As hard as Roger Goodell has tried to make the NFL a 365-days-a-year celebration – “Let’s have a schedule release party! I’ll bring the guac!” – he has not yet found a way to fill the five-plus weeks between the end of minicamps and the start of training camps.
If you’re reading or hearing much about your favorite team from late-June through mid-July, it’s usually not a good thing: “Oh, crap, Steve Smith broke his arm playing flag football.”
The Panthers wrapped up a hot, muggy minicamp last Thursday, after which a lot of players not named Christian McCaffrey fled the premises. McCaffrey and the other rookies are allowed to hang around Bank of America Stadium for another week, as long no coaches try to school them on the intricacies of pass protections.
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There will be news that pops up between now and July 26 when the Panthers report to Spartanburg. Team officials just hope the headlines read something like “Cam Newton takes next step in his recovery” than anything involving the word, “setback.”
In the meantime, here are five takeaways from the Panthers’ three weeks of organized team activities (OTAs) practices and three days of minicamp:
1. Kelvin Benjamin looks to have worked his way back into shape.
Whatever Benjamin tipped the scales at in April – Ron Rivera says it wasn’t 280 pounds, although he might have been touching 270 – the fourth-year wideout seemed to get the message Rivera sent publicly after the draft.
Look, Benjamin is never going to be skinny. The pounds stick to his 6-5 frame like molasses.
But Benjamin needs to show up to Spartanburg looking like he did the final day of minicamp, when he reached down to pluck a pass a couple inches off the grass and got both feet inbounds. A guy with too big of a beer gut doesn’t make that play. Trust me.
The Panthers added speed and versatility with first two picks McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. But Benjamin’s length makes him a valuable target for Newton, especially in the red zone.
Less girth would be a good thing.
2. Panthers appear ready to move on from Michael Oher.
The sad saga involving Oher has stretched out over nearly nine months, dating to late-September when he first reported post-concussion symptoms. Oher skipped OTAs, then flew from Nashville to Charlotte last week to meet with team doctors.
Oher’s recent Instragram post of 10 prescription pill bottles and the fact that he remains in the concussion protocol should convince him and the Panthers it’s time to focus on his life after football.
The Panthers could save $4.5 million against the salary cap by cutting Oher, who would likely qualify for the maximum $1.1 million a year under the league’s injury protection benefit.
Rivera didn’t say much about the situation last week, but he did not sound like a coach who expects to have Oher with him in Spartanburg.
“We’ll have 90 on the roster and we’ll be ready to go with those guys,” said Rivera, who did not speak to Oher during the team’s minicamp.
3. Training camp practices are going to be intense.
And they very well could include a fight involving Newton, who – even though he wasn’t participating – managed to get under the defense’s skin by taunting defenders after big offensive plays during OTAs and minicamp.
At Newton’s recent kickball tournament, former Panthers corner Josh Norman wanted to know which defenders challenge Newton in Norman’s absence.
The short list: linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and nickel back Captain Munnerlyn, who readily owns his “little man syndrome” and went toe-to-toe with backup QB Derek Anderson during a brief skirmish last week.
It’s going to be hot in Spartanburg (and Nashville, where the Panthers will hold joint practices with the Titans). Tempers will flare.
And while there’s nothing wrong with dialing up the intensity, the Panthers don’t need their $103.8 million quarterback or his surgically repaired throwing shoulder at the bottom of a pile.
Cooler heads must prevail.
4. Panthers plan to get their money’s worth with McCaffrey.
Other than the grounds crew and the equipment guys tasked with keeping the water cold, McCaffrey might be the busiest man in Spartanburg this summer.
The No. 8 overall pick and do-it-all back from Stanford missed OTAs and all but the final day of minicamp because of the NFL’s stupid quarter-system rule. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula tried to jam as much as he could into McCaffrey’s lone practice session.
McCaffrey took a direct snap in the Wildcat, served as a decoy on a couple of end-arounds, threw a pass and broke off a couple of nice runs.
Along with the health of Newton’s shoulder and the play of left tackle Matt Kalil, watching what Shula has in store for McCaffrey will be among the most important storylines for the Panthers’ offense in 2017.
“I hope I’m used in a lot of ways,” McCaffrey said last week. “But that’s not up to me.”
5. Five under-the-radar guys to keep an eye on at training camp.
OT Daryl Williams: Don’t sleep on the guy who started 10 games at right tackle last season.
WR Russell Shepard: Consistently got open in the slot this spring and caught nearly everything thrown his way.
TE Chris Manhertz: Former Canisius basketball player’s first year of football was 2015. But he’s looking more and more comfortable as a blocker and pass-catcher.
LB David Mayo: Big, athletic hitter has stepped into A.J. Klein’s former role as next man up in a deep linebacking corps.
S Dean Marlowe: The Panthers need a backup safety after waiving Tre Boston. Marlowe was on the field a lot this spring, as was former Falcons S Dezmen Southward.