Eight in the Box: Returning from injury

A look at key players for each NFC South team who are coming back from injuries:

Atlanta Falcons: Bradie Ewing was ticketed for the starting fullback job as a rookie last season. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, and the Falcons were forced to juggle fullbacks. That’s one reason why the running game never really got on track last season. The Falcons want a more consistent running game this season, so they brought in running back Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner. But Ewing is a key component to the running game. If he’s back at full strength, he’s going to get a lot of work as Jackson’s lead blocker.

Carolina Panthers: Linebacker Jon Beason has had three surgeries in the past 17 months, and has played in only five games over the past two seasons. But Beason is only 28, so it’s possible he can get back to being an impact player and a leader of the defense. However, Beason is going to have to do that while switching positions. Luke Kuechly is firmly established at Beason’s old middle linebacker position. Beason will move to the outside. If Beason is healthy, he, Kuechly and Thomas Davis have a chance to become one of the league’s best linebacking corps.

New Orleans Saints: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was slowed by knee problems the past two seasons. But Vilma has said the knee issues are a thing of the past, and he feels better than he has in several years. If that turns out to be true, that could be a huge boost for a defense that ranked No. 32 in the league last season. But Vilma, 31, is going to have to make some adjustments to his game as the Saints switch to a 3-4 defense. It’s a scheme Vilma did not thrive in when he was with the New York Jets early in his career.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tampa Bay’s vision of having the league’s best guard tandem went out the window when guard Davin Joseph suffered a season-ending knee injury last preseason. But the vision is back with Joseph set to make his return. If Joseph and Carl Nicks, who missed the final nine games of last season with a toe injury, can get back to full strength, Tampa Bay should be dominant in the middle of the offensive line. It’s scary to think what running back Doug Martin can do with a pair of Pro Bowl guards in front of him.