an extra blocker.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Marques Colston, Kenny Stills. Backups -- Brandin Cooks, Joseph Morgan, Nick Toon.
Now in his ninth season, Colston remains a dangerous weapon for Brees. He had 75 catches for 943 yards and five TDs a year ago even though his numbers were down slightly because Thomas and Sproles had 148 receptions and 1,117 yards between them. Stills, a fifth-round draft pick last year, had a nice rookie campaign and led the league with 20.0 yards per reception on 32 catches with five TDs. Cooks, their top pick this season, will be a key with his versatility and blazing speed. He can line up in the backfield, in the slot or out wide with the ability to create a lot of mismatch problems. Morgan also has exceptional speed although he is coming off a serious knee injury. Toon hasn't had any impact his first two seasons, but managed to stick around as the fifth wideout.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Terron Armstead, LG Ben Grubbs, C Jonathan Goodwin, RG Jahri Evans, RT Zach Strief. Backups -- C/G Tim Lelito, T Bryce Harris, G Senio Kelemete,
The Saints like what they have inside in Evans and Grubbs, who both made the Pro Bowl a year ago as solid run blockers and pass protectors. The outside is in good hands with Strief, a steady veteran, and Armstead, an impressive second-year pro who learned the ropes last season before being plugged into the lineup late in the season. Goodwin apparently won the starting center job after being away for three years, holding off Lelito, a second-year player who made the team as an undrafted free agent at guard in 2013. Harris and Kelemete, a former practice-squad player, have been solid as backups.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Akiem Hicks, NT Brodrick Bunkley, RDE Cameron Jordan. Backups -- NT John Jenkins, DE Glenn Foster, DE Tyrunn Walker, NT Brandon Deaderick.
This might be one of the strongest areas of the team with Jordan, a Pro Bowl pick last season, and Hicks, an up-and-coming third-year player, anchoring the edges. As the star of Rob Ryan's three-man front, Jordan totaled 12.5 sacks last season and Hicks, a quick 6-foot-5, 324-pounder, had 4.5 sacks despite back issues. Bunkley and Jenkins helped plug up the middle for a run defense that improved dramatically last season. Foster, an undrafted free agent, had three sacks and was part of the rotation with Walker even though both were limited for much of the season by injuries. Deaderick, a five-year veteran, was picked up to provide depth inside.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Junior Galette, ILB David Hawthorne, ILB Curtis Lofton, OLB Parys Haralson. Backups -- ILB Ramon Humber, OLB Khairi Fortt, OLB Ronald Powell, ILB Kyle Knox, OLB Kasim Edebali.
While Lofton is the leader of this group as a strong run defender, the speedy Galette, a converted 4-3 defensive end, is the headliner after piling up a career-high 12 sacks a year ago. Lofton and Hawthorne formed a solid inside duo with 139 and 122 tackles to rank 1-2 on the team, while Haralson and Humber were active and big hitters as well. Fortt and Powell were taken in the middle rounds of this year's draft for development, while Knox, like Humber, proved to be a solid special teams player in preseason. Edebali impressed in the preseason and earned one of only two roster spots that went to undrafted free agents.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Keenan Lewis, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro, RCB Patrick Robinson. Backups -- FS Rafael Bush, CB Corey White, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, FS Vinnie Sunseri, SS Marcus Ball, CB Brian Dixon.
A solid cover corner, Lewis played at a Pro Bowl level in his first season with the Saints. He led an injury-decimated secondary with four interceptions and Vaccaro was an impact player from the first day of training camp until he fractured his ankle in the second-to-last regular-season game. They will again be a big part of what Rob Ryan does although they will have more help in Byrd, an All-Pro who specializes in takeaways. The Saints had just 19 a year ago, so Byrd, who has 22 picks in five seasons, will be charged with helping make that important number go up dramatically. Robinson, a former first-round draft pick who had a bad knee injury last season, had a good preseason and won the starting job opposite Lewis. Bush has had a couple of nice seasons as a backup and will play a lot in the three-safety lineups Ryan utilizes. White, Jean-Baptiste, a second-round draft pick, and Sunseri, a fifth-rounder, will vie for spots in the nickel and dime packages.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Shayne Graham, P Thomas Morstead, LS Justin Drescher, KOR/PR Travaris Cadet, PR Brandin Cooks.
The Saints first released both kickers they had in training camp, Graham and first-year pro Derek Dimke, before re-signing Graham on Tuesday. Morstead's average fell more than three yards from 2012, but he still averaged a healthy 46.9 gross yards and 42.3 net yards per kick. He was solid as a kickoff specialist, booming kick after kick into the end zone and tying for fourth with 52 touchbacks. The Saints need to improve on kickoff and punt returns, which will fall to Cadet, who has shown flashes in the past, and the speedy Cooks. Drescher was again consistent in handling the long-snapping duties last season and will man the job once again.
2nd -- TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS