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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT
Former NFL head coach turned ESPN analyst Jon Gruden so often showers players with praise, it's sometimes hard to take his gushing seriously. So before the Carolina Panthers' nationally-televised preseason game in Baltimore on Thursday night, Gruden's claim that linebacker Luke Kuechly could one day be named the league's defensive player of the year could have been taken as just another wild statement from the booth.
But Kuechly backed up that praise by turning in the Panthers' most dominant performance by a defensive player since Julius Peppers wore a Carolina uniform. Last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year terrorized the Ravens with seven tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.
"He's a very humble young man, so I'll just do it for him and tell you that he has the opportunity to ascend," head coach Ron Rivera said. "If he continues to grow, we most certainly will talk about him in the same vein as some of those great linebackers."
Kuechly's defensive show took place on the former field of one of the all-time greats, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. But while Lewis reveled in attention, Kuechly seems to run away from it. Try as they might, reporters can't get last year's NFL tackling leader to credit himself.
"The D-line played well again and got some pressure on the quarterback," Kuechly said after Thursday's game, deflecting praise as usual. "We were able to get some picks and turnovers because they were pressuring the guys up front."
But Kuechly does have a point about the guys in front of him. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers' top two picks in April's draft, had the best games of their young careers Thursday. Their presence in the middle of Carolina's line helped keep blockers of Kuechly, giving him more room to roam.
But like Kuechly, Lotulelei - who had a sack and four tackles, three for a loss - doesn't seem to be fond of the spotlight.
"It was OK. It was good productivity-wise. I made a couple plays. But assignment-wise I still have to clean some things up and technique-wise I have to clean some things up with my pass rush and staying in my gap. I made some plays but still got to keep working to get better," Lotulelei said.
Meanwhile, Short, who also picked up a sack and three tackles for a loss, looks to be getting more comfortable with the jump from Purdue to the pros.
"It actually feels like (the game) is slowing down," Short said. "I'm just trying to go 100 miles per hour. They tell us if you mess up, mess up going 100 miles per hour."
If Lotulelei and Short can play up to their potential once the season begins, the Panthers' goal of having one of the most formidable front sevens in the league looks well within reach. It certainly doesn't hurt to have an emerging superhero running the show from the middle.
"He's Clark Kent," Lotulelei said of Kuechly. "It's a privilege to play with him."
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES
--The Panthers got a head start on Tuesday's mandatory cut deadline by waiving twelve players Saturday. There were no surprises on a list that included former fifth-round pick Kealoha Pilares. The wide receiver was on the outside looking in on a roster spot, and then injured his knee returning the opening kickoff against the Ravens.
Pilares, offensive tackle Bruce Campbell (shoulder) and fullback Michael Zordich (knee) were waived-injured, so they will revert to IR if not claimed. Quarterback Colby Cameron, punter Jordan Gay, cornerback Nick Hixson, kicker Morgan Lineberry, wide receiver Dale Moss, defensive end Louis Nzegw, linebacker Ryan Rau, safety Ricardo Silva and guard Justin Wells were also cut.
The Panthers now have 78 players on the roster, so three more need to be trimmed by Tuesday afternoon.
--After struggling in the red zone in their second preseason game in Philadelphia, quarterback Cam Newton and many on the Panthers offense vowed not to settle for field goals heading into their next game in Baltimore. But that's exactly what happened Thursday night, and Carolina was actually fortunate to even get those couple field goals.
An ineffective offense didn't run a single play inside the Ravens' 20-yard-line and gained less than four yards per play, which center Ryan Kalil called "a horrific stat."
"3.7 yards an average offensive play is not good enough - not in this league," head coach Ron Rivera said. "If we expect to win football games, we cannot accept that."
But since Rivera will likely sit most of his starters for this Thursday's preseason finale against Pittsburgh, the Panthers won't be able to alleviate their offensive concerns until the season opener against Seattle.
--When the Panthers acquired free agent Ted Ginn this offseason, they acquired their most exciting returner since Steve Smith was bringing back punts. But since they didn't need Ginn to prove anything, Carolina's coaches eased him into the preseason return game.
He didn't get his first chance until Thursday night's third game, and on his first return, all he did was bring back a punt 74 yards for a touchdown.
"For me to go out and do what I did today and give my team a spark - It's just a blessing," Ginn said after the game. "Nine times out of 10 when you make that first guy miss and your guys are blocking up, you have a great opportunity."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm absolutely not pleased with how I played. Our offense just has to find our mesh." -- QB Cam Newton, on Carolina's offensive struggles against the Ravens and throughout the preseason.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The battle for the No. 3 wide receiver role is still very much muddled. No one has played well enough to emerge through three preseason games, and others simply haven't been able to compete for the role because they haven't been on the field.
With Domenik Hixon (hamstring), Armanti Edwards (hamstring) and Joe Adams (calf) missing Thursday's game in Baltimore, Ted Ginn and David Gettis combined for just four receptions.
The only clear thing from that group right now is they have one less guy to worry about. Kealoha Pilares was waived-injured Saturday after he hurt his knee returning the opening kickoff against the Ravens.
BIGGEST QUESTION TO BE ANSWERED: While this is certainly a key season for third-year QB Cam Newton, if he doesn't get solid protection it's going to be another failed year for the Panthers.
The offensive line is the team's biggest concern right now, and even if Carolina picks up guys from other teams once they're cut, the line could be a problem all season long.
The group wasn't elite to begin with, and a couple other factors have decimated its depth. Incumbent starting right guard Geoff Hangartner was cut in training camp, fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila hasn't been able to get or stay on the field and left guard Amini Silatolu strained a hamstring Thursday against the Ravens.
Left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil are Pro Bowl talents, but the other sixty percent of Carolina's line is a troubling question mark.
--RB Jonathan Stewart, who had offseason surgeries on both his ankles, is still on the PUP list and it's possible he could remain there when the season starts.
--FB Mike Tolbert remains out with a hamstring injury, but the Panthers hope to have him ready by the season opener.
--RB Kenjon Barner missed Saturday's practice after injuring his foot during Thursday's game in Baltimore.
--WR Domenik Hixon, who has missed every preseason game with a sore hamstring, returned to practice Saturday.
--WR Armanti Edwards, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury, missed Saturday's practice because of personal reasons.
--WR Joe Adams continues to miss time with a sore calf.
--G Edmund Kugbila returned to practice Saturday. He has missed almost all of preseason with leg injuries, but if his hamstring can hold up he could compete to start at right guard.
--G Amini Silatolu, who strained a hamstring Thursday night, sat out Saturday's practice.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--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.
--G/T Chris Scott: FA Bills; terms unknown.
--LB James Anderson (released/post-June 1 designation).
--DE Antwan Applewhite: Not tendered as UFA/Dolphins; terms unknown.
--TE Gary Barnidge: UFA Browns; $3.75M/3 yrs, $650,000 SB.
--DT Ron Edwards (released).
--CB Chris Gamble (released).
--C/G Geoff Hangartner (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).