10 questions facing Carolina Panthers with practice days away
07/19/2014 3:15 PM
07/20/2014 10:40 AM
The focus for the Carolina Panthers’ this week shifts from the courthouse to the football field.
For an organization that had its name sullied during hours of testimony in Greg Hardy’s domestic violence trial Tuesday, the start of training camp can’t come soon enough.
The Panthers will kick off camp a little differently this year to accommodate the soccer match between A.C. Milan and Liverpool on Aug. 2.
The team will hold its first practice at Bank of America Stadium on Friday evening as part of its annual Fan Fest, then head to Spartanburg the following day to begin drills at Wofford.
Also different this year: For the first time in more than a decade, they’ll go to camp without left tackle Jordan Gross and wide receiver Steve Smith. Gross retired in February and will serve as the sideline reporter during the team’s radio broadcasts, while the Panthers will see Smith in Week 4 in Baltimore.
Finding replacements for Gross and Smith will be one of the things coach Ron Rivera hopes to accomplish during three weeks in Spartanburg.
Here are 10 questions facing the Panthers as they enter camp:
1 So what is Hardy’s situation?
A little more than a week after he was convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, Hardy could be on the field Friday as part of the Fan Fest activities. Because Hardy appealed the judge’s decision on the two misdemeanor charges, his case will go before a jury trial – almost certainly after the season is over.
That could delay any suspension handed down by the NFL, which generally allows the legal process to play out before acting. The Panthers could suspend Hardy a maximum of four games for conduct detrimental to the team, although the league prefers to handle player discipline issues.
So the Panthers likely will have their Pro Bowl defensive end this season, but it figures to be Hardy’s last one in Charlotte. Whether Hardy, who will make $13.1 million after receiving the franchise tag, will be productive with a pending trial hanging over him remains to be seen.
2 Is Cam Newton’s ankle 100 percent?
Not yet. Newton, the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, had surgery in March to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. He threw to the Panthers’ receivers last week in Greensboro but was limited in his mobility.
The Panthers will try to find a balance between getting Newton the reps he needs to get his timing down with an entirely new group of receivers, while not overdoing it on the ankle.
The goal has to be getting Newton to the season opener at Tampa Bay healthy and strong.
3 About the new wideouts, who is going to replace those 10 catches a game?
Rivera voiced a “Moneyball” type of approach during the offseason when he talked about finding guys to come down with the 10 receptions a game they lost when they cut Smith and let Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon leave in free agency.
The Panthers signed veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood and drafted rangy Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round. They don’t have a true No. 1 receiver, but they haven’t had one in a couple of years as Smith’s production fell off.
The starters are expected to be the reliable Cotchery and the 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin, who is a huge target but a raw route-runner and pass-catcher. Avant is the No. 3 receiver, but after that there’s not a lot of depth.
Underwood is a journeyman who dropped passes throughout OTAs. Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, who were stashed on the active roster last season, don’t look like they’re going to develop into GM Dave Gettleman’s next Victor Cruz, whom Gettleman discovered in New York.
Former Wofford star Brenton Bersin – step right up.
4 Who wins the left tackle competition?
It might be a stretch to call it a competition. Byron Bell will get the first reps on the left side, and it will be hard for Nate Chandler to compete while he’s running with the first team at right tackle.
Chandler, who worked with Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater for the second consecutive summer, will be the fall-back plan on the left side if Bell struggles. Bell is a natural lefthander who had trouble dealing with speed rushers during his three seasons as the starting right tackle.
5 Will Charles Godfrey be a factor?
Probably not as a starter, but he’ll have a role as a leader and backup. Godfrey is the longest-tenured member of secondary that was rebuilt after starters Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell left in free agency.
Godfrey was limited during OTAs by his surgically repaired Achilles, and figures to be less than 100 percent for at least the early portion of camp. If he gets healthy, Godfrey will compete with rookie Bené Benwikere at nickel corner.
6 What about the rest of the secondary?
It will be an experienced group. Cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud have combined for more than 20 years of experience, with Harper and DeCoud spending all of their careers in the NFC South.
The Panthers will monitor Harper’s workload to try to prevent the knee injuries that sidelined him for part of his final season in New Orleans. Harper replaces Mitchell as the physical presence in the secondary, while DeCoud will try to bounce back after a disappointing season in Atlanta.
Melvin White has the edge at the other corner spot, unless Josh Norman can prove he’s more than a training camp All-Pro.
7 What are the Panthers going to do with all those tight ends?
They’ll have to cut a few of them, which should make for a spirited competition behind starter Greg Olsen. The Panthers will go to camp with six tight ends, and free agent acquisition Ed Dickson looks like he’ll have a spot after an impressive showing during OTAs.
Former Oregon tight end Brandon Williams has come a long way as a blocker, but still needs polish as a receiver. Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel is a versatile blocker and special teams player, although the Panthers have another fullback in the mix now that Michael Zordich has returned from a knee injury that cost him his entire rookie season.
8 What are a couple of other position battles to keep an eye on?
Rookie Trai Turner was the starting right guard for much of OTAs, although the Panthers might want to break the 21-year-old in slowly rather than throwing him in against standout Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in Week 1.
If Chris Scott shows up in shape – a big if, given his history – he could push Turner for the starting spot.
At weakside linebacker, second-year player A.J. Klein could unseat veteran Chase Blackburn, who was bothered by a foot injury in 2013. Klein played well in his place, although Blackburn is a valuable swing player who can line up at all three linebacker spots.
9 Under-the-radar players to watch?
Bersin, the former Wofford standout who was neighbors with Jerry Richardson growing up, was a nice, feel-good training camp story his first two years. But the 6-3, 210-pound receiver has a real chance to make the 53-man roster. Newton is a fan of Bersin’s, and coaches like the fact that he knows every receiving spot.
The Panthers have a ton of depth along the defensive line, but they’re eager to get a look at Drake Nevis in pads. Nevis, 25, has bounced around the NFL, but he had six sacks and 56 tackles as a senior at LSU.
With Ginn’s departure, Kenjon Barner and Kealoha Pilares have a chance to shine as kick returners.
10 Is this a make-or-break camp for anybody?
Sure, for about 40 players, including several of the Panthers’ recent draft picks.
Defensive end Frank Alexander, a fourth-round pick from Oklahoma in 2012, is going to have a hard time making the team. Alexander is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and saw the Panthers draft DE Kony Ealy in the second round and give a contract extension to pass-rush specialist Mario Addison.
Guard Edmund Kugbila has been dealing with injuries since the Panthers took him in the fourth round last year out of Division II Valdosta State. He’s still not recovered from knee surgery in the fall.
Pilares could be in trouble unless he makes a splash as a returner in the exhibition, and you have to wonder how many more chances Norman will get to prove he can play within the defensive scheme.
Join the Discussion
Charlotte Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.