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NFC South teams hoping to see defensive improvements during training camp

Even the Panthers, who made it to the Super Bowl last season, have some big questions that need to be answered during training camp.

NFL: Carolina Panthers-Training Camp Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers ran away with the NFC South a year ago. Even coming off an extremely successful season that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance, there are still areas of concern. Without Josh Norman, the secondary includes three rookie cornerbacks competing during training camp for playing time.

In Atlanta, the biggest question is on the other side of the ball — will Matt Ryan and the offense be able to perfect their communication during Falcons camp to take a step forward this season?

For the New Orleans Saints, time during training camp will be spent trying to strengthen a defense that has been one of the league’s worst over the past several seasons. In Tampa Bay, the Bucs are adjusting to new leadership with head coach Dirk Koetter taking over for Lovie Smith and Mike Smith now handling defensive coordinator duties, and it remains to be seen how it will impact the team on the field.

Atlanta Falcons

Location: Atlanta Falcons Training Facility, Flowery Branch, Ga.
Starting date: July 28
Complete Coverage: The Falcoholic

The Falcons added a lot of speed on defense through the draft, and first-rounder Keanu Neal is expected to take over as the team’s starting strong safety. Also keep an eye on fourth-round draft pick De’Vondre Campbell, who is competing for a starting outside linebacker role, and second-rounder Deion Jones, who is fighting for the starting middle linebacker spot.

Atlanta’s offense struggled at times last season, and fans want to see Matt Ryan and company settling into offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. Offensive players said they worked on their communication this offseason, and training camp should provide a sense of how that’s coming along for the Falcons.

The Falcons also brought in two key offensive players in free agency -- center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu -- and the team needs both players to live up to expectations. We’ll have an opportunity to see how they’re fitting in during the weeks leading up to the season.

Carolina Panthers

Location: Wofford College, Spartanburg, S.C.
Starting date: July 28
Complete Coverage: Cat Scratch Reader

The Panthers hit cornerback Josh Norman with the franchise tag following the 2015 season, and then abruptly rescinded the tag prior to the 2016 NFL Draft. He then hit free agency and was immediately scooped up by Washington. Now, the Panthers head into training camp with rookie cornerbacks cornerback James Bradberry, Darryl Worley and Zack Sanchez battling for playing time.

Last year, the Panthers finished the regular season 15-1 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl despite missing No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who landed on injured reserve with a knee injury he suffered during training camp last season. Getting Benjamin back is huge for the Panthers and reigning MVP Cam Newton. Devin Funchess also impressed during OTAs and he has an opportunity to earn more minutes with his performance in training camp and the preseason.

Both Benjamin and cornerback Bene Benwikere are fully healthy and ready to go for the start of training camp. Running back Jonathan Stewart is also expected to be a full go from training camp from the leg injury he suffered in Super Bowl 50, but he may be experiencing some lingering issues.

New Orleans Saints

Location: The Greenbrier, White Sulpher Springs, W. Va.
Starting date: July 28
Complete Coverage: Canal Street Chronicles

The Saints defense has been a problem for the team over the past few seasons, and this year they’re heading into training camp with a new defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen, and several new faces on that side of the ball. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, drafted by the Saints with the 14th overall pick in 2016, fills a huge need, and the addition of Vonn Bell in the defensive backfield should also help.

The run game is a huge question mark, too, and balancing the offense is a priority for the Saints. They're hoping that C.J. Spiller will live up to the expectations they had when he signed with the Saints. Tim Hightower showed flashes late last season that suggest he can still contribute, and there's also rookie running back Daniel Lasco, a lifelong Saints fan who would love to have a chance to help the team win.

Another key addition for New Orleans this offseason was free agent tight end Coby Fleener. Reports out of minicamp and OTAs suggested that Fleener and Drew Brees have established excellent chemistry, and the way Brees worked with Benjamin Watson last season might mean that Fleener is in for a breakout year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Location: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa Bay, Fla.
Starting date: July 28
Complete Coverage: Bucs Nation

The Bucs fired Lovie Smith following the 2015 season, promoting former offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter into the head coach position. Koetter brought in his former boss in Atlanta, Mike Smith, to take over as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator, and with a few new faces on defense, fans should pay close attention to how this side of the ball shapes up during training camp.

One of the main storylines for Bucs fans will be whether rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves will earn a starting role in Tampa Bay’s defense. Hargreaves got some work in the nickel as well as outside during OTAs and minicamp and will compete for playing time with experienced veterans Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks. The team also brought in veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, a four-time Pro Bowler, after he was waived by the Dolphins.

Quarterback Jameis Winston had a strong rookie campaign, but the team wants to see him continue to develop in his second year. The good news is that Winston has a lot of offensive help. Doug Martin and Charles Sims are still around to keep things going on the ground. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a solid receiving tight end, and Winston has two quality receivers to work with in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. The battle for the third spot on the receivers depth chart will be an important one for the Bucs -- perhaps this could be a breakout season for Kenny Bell.