Lingering questions in NFC South

The offseason programs essentially are over and during the next few weeks, players, coaches and front-office officials will disappear for a little down time.

They’ll return in late July for training camp, but the vacations don’t mean that every NFC South team has reached solutions on all issues. They’ve gotten some ideas of what they got in the offseason workouts, but they’re nothing more than ideas.

The real answers will come in August, when players wear pads, hit and move at real-game speed. With that in mind, here are five questions that still need to be answered across the NFC South.

1. Is Carolina’s Matt Moore really a starting quarterback? The Panthers hope and think so, but there really is no way to tell for sure until Moore gets into the real thing. He looked good at the end of last season as Jake Delhomme was playing his way out of a job. Moore has shown some leadership skills this spring and some signs he’s got more of an arm than anyone ever thought he had.

It has all been positive and Moore seems to have gained plenty of respect in the locker room. But the fact is he doesn’t have a ton of experience. He needs to rely on Carolina’s strong running game and make his plays in spots. If he can do that, Moore will be just fine. If not, the Panthers have second-round draft pick Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings. Coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract and needs to win -- or at least show some promise. If Moore doesn’t get the job done early, the Panthers won’t hesitate to turn things over to Clausen because Fox needs to generate hope for the present and the future.

2. How much better will Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman be? He wasn’t bad over the second half of last season and it must be noted that was with a very bad team around him. The Bucs still are a work in progress, but, on paper at least, they should be better in a lot of ways than they were last year.

FreemanFreemanTampa Bay’s coaches and front office are extremely aware Freeman is the franchise and he had very little to work with last year. That’s why they drafted Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. There are no guarantees with rookie wide receivers. But Benn and Williams have more talent than what the Bucs have had at this position in the past.

They can get downfield and there’s no doubt Freeman has the arm to throw downfield. He just might get the chance to show it this year.

3. Is Atlanta’s defense really that much better? You can make a case that Atlanta’s defense was what held the Falcons out of the playoffs last year and that’s probably not wrong. The Falcons had no pass rush and a weak secondary, which is not a great formula for any defense.

Atlanta spent much of its offseason working on that secondary. The Falcons signed Dunta Robinson to be the No. 1 cornerback and re-signed Brian Williams to at least fill a gap until some other young players have time to be groomed for bigger things. The Falcons also hope William Moore, who missed much of his rookie season, with injury is ready to step in right away and be a starting safety.

But touching up the secondary is really the only tangible move the Falcons have made to fix their pass rush. They believe, a split second or two extra of coverage will make their pass rush better. It may look like a risky move because the Falcons have done little to address a front four that was anemic last year.

They’re betting veteran John Abraham will bounce back and young players Lawrence Sidbury and Kroy Biermann will step up. They also think the return of defensive tackle Peria Jerry from injury will create a surge in the middle and make the entire defensive front better. Sounds nice in theory, but we’ll find out if it’s reality soon enough. A strong pass rush could be the only thing keeping the Falcons from being a true challenger in the NFC.

4. Can the Saints reverse recent history? We all know the following season hasn’t been kind to Super Bowl champions. They’re going to be wearing the bulls-eye that every Super Bowl champion does. But they just might be able to reverse history.

The Saints have kept their team pretty much intact and you can argue they’ve had addition by subtraction in releasing defensive end Charles Grant and replacing him with Alex Brown and Jimmy Wilkerson. They also lost linebacker Scott Fujita, but have plenty of young legs to take his place. Other than that, the Saints haven’t lost much.

They still have quarterback Drew Brees and that means they’re going to have an offense that’s one of the best in the business. If they can play a little defense, they should be just fine.

PeppersPeppers5. Can the Panthers survive without Julius Peppers? Carolina and its defensive end had a nasty parting. There’s no denying Peppers was a rare athletic talent and that’s not easily replaced. But I’m thinking the Panthers might be better off with Peppers, who had not been happy in Carolina for several years.

That whole scenario meant there were times Peppers played hard and times he didn’t. That wasn’t good for the defense as a whole. Young defensive ends Everette Brown and Charles Johnson probably will never come close to showing Peppers’ overall athleticism.

But they’re going to show up and give their best effort every game. That actually might be an improvement.