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NFC South preview: Fitzpatrick’s journey includes starter’s role while Winston serves suspension

New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta all have quarterbacks who have gotten them to Super Bowls.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers just want theirs to get them through three games.

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That’s the assignment for Ryan Fitzpatrick, the fill-in starter while Jameis Winston serves a three-game suspension to begin the season for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.

It’s a familiar role for the journeyman Fitzpatrick, 35, who is on his seventh NFL team and has started multiple games in each of the last 10 seasons, including three for the Buccaneers last season.

“Just look at his experience, not only as a player but he’s been in a lot of rooms and a lot of systems,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter told reporters. “He’s great for [Winston], heck he’s great for me. I enjoy talking to Ryan. He’s got really good input on situational football like we did today. He’s a lot of fun to have in there.”

Had Winston not been suspended, the NFC South would be the only division returning all four starting quarterbacks.

In Carolina, Norv Turner has replaced Mike Shula as offensive coordinator, and the Panthers are hoping to take a big step forward with a unit that finished 19th in total offense last season. Quarterback Cam Newton has a new pair of pass-catching targets in veteran Torrey Smith and rookie D.J. Moore.

Newton told reporters it’s time for the Panthers to “take back the division” but said it doesn’t have to be a complete offensive rebuild.

“I think the onus is on [Turner] more so than us,” he said, “to take what we have done good and expand on it, rather than just ripping the sheets of paper up and having a this-is-my-way-or-the-highway mentality.”

In Atlanta, Matt Ryan cooled a bit last season after his MVP campaign of 2016. The Falcons were eighth in total offense and 15th in scoring. The Falcons gave him a contract extension that pays him $30 million per season and are banking on his typically top-notch play.

Ryan said he’s anticipating an offensive uptick in the second year of Steve Sarkisian’s system.

“Sark is a lot more comfortable with the personnel, knowing what guys to use in certain situations and I think that just comes with experience,” he said. “He did a great job with us last year and he’ll continue to do a great job with us this year.”

The Falcons would love for Ryan, 33, to have the career longevity of 39-year-old New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees had an NFL-record completion rate of 72.0% last season and a career-best 8.1 yards per attempt in leading the Saints to the division title. It helped that the team had a devastating 1-2 punch at running back with Mark Ingram sharing carries with rookie Alvin Kamara. Both are outstanding backs. Ingram will miss the first four games of the season, serving a suspension for performance-enhancing substances.

The Saints, who won eight consecutive games at one point last season, return 21 starters from that team.

“I’m still having fun, still having a lot of fun,” said Brees, in his 18th NFL season. “Every year is a new year, it’s a new challenge, it’s a new team. A lot of the same challenges and same goals and aspirations that you start every training camp with, but there’s always new dynamics and new circumstances and new guys that you’re trying to get used to.

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“And [there’s] just that same level of excitement, though, and anticipation for what we can be. This is where we build it, this is where we establish our identity.”

Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick will serve as the Buccaneers' fill-in starter while Jameis Winston serves a three-game suspension to begin the season for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.
Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick will serve as the Buccaneers' fill-in starter while Jameis Winston serves a three-game suspension to begin the season for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. (Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

NFC SOUTH CAPSULES

1 | NEW ORLEANS

2017 | 11-5, 1st in South

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

LT Terron Armstead: Armstead has missed parts of the last three seasons because of injuries and hasn’t played a full season in his five-year career. At 39, Drew Brees isn’t as elusive as he once was, so he needs that blind-side protection.

TE Ben Watson: The Saints are hoping the 37-year-old Watson has something left in the tank. They loved him in 2015, when he had 74 catches for 825 yards with six touchdowns for New Orleans. Can he match that?

DE Marcus Davenport: Saints traded up to draft him, hoping that Davenport can provide some pass rush opposite Cam Jordan. Many players have tried and failed.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

FS Marcus Williams: The memory of his blunder on the “Minnesota Miracle” won’t fade, but Williams had a great training camp. As a rookie, he had four interceptions in 15 starts.

DT David Onyemata: At the moment, he’s neck-and-neck with former first-round pick Sheldon Rankins as the top nose tackle. Onyemata, who came from Nigeria, played collegiately in that football hotbed of Manitoba, Canada.

WR Tre’Quan Smith: The Saints have high hopes for the third-round pick from Central Florida. He’ll challenge for playing time behind Mike Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR Cameron Meredith: The 6-foot-3 Meredith, a free agent from Chicago, is coming off a major knee injury and has looked good so far. He could be an impactful red-zone

option for Brees.

2 | ATLANTA

2017 | 10-6, 3rd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Matt Ryan: The former NFL most valuable player is also among the league’s highest paid, making an estimated $67.3 million last year, according to Forbes, a payoff that includes endorsement deals with Nike, Gatorade, IBM and Mercedes-Benz. Now, he just needs a ring.

WR Julio Jones: His numbers weren’t to his liking last year, but he’s the only player besides Marvin Harrison to have four consecutive seasons with at least 1,400 yards receiving.

DE Vic Beasley Jr.: Pressuring the passer is key, especially in a division that includes Cam Newton, Drew Brees and Jameis Winston. Beasley had 15½ sacks in 2016 but saw that number dwindle to five last season.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

DE Takk McKinley: McKinley, the former UCLA standout, had a solid rookie season with six sacks and two forced fumbles. The Falcons are expecting a step up in production this season, however, and think bookends McKinley and Beasley can feed off each other.

TE Austin Hooper: Hooper had 49 catches last season but several bad drops too. He essentially spent the offseason in Ryan’s hip pocket, further forging a relationship with the quarterback who should use him as a safety valve.

LB De’Vondre Campbell: The versatile Campbell is excellent at blanketing tight ends, as well as stopping the run. He had 61 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble last season.

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FANTASY SLEEPER

RB Tevin Coleman: Devonta Freeman and Coleman are a formidable one-two punch. Coleman is a particularly effective receiver out of the backfield, and he’s in a contract year. Watch for a lot of production.

3 | CAROLINA

2017 | 11-5, 2nd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Cam Newton: The Panthers are hoping new offensive coordinator Norv Turner can position Newton to succeed and improve his accuracy. At least the quarterback is healthy. A year ago he was coming off shoulder surgery.

T Matt Kalil: Kalil struggled with hip issues throughout last season, residue from the surgery that ended his 2016 season. He had a bad start to his first month last season but improved as the year continued.

CB James Bradberry: This is Bradberry’s third year as a starter, and he has been more solid than spectacular. The Panthers need him to be a stabilizing force in a secondary that’s been a revolving door at various spots.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR D.J. Moore: A first-round pick out of Maryland, Moore is the first Panthers receiver capable of making big plays after the catch since Steve Smith.

LB Shaq Thompson: Thomas Davis has been so reliable, he has kept Thompson off the field quite a bit. Now that Davis will miss the first four games because of a drug suspension, Thompson has a chance to emerge from his shadow.

TE Ian Thomas: With the Panthers losing No. 2 tight end Ed Dixon in free agency, the opportunity is there for this rookie. A fluid route runner, he should be a good complement to Greg Olsen.

FANTASY SLEEPER

RB Christian McCaffrey: Although he’s not really a sleeper, McCaffrey should see an uptick in his productivity as Turner looks for more ways to get the second-year back in space. Also, with Jonathan Stewart gone, McCaffrey should get more carries than he did as a rookie.

4 | TAMPA BAY

2017 | 5-11, 4th in South

Last year in playoffs | 2007

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: The seasoned Fitzpatrick is taking the helm during Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension, and those are three tough matchups against division champions (and a Super Bowl winner) — New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Tampa’s backup went 2-1 as a starter last year, but those wins were against the subpar Dolphins and Jets.

DE Jason Pierre-Paul: At 29, can Pierre-Paul become Tampa Bay’s first double-digit-sack performer since Simeon Rice in 2005?

CB Vernon Hargreaves: This is a make-or-break season for the 2016 first-round pick who has one career interception. Tampa Bay didn’t select him that early to be a nickel corner.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Chris Godwin: In his second year out of Penn State, Godwin has a chance to supplant DeSean Jackson, or at least challenge him as a top target.

DE Noah Spence: Shoulder injuries have hampered Spence the last two years, but he looked great as a rookie before he got hurt. He has beefed up to 260 pounds and is more durable than last season, when he dropped to 230.

S Justin Evans: Evans, who has good speed and range, reeled in three interceptions as a rookie in 2017, the first coming against Tom Brady.

FANTASY SLEEPER

RB Ronald Jones: The former USC standout can really help a team that averaged 3.7 yards per carry last season and was woefully short on big runs. Maybe Jones can do what Doug Martin hasn’t.

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