NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT
Many times teams head into training camp with plenty of new faces. That's not the case with the Panthers this year. Sure, there's been some turnover of both players and coaching staff, but salary-cap issues and a limited number of draft picks restricted the team's potential changes.
Essentially, Ron Rivera has pretty much the same group he had during his first two seasons, but the head coach needs to do a better job turning his talent into wins if he's going to stick around for the whole year.
Offensively, the biggest difference will be who's calling plays. Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is now the head coach in Cleveland, which opened the door for Mike Shula to be promoted from Carolina's quarterback's coach.
Shula has already simplified some of the play-calling, and he claims he'll utilize his talented backfield more than Chudzinski did the past couple years. Promoting a coordinator from within should help quarterback Cam Newton from a continuity standpoint, but camp will still be a vital time for Newton and the rest of the offense to familiarize themselves with whatever wrinkles Shula adds.
The Panthers' biggest offseason makeover was spent on the middle of their defensive line when they used their top two draft picks on tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. The duo should get plenty of reps to get adjusted to the pro game during camp and preseason. Lotulelei is expected to start Week 1, while Short will likely be in a rotation that will give him a decent chunk of playing time.
Carolina's front seven is a strength, one they hope will mask a weak secondary. Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only defensive back with a starting job heading into camp, leaving a bunch of castoff veterans, inexperienced former late-round draft picks, and even some undrafted guys to fight for the other three spots. So while the secondary may promise to provide the most interesting camp conflicts, they'll likely shake out as more pillow fights than heavyweight battles.
On the injury front, the Panthers will head to Spartanburg in pretty good shape. Running back Jonathan Stewart, who underwent two offseason ankle surgeries, is the biggest concern. Linebacker Jon Beason, center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Jordan Gross are also coming off surgeries, but they all returned to take reps during either OTAs and minicamp.
Ultimately, the bulk of this team - from players to coaching staff - is now entering its third training camp and season together. The first two years each began with 2-8 records. If this group has a similar start this season, next year's training camp will have plenty of new faces.
On the hot seat; Right guard Geoff Hangartner started 28 of the Panthers' 32 games the past two seasons, but the team hopes he'll be pushed in camp by Edmund Kugbila. It may be a reach to think the fourth-round pick out of Valdosta State can jump from Division II to an NFL starting job, but we're talking about a guy who's already beaten plenty of odds after moving with his family from Ghana to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. Hangartner is going into his ninth season, and while his versatility is a plus, the Panthers would be better off if he was a backup or fill-in starter.
Cause for concern: While the Panthers claim they're not concerned about their defensive backfield, it's hard to fully believe them. Going into training camp, they'll have just 25 percent of their secondary starters in place. Free safety belongs to Charles Godfrey, but strong safety and both cornerback spots are all question marks. Even when winners are decided, they're unlikely to cause too much fear into opposing passing games. Captain Munnerlyn is the team's most talented defensive back, but his size makes him best suited for nickel back. Free-agent pickup Drayton Florence could have an inside track at one of the cornerback spots, with Josh Norman, Josh Thomas, and former Bear D.J. Moore all in the mix.
Breakthrough star: Linebacker Luke Kuechly already broke through during his 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign, but his star should continue to rise considering the help he may now have in front of him. The Panthers used their first two picks on defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, two big bodies that should give Kuechly even more room to roam.
Position battles: Strong safety. Charles Godfrey's free safety spot is the only position locked up in the secondary. Who will start next to him? The Panthers may take most of training camp to decide on an answer. For right now, it's a toss-up between former Raider Mike Mitchell, second-year player D.J. Campbell and undrafted free agent Robert Lester.
No. 3 receiver. Domenik Hixon, who was injury-prone for a good part of six years with the Giants, missed his first minicamp in Carolina with a hamstring injury. Former 49er Ted Ginn played the No. 3 spot in his absence and showed flashes that perhaps he'll be more valuable than just a return man in Carolina.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES
--Quarterback Cam Newton had an interesting reason why he stopped playing baseball as a teenager.
Newton said, "I quit baseball at 14 because I was afraid of the pitches. The kids started getting better and throwing faster, and it would've hurt getting hit by that ball, so I stopped playing."
The disconnect is that when he starting playing football, it was a linebacker. "So when I got the opportunity to play offense, it was nothing," he said. "I wasn't shying away from contact. If anything, I was initiating it. I think that's what kind of made me stand out at an early age. My mom always wondered how I could be afraid of a little baseball when I always had these huge guys chasing me. It's a good question."
--Considering his past as a Giants executive, it was no surprise Dave Gettleman opened a bit of a New York-to-Charlotte pipeline in his first offseason as Carolina's general manager. He picked up a pair of former Giants in free-agent wide receiver Domenik Hixon and linebacker Chase Blackburn. But he wasn't able to find enough cash for a guy that seemed like a logical fit.
Charlotte native and former Giant Chris Canty could have slid right into a starting role at defensive tackle, saving Carolina from having to use a pair of early draft picks on the position. But despite having his hometown team on his short wish list, Canty signed a three-year, $8 million deal with the Ravens.
"(The Panthers) needed a lot of players. I think the direction they wanted to go was to get as many quality players as they could at a bargain price," Canty told The Charlotte Observer during his annual football camp at Charlotte Latin high school. "Quite frankly, I wasn't going to be able to come in and play for what they would have liked, what they could have afforded."
Gettleman and the Panthers started the offseason nearly $16 million over the salary cap, so even though there may have been mutual interest, signing a nine-year veteran like Canty wasn't financially feasible.
"He understood that and I understood and we had to move forward. I wish him nothing but the best. He's going to build a winner down here, no question about it," Canty said.
--Tight end Greg Olsen spent much of last season with an off-the-field issue weighing heavily on his mind. His son TJ was born in October with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition that affects normal blood flow through the heart.
Children born with the condition undergo three surgeries in their first three years, and their families face significant medical bills if they want in-home care and other therapy after their children are released from the hospital.
Doctors say TJ is currently doing incredibly well, and the Olsen family attributes much of his success to the medical help he's received while at home.
"We said, 'Fortunately, we were able to provide this for ourselves. But what if we could provide this for everybody, regardless of their situation, no questions asked. No insurance, nothing. If they need it, we'll provide it to them for free,'" Olsen said, while announcing a $289,325 gift from his foundation to the Levine Children's Hospital.
The donation will help cover the in-home costs for 25 babies born with HLHS and other single-ventricle defects at Levine each year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I thought we had a real solid offseason. We obviously had issues early on, and we addressed them. We've come through the other side pretty well. I feel good about the way we're positioned right now." - GM Dave Gettleman, who had to navigate through a salary-cap mess after taking over in January.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Cam Newton. Backups - Derek Anderson, Jimmy Clausen, Colby Cameron.
Newton is undoubtedly the franchise's most important player, and while he had a fair share of growing pains his first couple years, excuses will be harder to stomach during his third season. If the 24 year old can combine his unique talents with consistency, his success on the field should eclipse the somewhat fleeting star potential he's previously flashed. It's not like Newton has been bad - he set an NFL record for most passing yards in a player's first two seasons with 7,920, breaking the previous mark of 7,874 by Peyton Manning. But he needs to become more accurate, something he improved on late in 2012, when he set the team record for most consecutive pass attempts without an interception (176). Anderson should be locked in as Newton's top backup, but Clausen may face a challenge for a roster spot from Cameron, an undrafted rookie who once threw 444 consecutive passes without an interception at Louisiana Tech.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - DeAngelo Williams, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups - Jonathan Stewart, Armond Smith, Tauren Poole, Kenjon Barner, FB Michael Zordich.
Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski was pass-happy in 2011 and fell in love with the read-option early in 2012, significantly hurting the numbers of Williams and Stewart. New coordinator Mike Shula has vowed to give the backs more carries this season, which should not only make those guys happy, but could also help the Panthers offense flow better. Even at 30, Williams still has a good amount of tread left on his tires. Stewart, meanwhile, missed seven games with ankle injuries last year, but considering he only missed two games his first four seasons, he's not as injury prone as many believe. Tolbert proved to be a solid goal-line option with seven rushing touchdowns in his first year in Carolina, while Barner is the big wild card of this group. The speedster put up huge numbers at Oregon, and the Panthers think they may have gotten a steal in the sixth round.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Greg Olsen. Backups - Ben Hartsock, Richie Brockel, Nelson Rosario, Brandon Williams.
Olsen had the most productive season in the history of Panthers tight ends last year, setting team and career records with 69 catches and 843 receiving yards. He also led the team with five touchdown catches. While Carolina is set with Olsen as its top tight end, his backup is a question mark. Gary Barnidge, last year's No. 2, is now in Cleveland, and the Panthers didn't bring in much help this offseason. They added Williams as a free agent, but he hasn't played football since the spring of 2011 after he was diagnosed with a narrow spinal canal and bulging disk in his back. Rosario was on the practice squad in 2012, Brockel caught a total of three passes in his first two seasons, and Hartsock is a block-first guy who has made just 31 receptions since joining the league in 2004.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell. Backups - Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon, David Gettis, Armanti Edwards, Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares, Brenton Bersin, Lamont Bryant, Taulib Ikharo, Dale Moss, James Shaw.
Smith is 34 years old and entering his 13th season, but he's still an explosive No. 1 receiver. Last season he caught 73 passes and eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards for the seventh time in his career. LaFell is a solid, yet unspectacular No. 2 who set career highs with 44 catches, 677 yards and four touchdowns last season. Behind Smith and LaFell, Hixson and Ginn will battle for the No. 3 job. Considering his Giants ties to general manager Dave Gettleman, Hixson is the favorite, but he's often injured and Ginn showed real explosiveness during OTAs and minicamp. The Panthers will likely keep just two more guys on the roster, which means Gettis, Edwards, Adams and Pilares need to have good camps in order to separate themselves from each other.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Jordan Gross, LG Amini Silatolu, C Ryan Kalil, RG Geoff Hangartner, RT Byron Bell. Backups - T Patrick Brown, T Bruce Campbell, T Nate Chandler, T Garry Williams, G Hayworth Hicks, G Edmund Kugbila, G Tori Mobley, G Justin Wells, C Jeff Byers, C Austin Thomas, C Brian Folkerts.
Gross enters his 11th season as the Panthers' starting left tackle, and he'll be rejoined by Kalil, who suffered a season-ending foot injury after just five games last year. The duo combined for five Pro Bowl appearances, but that's where the good news mostly stops on the line. Silatolu, Hangartner and Bell wouldn't start for many teams around the league, but they all may be in there come Week 1. To his credit, Silatolu, who was drafted out of Division II Midwestern State in 2012, steadily improved during his rookie season. Hangartner provides versatility - he started at center after Kalil went down - but he could be pushed by fourth-round rookie Kugbila. Bell is the line's weakest link, but at least he has experience, playing in all but one game during his first two seasons. Chandler is a project who's transitioning from defensive tackle, while Byers was just OK during seven spot starts last year.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Greg Hardy, DT Dwan Edwards, NT Star Lotulelei, RDE Charles Johnson. Backups - DE Mario Addison, DE Frank Alexander, DE Wes Horton, DE Louis Nzegwu, DE Craig Roh, DT Colin Cole, DT Sione Fua, DT Linden Gaydosh, DT Frank Kearse, DT Kawann Short, DT Casey Walker.
One of just two NFL duos with double-digit sacks last season, Johnson and Hardy give Carolina one of the best, young pairs in the league. Johnson racked up a career-high 12.5 sacks, while Hardy destroyed his career-best with 11 sacks. The Panthers also really like Alexander, who played in all 16 games as a rookie. First-round pick Lotulelei and second-round selection Short were the team's biggest offseason acquisitions, literally and figuratively. The Panthers have struggled at tackle for years, but their top two picks, combined with veterans Edwards, Fua and Cole, could help make the defensive line the strongest unit on the team.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Jon Beason, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis. Backups - Chase Blackburn, Doug Hogue, Ben Jacobs, A.J. Klein, Ryan Rau, Jordan Senn, Jason Williams.
After tearing his Achilles in the 2011 opener, Beason returned last year, only to suffer season-ending knee and shoulder injuries after just four games. He was replaced in the middle by Kuechly, who was so good in the spot, he went on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Heading into this season, the Panthers have no choice but to keep Kuechly in the middle and shift Beason to the weak side. That's not his preferred position, but if healthy, the three-time Pro Bowler could form a daunting combo with Kuechly. The "if healthy" label also applies to Davis, who miraculously played in all but just one game last year, becoming the first known NFL player to return from three ACL surgeries. Blackburn signed as a free agent after eight productive years with the Giants, and is solid insurance in case something happens to one of the starters in the preseason. Klein, a fifth-round pick from Iowa State, should contribute immediately on special teams, and could be groomed to take over for Beason or Davis in 2014.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Drayton Florence, RCB Josh Norman, SS Mike Mitchell, FS Charles Godfrey. Backups - CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Nick Hixson, CB D.J. Moore, CB James Dockery, CB Josh Thomas, CB Melvin White, S Colin Jones, S Anderson Russell, S Haruki Nakamura, S D.J. Campbell, S Robert Lester.
Going into camp, Godfrey is the only starter locked in. The other three positions will be decided in the preseason, and even then, they won't be all that threatening to opposing passing offenses. Journeyman Florence is a favorite to win one of the cornerback jobs, but at 32, he's not markedly better than former Bear Moore, or young guys Norman, Thomas or Dockery. At strong safety, the group of Mitchell, Campbell, Nakamura and undrafted rookie Lester could all win the job, even though the Panthers are looking at bringing in former Ram Quintin Mikell, who would likely step into a starting role.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters - K Graham Gano, P Brad Nortman, LS J.J. Jansen, K Morgan Lineberry, P Jordan Gay.
The Panthers replaced Justin Medlock with Gano after 10 games last season, and the former Redskin was fine. He made nine of his 11 field-goal attempts and will likely keep his job to start 2013. He's not a spectacular option, and neither is Nortman. He struggled as a rookie, but the 2012 sixth-round pick will likely get a second year to figure things out.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--DE Antwan Applewhite (not tendered as UFA).
--S Sherrod Martin (not tendered as UFA).
--CB Nate Ness (not tendered as RFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED (all picks signed)
--DT Star Lotulelei (1/14): $9,604,500/4 yrs, all guaranteed/$5,365,092 SB.
--DT Kawann Short (2/44): $4,630,336/4 yrs, $1,747,516 SB/$2,362,986 guaranteed.
--G Edmund Kugbila (4/108): $2,616,456/4 yrs, $456,456 SB.
--LB A.J. Klein (5/148): $2,351,300/4 yrs, $191,300 SB.
--RB Kenjon Barner (6/182): $2,265,800/4 yrs, $105,800 SB.
--QB Derek Anderson: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Richie Brockel: ERFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Dwan Edwards: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Ben Hartsock: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Captain Munnerlyn: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Senn: Potential UFA; terms unknown.
--LB Chase Blackburn: UFA Giants; terms unknown.
--T Patrick Brown: Not tendered as ERFA by Dolphins; terms unknown.
--DT Colin Cole: FA; terms unknown.
--CB Drayton Florence: UFA Lions; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR/KR Ted Ginn: UFA 49ers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Domenik Hixon: UFA Giants; $1.2M/1 yr, $250,000 SB.
--S Mike Mitchell: UFA Raiders; $840,000/1 yr.
--CB D.J. Moore: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB James Anderson (released/post-June 1 designation).
--TE Gary Barnidge: UFA Browns; $3.75M/3 yrs, $650,000 SB.
--DT Ron Edwards (released).
--CB Chris Gamble (released).
--DE Thomas Keiser (released).
--WR Louis Murphy: UFA Giants; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DT Andre Neblett: Not tendered as RFA/Buccaneers; terms unknown.
--LB Kenny Onatolu (released).
--LB Jason Phillips: UFA Eagles; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--G Mike Pollak: UFA Bengals; $780,000/1 yr.
--C/G Zack Williams (released).