After the events of last week, the focus for the Carolina Panthers this week shifts to the field.
To quote noted gridiron strategist Hank Williams Jr., are you ready for some football?
Cam Newton is – or should be soon.
The Panthers quarterback is expected to be limited early in training camp following shoulder surgery in March. But whenever he is green-lighted to go full speed, he’ll have a whole bunch of shiny new weapons at his disposal and a big guy with a familiar last name protecting his blind side.
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Newton conceded last year amid a bunch of questionable hits, sore-armed throws and losses (especially the losses) that football wasn’t much fun for him in 2016.
No one’s going to throw a party about two-hour, padded practices in Spartanburg’s heat and humidity, but it’s important that the Panthers flush last season as quickly as possible with some spirited and productive work at Wofford.
Four players (and a coach) on my radar
▪ Mike Shula, offensive coordinator: The verbal barbs began shortly after the Panthers drafted Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel: Yeah, but will Shula know what to do with them? How quickly they forget Shula directed the NFL’s highest-scoring offense in 2015.
▪ Julius Peppers, defensive end: Even past his prime, Peppers still possesses the pass-rush moves and power to make the game-changing plays the defense lacked last year. Peppers vs. Matt Kalil in 1-on-1 drills will be among the must-sees at camp.
▪ Shaq Thompson, linebacker: The athletic former first-round pick has waited his turn for two years while playing behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. It’s time for Ron Rivera and Steve Wilks to figure out how to get Thompson on the field more.
▪ Daryl Williams, right tackle: Williams said in June he expects to be the starter, and that was before the Panthers cut Michael Oher. If Williams takes the next step in his development, he should hold off big rookie Taylor Moton.
▪ Harrison Butker, Georgia Tech: The rookie from Georgia Tech has a big enough leg to supplant Graham Gano as the starting kicker. The question is how Butker will handle the pressure of one of the Panthers’ most closely watched competitions.
Three reasons to be worried
AGE BEFORE BEAUTY: Expect to see a lot of vet days off as Rivera and the training staff do all they can to get a big collection of 30somethings to the finish line. Rivera has always been smart knowing when to scale it back with older players, but he might need to start even earlier this year.
SECONDARILY SPEAKING: The Panthers are counting on cornerbacks James Bradberry to Daryl Worley to make big jumps in their second seasons. But if they don’t, there aren’t any true plug-and-play guys behind them on the outside.
PLODDING ALONG: Former general manager Dave Gettleman brought in two quick-twitch athletes in McCaffrey and Samuel. But the more slow of foot Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess still project as starting wide receivers, and need to create more separation and come down with more passes.
Three reasons to be excited
BOUNCE-BACK SEASONS: Newton and Kuechly set the tone in their respective huddles, and both were either missing or not themselves during the latter part of last year. I’m expecting big seasons from both of them.
THUNDER AND LIGHTNING: For all the attention on McCaffrey, the Panthers have another back with more than 6,600 career rushing yards and 45 touchowns. McCaffrey’s cuts and quickness should serve a nice complement to Jonathan Stewart’s relentless, power-running style between the tackles.
PEPPERS-LED PASS RUSH: The addition of Peppers gives defensive line coach Eric Washington a ton of flexibility in his third-down groupings. Expect Peppers to slide inside along Kawann Short with Charles Johnson (the Original) and Mario Addison coming off the edge.