Status reports on big-name rookies

Preseason games are about to start with the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers playing Friday. The Panthers play Saturday.

While preseason football can be ugly and isn’t always a good precursor of what’s coming in the regular season, I think we’ve got a unique situation in the NFC South this year. Think back to the draft when each of the four teams added at least one rookie who comes with at least some sort of question.

Let’s take a look at four key rookies around the division and see where they’re at and what they still need to do in the preseason.

Mark Ingram, running back, Saints. He’s gotten off to a very good start in camp and he’s really the only New Orleans rookie who is not being brought along slowly. You can take that as a sign that Ingram’s going to play a lot as a rookie. He’s been getting lots of first-team work in camp. He’s going to split snaps with Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. But running back usually is an easy position for rookies to pick up. If Ingram can show he’s got the playbook down and can protect Drew Brees from blitzes, he’s going to get a lot of playing time from the start.

Cam Newton, quarterback, Panthers. Carolina is listing Jimmy Clausen as the starter, but the real hope throughout the organization is Newton will be the guy on opening day. He’s handled everything well throughout camp. Newton doesn’t have to light it up in the preseason. With what should be a good offense around him, he just needs to go out and show he can run the huddle and get the ball where it needs to go. If he can do that, Newton’s going to step over Clausen on the depth chart.

Da’Quan Bowers, defensive end, Buccaneers. We heard a lot about his knee surgery as we went through the draft process. Bowers had surgery in January, didn’t work out well and there were concerns about the long-term health of his knee. That’s why Bowers slid from a possible No. 1 overall pick to the second round. But, so far, the athleticism he showed in college has been evident. The preseason games are the next step. Each time Bowers goes out and plays without any problems, the Bucs are going to gain more confidence in him.

Julio Jones, wide receiver, Falcons. The reports from teammates and coaches have been glowing so far about a guy the Falcons traded up to No. 6 overall to get. Jones looks the part in practice when he’s running deep and there’s never been much doubt about his physical ability. But receiver is a position where rookies often are slow to develop. Time will tell with Jones. But teammates and coaches said they’ve been extremely pleased with how Jones has picked up the playbook. Quarterback Matt Ryan raved about how Jones has been so quick to pick up what he needs to do when the defense blitzes and the offense needs to adjust. Although Jones might be ready for a huge role, don’t count on the Falcons opening up their entire playbook in the preseason. Jones already has shown signs in practice that he might be special. The Falcons might be wise to wait until the regular season to show the rest of the league just how special he is.