With the conclusion of the NFL draft this weekend, the Carolina Panthers have acquired about 95 percent of the players that will be on their roster for the season opener Sept. 10 at San Francisco.
But intrigue remains. The Panthers still have a lot to decide in the next 133 days before they play a real game. Here are seven of the battles I am most anxious to watch – some of them easier to catch a glimpse of than others:
Mike Shula vs. Mike Shula 2.0.
The Panthers offensive coordinator caught a lot of grief last year when the team dropped from No. 1 in the NFL in scoring down to 15th. Now Shula just got a handful of new chess pieces to place on the board. Can he be creative enough to effectively utilize rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel – the team’s twin “slashers” of the RB/WR variety – while still getting everyone else enough touches?
Shula has a great opportunity in front of him. But like the offense itself, he must evolve. Running Jonathan Stewart up the middle on most first downs will not cut it.
Julius Peppers vs. Mario Addison vs. Charles Johnson.
The Panthers’ top two sackers ever challenge the team’s best rusher of 2016.
Two of these guys will start. All of them will play.
Peppers, 37 and Carolina’s all-time sack leader despite not playing with the Panthers since 2009, would seem the most likely to come off the bench and int the game on third-down snaps. But Peppers deservedly has a lot of pride in his game, and I could also see the Panthers benching Addison (who hasn’t been a starter for most of his career) in favor of the two veterans.
The bottom line is Carolina has to get to the quarterback more, though. Addison had 9.5 sacks in 2016, and no one else on the team even had seven. Maybe rookie Daeshon Hall – a third-round pick – can help, too.
Kelvin Benjamin vs. the weight scale.
So Kelvin Benjamin has gotten heavy – again. How heavy? The Panthers won’t say, but Benjamin is listed at 245 pounds and certainly is bigger than that right now.
This has been an off-and-on problem for Benjamin throughout his career. The extra weight may well have contributed to some of the various injuries he has sustained and the lack of separation he often is able to get from defensive backs.
Benjamin, though, can be a monster on the field. He did have 941 yards receiving and seven TDs in 2016 – a fine year for most, but a step backward from his rookie numbers. He’s got to get better, and he’s got to get in shape. The Panthers already have a really good tight end in Greg Olsen and a fine backup in Ed Dickson. They don’t need another.
Michael Oher vs. Daryl Williams vs. Taylor Moton.
Four of the Panthers’ five starting positions on the offensive line are set. The fifth starter, at right tackle, should come from this group. Oher has been in the concussion protocol for seven months and it is questionable whether he will ever be ready to play in the NFL on a long-term basis again, although indications are the man who was the basis for “The Blind Side” book and movie will give it another try. Williams was given a battlefield promotion last season and was decent. Moton is the second-round draft pick who has an accounting degree from Western Michigan and also happens to be 6-5 and 319 pounds. This will be one of training camp’s best battles.
Christian McCaffrey vs. Curtis Samuel.
For all the talk about how much of a matchup nightmare it will be for defenses when both rookies are on the field, these guys have similar body types and did a lot of similar things in college. McCaffrey mostly did them better, which is why he was the No. 8 overall pick, but Samuel is a touch faster.
There are going to be a whole lot of offensive plays for Carolina in 2017 when only one is on the field. McCaffrey is listed as a running back and Samuel as a slot receiver, but both of them can play both those positions. So which rookie looks more impressive and gets more snaps? Who contributes most? Who scores first? The two will be friends, certainly, but there’s also going to be a friendly rivalry there.
Harrison Butker vs. Graham Gano.
A good friend of mine who is a big Panthers fan now leaves the room when Gano lines up for a kick because he is so worried that Gano is going to miss another one. The Panthers are invested in Gano. But they are not so invested that Gano can go through another season missing eight field goals and three extra points again (and most of those 11 misses seemed critical). Gano and the Panthers were No. 26 in the NFL in field-goal percentage in 2016, a season in which Carolina lost six games by a field goal or less.
Butker has a big leg and just finished a good kicking career for Georgia Tech. The Panthers picked him in the seventh round – significant in that they have never used a draft pick on a placekicker before. So this will add an extra layer of intrigue to all the preseason kicks.
‘Happy-to-be-here’ Cam vs. ‘Unhappy-to-be-here’ Cam.
After Carolina’s final game last season in early January, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said: “I think me and football got a love-hate relationship. And we’re not on good terms right now. I’m just going to leave her alone for awhile.”
Well, it’s been awhile. And during that time Newton also had an operation in March to repair the partially torn rotator cuff his throwing shoulder.
The quarterback is supposed to be throwing by the time training camp starts in Spartanburg in late July, although that’s not a certainty. What is certain is that Newton has to lead, evolve and win for the Panthers to be successful. Whether you love him or hate him yourself, Newton is the most significant player on the team because he plays its most important position.
When he’s good, he’s great. That’s “Happy-to-be-here Cam” – giving balls to kids in the stands, leading the crowd in cheers, smiling and throwing 40-yard darts. When he’s not good, overthrowing 5-yard passes to the flat and the Panthers are losing regularly, he will sometimes isolate himself. He can be prickly. That’s the Cam who was not on “good terms” with football in January.
The first six items I listed here are all significant, but none of them is as important as how Cam Newton plays in 2017. The NFL Most Valuable Player only two seasons ago, Newton turns 28 in May and should be entering the prime of his career.
I doubt his shoulder surgery will be a big problem. But he has to tweak his style a little – getting the ball out more quickly, throwing less often on his back foot, using his new weapons effectively.
It will be quite a challenge for Newton. If he’s up to it, this season could be special.