When the Panthers wrapped up minicamp six weeks ago, new general manager Dave Gettleman said he had a good feeling about his team with one caveat.
Obviously, youre not going to know until training camp when the pads go on, Gettleman said then. Like everybody else, you dont know.
Gettleman will learn a lot more over the next three weeks.
The Panthers report to camp at Wofford Thursday morning and will practice for the first time Friday.
Its a pivotal season for coach Ron Rivera, who is 13-19 after his first two seasons, and the entire organization.
Owner Jerry Richardson has fired a coach (John Fox) and general manager (Marty Hurney) since the Panthers last winning season and playoff berth in 2008. Only six teams have longer active postseason droughts.
On the eve of Gettlemans first camp with the Panthers, the Observer examines five intriguing storylines.
Mike Shula takes over the offense
Rivera stayed in-house when former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left for Cleveland, promoting Shula after interviewing two candidates with head-coaching experience Pat Shurmur and Hue Jackson.
Shula worked well with Cam Newton as the quarterbacks coach, but his last stint calling playing plays in the NFL was unremarkable with Tampa Bay. Rivera said the Panthers might have a hidden gem in new quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, who tutored Newton at IMG during the 2011 lockout and, as a Panthers advance scout, met with him each Monday during the season to discuss that weeks opponent.
Cam Newtons development as a leader
Newton, the No. 1 overall draft selection in 2011, picked up NFL defenses and schemes much quicker than his critics predicted. Its taken him longer to grow into a leadership role.
Rivera has seen signs that Newton is starting to get what that role entails, such as taking more interest in his teammates. But the best way for Newton to win over the locker room is to stop sulking after losses and win more.
Shula has simplified the offensive terminology and indicated he plans to keep Newton in the pocket more often, using the zone read as a wrinkle.
Luke Kuechlys emergence as the man in the middle
When the Panthers went to camp last year, Kuechly was playing outside linebacker and deferring to Jon Beason, the Pro Bowl middle linebacker. But when Beason went down with shoulder and knee injuries after Week 4, Kuechly moved to the middle and triggered a big defensive turnaround.
After Kuechly led the league in tackles and was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, the torch had officially been passed. Kuechly has become the unquestioned leader and face of the defense.
The health of Beason and Jonathan Stewart
Rivera said this week he wouldnt know the status of running back Jonathan Stewart until he undergoes an extensive physical Thursday at Wofford. Stewart played in only nine games last season, and underwent offseason surgeries on both ankles.
Beason has missed all but five games since signing a big contract extension two years ago. He participated in minicamp, but plans to be smart about his preseason activity so he can be ready for Week 1 against Seattle.
Can a makeshift secondary do its part?
Gettleman went big in the draft, taking defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the Panthers first two picks. The thinking stems from Gettlemans New York Giants background: A strong pass rush can mask a lot of problems in the secondary.
The Panthers released their best cornerback (Chris Gamble) in a salary cap move, and were not in a position to go after any big-name, free agent defensive backs. But Rivera believes the complementary players Carolina signed will team with the younger, returning players to form a solid group.
Five position battles to watch
No. 3 wide receiver: The Panthers let Louis Murphy go via free agency and picked up Domenik Hixon, who was last with the Giants, and Ted Ginn Jr. from the 49ers. Last we saw Hixon, he had an injured hamstring during minicamp while Ginn was providing a deep threat the Panthers lacked last year. But Hixon has stats on his side from his days in New York.
Right guard: Veteran Geoff Hangartner struggled at times last season. Carolina asked him to slide to center, and he missed the last three games with an injured foot. Fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila, though raw, could challenge Hangartner if hes healthy.
Strong safety: D.J. Campbell was the starter late last season, but newly-acquired Mike Mitchell will give him a run. The only sure starter in the secondary is Charles Godfrey at free safety, where he played well the final three games of 2012.
Cornerbacks: It appears the coaching staff wants Josh Norman to get one of these spots. The 2012 fifth-round pick won the job in training camp last year, but was eventually benched after poor play. This is the most wide-open competition for Carolina, with six players vying to win the jobs.
No. 2 tight end: Carolina hasnt had two pass-catching tight ends since Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey teamed up two seasons ago. Ben Hartsock returns after catching two passes for 30 yards last year. Carolina would love to see what undrafted rookie Brandon Williams of Oregon offers if hes healthy after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee during the spring.
5 under-the-radar players who could make an impact
Melvin White: The undrafted cornerback from Louisiana-Lafayette has been turning heads since he earned a spot on the 90-man roster this spring. With uncertainty at cornerback, White has a chance to seize an opportunity.
Robert Lester: The safety brings championship experience from the collegiate level after helping Alabama win three titles. Draft scouts said he was stiff in coverage and that may be why he went undrafted, but Ron Rivera has spoken highly of him.
Chase Blackburn: Its tough for a nine-year veteran, who has two Super Bowl rings with the Giants to be under the radar, but with the Panthers starting trio at linebacker, Blackburn hasnt been talked about much. He could be next in line should Thomas Davis or Jon Beason bow out with injury.
Ben Hartsock: Hes known as more of a blocking tight end, and in 10 years Hartsock has only caught 31 passes for 312 yards. But if the Panthers cant produce another pass-catching tight end, the veteran may see more passes coming his way after the departure of Gary Barnidge this offseason.
Mike Tolbert: The fullback led all running backs with seven rushing touchdowns last season but he only produced 183 yards on the ground his lowest total since 2009. With the Panthers going to a more traditional running game, Tolbert could get more touches in 2013.
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