After a very exciting offseason with unprecedented moves in both free agency and the NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers are poised for a round of OTAs at Bank of America Stadium from Tuesday-Thursday and at intermittent dates through early June.
Here are the 10 top storylines to follow:
What will be Cam Newton’s role?
We can definitely assume Newton will be at OTAs in a leadership and installation role, even though he can’t throw with receivers yet after a partial tear to his rotator cuff was surgically repaired in the spring.
But with the new offensive pieces added by Carolina in free agency and especially the draft, it will be crucial for Newton to work through the playbook with rookies and newcomers as well as foster solidarity in the locker room.
Kelvin Benjamin and a crowded wide receivers room.
As a certain reaction to a receivers group that struggled with speed and separation from coverage on routes in 2016, the Panthers have stacked the postition in free agency and the draft with a specific type of wideout: Versatile, speedy players who run crisp routes, many of whom can play in the slot as well as on the outside.
How players who have not quite met lofty expectations handle the extra competition in the room will be telling. This will be a make-or-break year for both of Carolina’s big-and-talls.
Kelvin Benjamin, who has been working to cut weight this spring as he reported heavier than his playing weight again, had his fifth year option has been picked up, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee something long-term. And Devin Funchess isn’t carrying much weight in dead cap money in 2018 as it is.
Additionally, many of these recievers added as undrafted free agents or in free agency on short contracts will have to add facets to their game to seal a spot on a tight roster. That means we could see heavy competition on special teams and at returner.
Matt Kalil’s post-surgery performance – and who backs him up?
Carolina’s $55.5 million-man has a tall task this summer and fall. He will be taking over as the Panthers’ starting left tackle, protecting a quarterback fresh out of shoulder rehab who took a beating like never before behind a shaky, injury-riddled offensive line in 2016.
Kalil also had surgery last year to repair a longtime injury to his hip, and will be under heavy scrutiny because of his position and his large salary.
Behind Kalil, the Panthers are shorthanded at tackles with game experience despite adding promising young talent Taylor Moton in the draft. Moton will be expected to learn left tackle but is a natural right tackle and guard. Former starting left tackle Michael Oher’s situation – including both health and legal issues – has left his status murky after he missed most of last season. The only viable backup remaining is right tackle Daryl Williams, who may just get his number called in the fall.
Is Luke Kuechly back and ready to play?
All signs point toward the answer to this being “of course,” but keep in mind, Kuechly suffered a scary concussion during a prime-time time game last season that kept him in the protocol for three weeks. He was then held out of the remaining three games out of concern for his long-term health.
Kuechly has been publicly hitting the weight room and present during voluntary OTAs earlier this spring, but bigger-picture questions remain: Has his perspective toward his second concussion in as many years changed since near-nonchalance last season? Will it impact his play or view of the game – or how he is utilized by the Panthers?
Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson splitting reps
While we probably won’t see Thompson completely take over for Davis this year, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Thompson is being groomed as the Panthers’ long-term investment once Davis, 34, retires.
Davis told the Observer last winter that he believes Thompson is “the future” of the linebacker unit, and it’s clear that doesn’t just mean in a traditional role. With the amount of offensive weaponry accumulating in the NFC South - especially large tight ends that create mismatches - Thompson will likely be playing many more snaps than ever in his hybrid buffalo nickel role to cover those types of players, as well as taking a portion of Davis’ playing time.
Captain Munnerlyn competing on the outside
New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks told the Panthers’ team site that he expects Munnerlyn to offer some depth at outside corner. A natural slot corner, Munnerlyn will now hold down the starting spot at that position while also offering some depth to starters James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, both of whom will enter their sophomore seasons in the NFL.
How will the rookies integrate?
Picking up the playbook and handling the NFL learning curve is of the utmost importance for the rookies during this time. Draft picks Curtis Samuel, Moton, Daeshon Hall, Alex Armah and Harrison Butker will all be present for OTAs. No. 8 pick Christian McCaffrey will not be because his college, Stanford, is on the quarter system, and he is barred by NCAA rules from participation until the quarter ends.
It will also be vital to monitor how the rookie players – including UDFAs hoping to make the roster – interact with veteran players and provide competition.
Is there enough depth at safety?
After the Panthers released safety Tre Boston earlier this month, they were left with two safeties with significant game experience – and both of them are veterans. If they stay healthy, Kurt Coleman and free agent acquisition Mike Adams could more than lock down their part of the secondary.
But at ages 28 and 36, respectively, what if someone gets hurt?
The Panthers actually have six other safeties on the roster, although only Colin Jones has played in regular-season games (and only on special teams, at which he excels). The Panthers are likely hoping that promising – yet untested – players such as L.J. McCray or Dean Marlowe step up big time in a backup role.
What will Jonathan Stewart’s role be? And what about Cameron Artis-Payne?
With running back McCaffrey’s wide variety of talents expected to open up the playbook and create a faster, more creative offense, current starting back Jonathan Stewart’s role will shift. Yet his power-run style will still more than likely be a factor in the team’s scheme, now that the Panthers want to take some of the pressure to run off of Newton to preserve his health. Could we see more of Stewart in short-yardage or third-down situations?
And behind Stewart for the past two years has been Artis-Payne, who has never really hit his stride in the offense. Because McCaffrey is now in the mix as well as hybrid receiver/running back Samuel, this might be the year the roster is trimmed to exclude Artis-Payne in favor of bulking up other spots.
How will the defensive ends share snaps?
Julius Peppers, Charles Johnson and Mario Addison will be Carolina’s premiere pass rushers this fall, with Wes Horton and Daeshon Hall bringing up the rear. Wilks will probably use Peppers more situationally and efficiently to preserve the 37-year-old throughout the season, and do the same with Johnson in a rotation while depending on Addison, who is fresh off a contract extension, to develop from a situational rusher to an every-down defensive end. Horton really showed promise near the end of last year while Hall remains a project – albeit an exciting one.