Players To Watch In NFL Training Camp: NFC South
The Father chooses one player from each team to keep an eye on this summer
Training camps will be opening up later this month, and roster battles will begin, new players will find a role, injured players will seek a return to form, old players will try to show they still have it, and young players will try to show they have improved. Every team has their own storylines and players to watch, and I am going to take a little time over the next couple weeks to highlight some of these players. I will pick one player from each team to highlight to keep an eye on in training camp. If they can fulfill their destiny, they can make a big difference in what happens with their team this year.
We now move on to the NFC South.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OJ Howard
OJ Howard is one of the few Bucs coming off a bad season, seeing that the team won a Super Bowl and almost the entire team is back. Howard tore his Achilles in week 4 and has been recovering since. He is expected to be with the team when training camp starts, and his return, nearly a year later would be a huge help for a team hoping to limit Gronk’s snap count until the post-season. Howard is a great balanced weapon when healthy, a good receiver and blocker who fills an important role in a star filled roster: in the trenches. With Gronk’s career winding down, Howard will be relied upon to play a major role in the offense. It remains to be seen how ready to go he will be. The Bucs are no doubt hoping he comes back at full strength to lessen Gronk’s workload. Cameron Brate is a nice receiver, but not the all around player that Howard is.
New Orleans Saints: Michael Thomas
While the two-headed QB competition marches on and draws most of the attention, the rest of the Saints suffered massive losses across the board this offseason. At almost every position the Saints took a step back. The Saints lost both Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook as receiving options, and they were replaced in-house by limited players. This puts even more pressure on the most targeted man in the NFL in 2019. It is likely he will reach similar target totals again regardless of who the QB is. The question is, where is he mentally and physically. 2020 was an awful season for Thomas, who struggled with injuries, a practice fight that lead to a suspension, and constant trade rumors. He had a terrible season by his standards statistically. Is he locked in with the team again after a tough year? Is he healthy? Does he have a connection with people who aren’t Drew Brees? These are important things to watch in camp, while most are dwelling on which mediocre QB will win the race.
Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts
The Falcons jettisoned Julio Jones for a limited return this offseason, and drafted his spiritual replacement in Kyle Pitts, the most heralded tight end prospect ever. Filling Julio Jones’ shoes is basically impossible, but Kyle Pitts is going to be the focus for most Atlanta fans hoping for a franchise defining player. The problem is, tight end is one of the hardest positions in football to play as a rookie. You almost never see a great tight end season in a rookie year. Learning all of the routes, blocking patterns, and (in Pitts case) slot receiver routes is really hard, let alone developing the skill needed to do two very different jobs. Pitts is an athletic marvel that will need to excel from day one to pull attention from Calvin Ridley if this offense is going to hum, and they HAVE to hum to make up for the talentless defense this team has. It will be worth noting right out of the gate how much of the offense Pitts has under his belt and how comfortable he looks blocking, as this will reveal what percentage of snap share he will get.
Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey
A lot of eyes will be on Christian McCaffrey this preseason, beyond just those of Panther fans. McCaffrey is ultimate reference point for an fantasy footballer extolling the benefit of taking a RB high (2019!), and the risk (2020!). After one of the best fantasy football seasons in a decade in 2019, McCaffrey spent most of 2020 nursing a series of injuries that spawned a million angry fantasy football tweets. For actual football fans, McCaffrey will be critical to the Panthers in 2020. They have limited weapons on the outside, with flash in the pan Robbie Anderson and the solid DJ Moore at wide receiver, no tight end of note and the very underwhelming Sam Darnold (who made Anderson seem bad before he came to Carolina). I wouldn’t be surprised to see PJ Walker take over by the end of the season, and if he does, we are going to see a lot of McCaffrey if he can stay healthy. Everyone will be watching this preseason to confirm that he is. A 7.22 billion dollar industry waits with baited breath.