Football players really, really like the overused phrase “iron sharpens iron.”
In the case of the 2017 Carolina Panthers, the saying might carry a little more weight than a quip at the bottom of an Instagram post following a particularly grueling workout.
As they begin training camp in Spartanburg, the Panthers will rely on a defense chock-full of hungry, athletic veterans to set the tone early for what Carolina wants its team identity to be this fall.
We saw glimpses in the spring during organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. When the defense got its hackles raised about some smack-talk quarterback Cam Newton doled out in the locker room one morning, they took the field for practice and absolutely manhandled the offense.
For an offense that is a little behind schedule because of Newton’s post-shoulder surgery rehabilitation and the all-but-a-day absence of No. 8 draft pick Christian McCaffrey, more electric, competitive days like that will be important to bring the offense up to speed.
The defense will try to sharpen the offense. How will the offense respond?
Five players on my radar
▪ Cam Newton, quarterback: Newton will finally be throwing again after surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder this spring. It’s likely he will be held to a “pitch count” – and keeping him from overworking his arm amid the energy of camp will be tough for Panthers trainers.
▪ Kelvin Benjamin, receiver: After reporting to team workouts in the spring overweight and a 2016 season in which it seemed like Benjamin left a lot of yards on the field, Benjamin elevating his game beginning at training camp is crucial.
▪ Christian McCaffrey, running back: Because his alma mater, Stanford, is on the quarter system, the Panthers were only able to work out McCaffrey for one full-squad session. Key to the “evolution” of the offense, and McCaffrey can – and should – be used all over the field, but will the Panthers show they’ve added depth to their playbook?
▪ Matt Kalil, left tackle: The Panthers signed Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million contract to play left tackle, recognizing there are facets to Kalil’s game that must improve. Watching him go full-contact against Carolina’s veteran pass-rushers will tell us a lot about how he might fare through the season.
▪ Russell Shepard, receiver: Carolina needed a “spark” in its receivers room, and took steps this offseason to correct that – in part, with the addition of Shepard in free agency. Shepard had an excellent spring and could be poised to take over the slot receiver spot in tandem with rookie receiver/running back Curtis Samuel.
Three reasons to be worried
Cam’s rhythm: “Efficiency” may be the name of the game early in the preseason with Newton. He’ll have to click with his receivers, linemen and running backs while still taking steps to ensure he isn’t rushing back to full speed too quickly.
Depth at safety: Carolina has a strong tandem in its starting safeties, Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams. But behind the two veterans a clear backup will have to make himself known after the Panthers waived Tre Boston this spring.
Matt Kalil’s task: Depth at both left and right tackle remains a concern after the team cut Michael Oher last week. Kalil will not only have to prove more than adequate at protecting Newton’s blind side, he also has to stay healthy.
Three reasons to be excited
A formidable defense: A chatty, angry, ball-hawking defense will carry Carolina through the preseason and perhaps the early part of September as the offense finds its momentum and gets accustomed to all of the new pieces.
The McCaffrey/Samuel tandem: Having both McCaffrey and Samuel on the field in certain packages can provide an attack largely unseen in Carolina – especially last year. The two rookies combine for a fast, shifty, versatile attack that can ease the pressure on both Newton and the offensive line by providing quick-to-mid route options.
Secondary no longer an issue: Last year at this time, Carolina’s two starting corners were untested rookies. But after a 2016 season filled with lessons, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have started to come into their own. Factoring in the veteran playmaking ability of nickel Captain Munnerlyn, Coleman and Adams means this secondary is no longer a concern.