Panthers training camp preview
TRAINING CAMP GOALS
1. Expand the offense. Quarterback Cam Newton will have a target on his chest this year, and they know it. After a record-breaking rookie season, the Panthers know Newton has to keep adding to his arsenal if they're going to have a chance. So the goal is to keep adding wrinkles to Rob Chudzinski's offense, both through the run and the pass. If wide receiver Steve Smith can continue at his 2011 level, and Brandon LaFell can build on his progress, they have a good shot. The third receiver is up in the air, though David Gettis has the inside track, and could add a new element with his size and downfield speed. There will still be a heavy emphasis on the run game, as they mix and match running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart with new fullback Mike Tolbert, putting them out there in combinations to keep opponents guessing.
2. Find a defensive line. Pity poor defensive end Charles Johnson, the only known commodity. He's coming off a down season, but he's still the best part of a unit that declined in recent years. The Panthers are hoping to get defensive tackle Ron Edwards back on the field, and figure out how to mix and match the odd collection of parts left behind when he was hurt last year. They hope 2011 third-rounders Terrell McClain and Sione Fua step up, and they have high hopes for Frank Kearse. It's just as muddled on the outside, as they're counting on defensive end Greg Hardy making a big step, and crossing their fingers fourth-rounder Frank Alexander can be the third end.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Right tackle Jeff Otah. If the former first-round pick can stay well and be motivated, the Panthers could have the makings of a dominant line. However, health and motivation have never been givens with Otah, who has played four games the last two seasons combined. But he's entering a contract year, and has been given time to heal. If it's ever going to happen for him, it's this year. They're going to give him a chance, but have worked him with the backups in the spring to make the message clear -- He'll have to earn his way back. If he can't go, they're going to have to patch in with Byron Bell, and that's a significant drop-off. The former undrafted rookie was game last year, but doesn't have the same kind of size or strength as Otah.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Free safety Sherrod Martin. The former second-rounder has exceptional range, and has shown a willingness to make big hits. But he's also shown a tendency to give up big plays, and came under fire last season for a number of mental errors that resulted in touchdowns. They brought in free agent Haruki Nakamura from Baltimore, perhaps just to push him but possibly to replace him. Ed Reed's old backup is a good player in his own right, but Martin has the kind of talent they want to keep on the field, so long as it's focused better than it was last year. If it's not, they'll likely make a change, and go with the hard-hitting special teamer.
Edwards absent from offseason work with injury
--Defensive tackle Ron Edwards was held out of all OTA practices and minicamp, but it wasn't a result of the torn triceps that landed him on injured reserve in training camp last year. Instead, he was struggling with a hamstring problem, according to head coach Ron Rivera.
--The Panthers were one of the first teams to sign all their draft picks, meaning there are no pending contract issues between now and the start of training camp.
The Panthers don't even have many pending free agents to talk extension with, other than running back Jonathan Stewart.
--After making guard Travelle Wharton a salary-cap cut with a June 1 designation, the Panthers cleared some cap room recently. By splitting his cap hit they saved nearly $6 million off this year's cap, giving them more than $8 million worth of room.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "How can you be on the football field and not be passionate? That's like going to the cafeteria and not eating. What are you going in there for? If you aren't pumped to show off in front of your peers and your coaches, I don't know what you came out here for." -- Panthers QB Cam Newton, talking to a group of high school players at a 7-on-7 tournament. That shows the kind of flair for leadership he impressed with last year.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It seems like every time a veteran wide receiver was looking for work in recent years, the Panthers were floated as a possibility.
But while they might not have had a true complement to Steve Smith since Muhsin Muhammad retired, they've never shown as much interest as folks might think.
The latest example is former Steelers, Giants and Jets wideout Plaxico Burress, who stoked the flames himself. He went on a Charlotte radio station and said he'd love to play for the Panthers, partly because he has family in the area.
The only problem? The interest isn't mutual.
Panthers decision-makers have made clear they're not interested in adding him. They'd rather focus this year on the development of Brandon LaFell, who looked like a legitimate No. 2 last year, and gets the chance now that place-holder Legedu Naanee was allowed to walk.
But for some folks, that's not enough. In recent years, whether it was Randy Moss or T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Panthers keep getting linked in the rumor mill, but nothing ever comes of it.
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Cam Newton. Backups -- Derek Anderson, Jimmy Clausen.
Newton had an eye-opening rookie year, showing himself to be advanced in a lot of areas people wondered about. He showed a willingness to stand in the pocket and throw downfield. The Panthers don't run a high-efficiency offense, and his ability to throw the deep ball was one of the main reasons they improved four wins from the year before. They'd like to keep him from taking as many hits, but he wasn't a guy who took off at first pressure, so the difference will be reducing the called runs. Anderson's a stable pony, here because he knows coordinator Rob Chudzinski's plays. Clausen takes a lot of heat, but he's handled his demotion with class, and could make an attractive backup option for another team down the road. He probably doesn't have enough arm to fit here long-term, but it doesn't really matter. If anything happens to Newton, they're sunk, regardless.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- DeAngelo Williams, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups -- Jonathan Stewart, Josh Vaughan, Armond Smith, Tauren Poole, Lyndon Rowells.
It was already one of the best groups in the league, and they made it better and more versatile by signing Tolbert. The plan is to use him primarily as a fullback, but he's good as a receiver and will get chances to run the ball. The plan is to keep Williams and Stewart fresh by continuing to rotate them, but Stewart keeps showing that he's the more explosive and powerful of the pair. There's talk they want to keep some combination of two of the first three on the field often, to give defenses new looks to prepare for. How they proceed in the future will be interesting, since Stewart's entering a contract year and won't be cheap to keep.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Greg Olsen. Backups -- Gary Barnidge, Ben Hartsock, Richie Brockel, Greg Smith, Joe Jon Finley, Nelson Rosario.
They were willing to let Jeremy Shockey walk because they're convinced Barnidge is finally going to show his potential. He better, because the rest of the guys behind Olsen are guys with specific roles. Hartsock's a good blocker, and Brockel is the move guy who can play some fullback. Olsen has the chance to be a major weapon as Newton gets more comfortable, and if Barnidge develops, they can continue to run a lot of two-tight end sets, which they did to insulate their rookie quarterback a year ago.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell. Backups -- David Gettis, Armanti Edwards, Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams, Seyi Ajirotutu, Darvin Adams, Hubert Anyiam, Rico Wallace, Jared Green, Brenton Bersin, Michael Avila, Lamont Bryant.
Assuming Smith stays at the level he showed last year, this is a group they feel comfortable with. The 33 year old had his best year since 2008, and seems more engaged in the process than he's been in years. LaFell progressed last year, and they're trusting him to make the starting job his own. He's physical and willing to block, and showed better concentration than as a rookie. Gettis can add an element downfield if he's well. They're still waiting for Edwards to show something, and he's going to have to stick as an outside receiver. Adams has potential as a slot, but he's a returner for the short term, and Pilares has some flash as well.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jordan Gross, LG Amini Silatolu, C Ryan Kalil, RG Geoff Hangartner, RT Jeff Otah. Backups -- T Bruce Campbell, T Byron Bell, T Garry Williams, T Lee Ziemba, T Matt Reynolds, G/C Zack Williams, G Mike Pollak, G Roger Allen, G Bryant Browning, G Will Blackwell, C Jeff Byers.
With or without Otah (and at this point you almost have to assume without), this is a good group. Gross and Kalil are as good as they come at their positions, and it's no accident they put Silatolu between them. The second-rounder is raw, but promising, and he better be since he has to be a day-one replacement for the steady Travelle Wharton, a salary-cap cut. Hangartner's smart and versatile and good to keep around, and they actually have a little depth. Bell was over his head but fought last year, and with an offseason to develop, won't kill them if Otah does his traditional disappearing act. They took a flier on Campbell hoping he projects as a swing tackle, and think both Williamses (Garry and Zack) have what it takes to be backups or more.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Greg Hardy, LDT Terrell McClain, NT Ron Edwards, RDE Charles Johnson. Backups -- DE Frank Alexander, DE Antwan Applewhite, DE Thomas Keiser, DE Eric Norwood, DE Jyles Tucker, DT Sione Fua, DT Frank Kearse, DT Andre Neblett, DT Ogemdi Nwagbuo, DT Nate Chandler, DT Ryan Van Bergen.
They have one proven pass rusher in Johnson, and no sure things in the middle. That's going to make training camp important. Getting Edwards back from last year's training camp torn triceps should add some stability, and they hope Hardy's a year more mature and consistent. He better be, because they have a bunch of rotational players, and no one you automatically view as a potential starter. Beyond those three, it's anyone's guess what they'll get out of an odd lot of young players, converted 3-4 outside linebackers and castoffs from other teams. Unless McClain and Fua progress, the middle of the line could continue to be a major weakness.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Luke Kuechly, MLB Jon Beason, SLB James Anderson. Backups -- Thomas Davis, Jordan Senn, Jason Phillips, Jason Williams, Kenny Onatolu, Kion Wilson.
While some viewed Kuechly as a luxury pick, he gives the Panthers something they lacked last year -- options. When Beason and Davis went down with injuries the first two weeks, the Panthers defense was a rudderless ship. Now, they have a pair of guys who can play the middle (Kuechly is likely the long-term answer) and the option of using the oft-injured Davis as a situational player. Davis still has good speed after three ACL tears, and if he holds up, he gives them an option as a pass-rusher, a blitzer and a cover man who can work some of the matchup-problem tight ends in their division. Anderson's a solid player, but he's a two-down guy, especially with Kuechly on board. Beyond the first four, the Panthers have some capable backups and special teamers, and shouldn't be as threadbare as last year in case anyone gets hurt.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chris Gamble, RCB Captain Munnerlyn, SS Charles Godfrey, FS Sherrod Martin. Backups -- CB Brandon Hogan, CB Darius Butler, CB Josh Norman, CB R.J. Stanford, CB Josh Thomas, S Haruki Nakamura, S Reggie Smith, S Jordan Pugh, S D.J. Campbell, S Jonathan Nelson.
Gamble played at a Pro Bowl level last year, even though he didn't get the trip. In fact, he played so well teams stopped throwing his way, because it was so easy on the other side. They like Munnerlyn, and he's game for an undersized seventh-rounder. But he's better suited to play the slot, and let someone else start. That could easily happen, after Hogan's de facto redshirt year. They also think fifth-rounder Norman is a potential starter in a few years. Safety's half-settled, as they think Godfrey is growing into a solid leader. But Martin's going to have to produce early, or they could replace him with Nakamura and move on. Martin's far more talented, but they grew weary of his mental lapses last year and wanted to get his attention with a replacement-level free agent.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Olindo Mare, P Brad Nortman, LS J.J. Jansen. K Justin Medlock, P Nick Harris.
Mare was shaky last year, and the decision to part ways with steady veteran John Kasay looks like a tremendous mistake in hindsight. They did it because of Mare's leg on kickoffs, and while he excelled there, he missed several late-game field goals which Kasay ordinarily hit. The mistake was made worse when they cut veteran punter Jason Baker for cap reasons, opting to draft Nortman for a cheap replacement. Had the Panthers cut Baker a year ago, and found a punter who could kick off, they'd be far ahead of where they are now, and still had the last original Panther, who kicked well for the Saints last season.
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