The Carolina Panthers wrapped their 2017 training camp at Wofford on Sunday after 16 practices spread over about three weeks.
And although head coach Ron Rivera declined to name a camp Most Valuable Player, we at the Observer unanimously agree that the award should go to second-year cornerback James Bradberry after he showed plenty of ball-hawking confidence and came down with several huge plays.
Here is what we learned:
▪ Nobody seems unduly worried about quarterback Cam Newton’s shoulder.
After the first night of full activity in front of an excited Gibbs Stadium crowd, Newton had a 12-day span during which he did not throw the ball at all, albeit very slowly to trainers.
But his “pitch-count” increased during the final two practices as Newton began to throw to receivers during individual drills and in team drills. Head coach Ron Rivera said Newton was progressing as planned and that there was no reason to panic.
▪ The team missed receiver Curtis Samuel. Samuel was supposed to add an immediate layer of depth to an offense that is trying to be more explosive and efficient. But the second-round pick missed the entirety of camp with a hamstring injury.
Presumably, Carolina used veteran scatback Fozzy Whittaker as the “Samuel” in certain two-back sets run very sparingly in camp, at times sending Whittaker or rookie running back Christian McCaffrey in motion and once allowing McCaffrey to take the direct snap and try to hand off to Whittaker (it was botched).
▪ Though the Panthers installed the bulk of the offense, we didn’t see all of it. Carolina is excited about its new toys in McCaffrey, Samuel and incoming free agent receiver Russell Shepard. But with thousands of eyes watching (and cameras on), there was no way Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula showed their complete hand.
▪ McCaffrey is the real deal. Not only did he juke out star linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson early in camp, he also put Kuechly in a blender on a now-viral set of cuts and had teammates fawning over him in press conferences. McCaffrey followed this up with a strong preseason debut, during which he both lined up as a pass-catcher and ran between the tackles. It was revealed that McCaffrey is the rare running back with a full receiver route tree, but teammates said the double-workload didn’t seem to be more than he could handle as a rookie.
▪ A fairly quiet start camp for lead wideout Kelvin Benjamin intensified after his touchdown catch in Carolina’s first preseason game. Benjamin showed up to camp looking leaner, and it was revealed that he was mourning the loss of his mother.
▪ Part of the heated competition at receiver began to get clearer after the preseason game. Damiere Byrd’s 98-yard, two-touchdown performance has all but sealed his spot on the 53-man roster as a much-needed dose of burner speed and slot capability. That means there is one spot left among receivers Mose Frazier, Brenton Bersin, Trevor Graham, Keyarris Garrett, Kaelin Clay and Austin Duke, if the Panthers are keepting six receivers.
▪ Devin Funchess is hoping for an expanded role after all but disappearing last season, and had an excellent camp with consistent big plays.
▪ Carolina’s new left tackle, Matt Kalil, is ready to be the player worth the $55.5 million contract the team gave him in free agency. Kalil looked good against a prodigious Texans line. His brother, veteran center Ryan, is slated to be ready for full activity by the first week of the season after offseason shoulder surgery.
▪ The starting right tackle spot is still Daryl Williams’ to lose, although rookie Taylor Moton had an impressive camp after getting thrown in at right tackle, right guard and had to learn the left tackle spot. The Panthers used Moton as depth at left tackle after an undisclosed injury sidelined backup Amini Silatolu the last two days of camp.
▪ Shepard’s personality seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered for the receivers room, which badly needed a fire lit under it after a stagnant 2016 season.
▪ Newton will still run the ball, but the point of adding playmakers to the offense is to take some of the pressure off of him to feel he has to do so. The quarterback wants to make more judicious decisions with his legs, but he will still be the weapon the Panthers have used him as since he entered the league.
▪ Bradberry didn't have any three-interception days like Josh Norman famously did several years ago. But he was consistently good throughout camp, breaking on passes, picking them off and generally staying glued to receivers. Expect big things from the new No. 24.
▪ And it's not like Daryl Worley was a slouch. The other second-year corner held his own, which Rivera made sure to point out anytime he was asked about Bradberry.
▪ It's still hard to think the Panthers will go to San Francisco without adding a veteran safety. Letting Tre Boston go seemed OK at the time ... until Dean Marlowe popped his hamstring in Wofford. Colin Jones is a roster lock because of his experience and special teams skills. The other spot is Dezmen Southward's to lose.
▪ Julius Peppers is still a beast. And the Panthers aren't going to take any chances with the future Hall-of-Famer. Peppers, who's been bothered by a hip injury, didn't do much at Wofford – including talk to the media.
▪ Luke Kuechly said during the spring he wasn't going to change the way he plays after being sidelined by concussions the past two seasons. He wasn't lying.
▪ Rookie nickel Corn Elder, the fifth-round pick from Miami, missed some valuable time after being sidelined with a knee injury. Cole Luke, an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, played pretty well in his absence.
▪ Former Clemson LB Ben Boulware was a media darling during camp. And it's hard not to love Boulware's enthusiasm (and beard). But he's probably more of a candidate for the practice squad at this point, barring a more active role on special teams.
▪ Besides beards, another popular topic at Wofford involved the fastest player on the team. Considering corner/punt-team gunner Teddy Williams once briefly owned the Fastest Man in the World title, we're sticking with him.
▪ Another tough injury break for defensive tackle Vernon Butler. And while it could have been worse for last year's first-round pick, we're reminded about Rivera's belief that it's often tougher for big guys to heal. Related: Butler's nickname is Big Vern.
▪ Yes, Graham Gano doinked another 50-yard field goal off an upright and rookie kicker Harrison Butker made a 51-yarder against the Texans. But Gano had the stronger leg throughout camp. It feels like this competition might already be settled, unless Gano misses a couple more kicks in exhibition games.
▪ Interestingly, Rivera said the real competition is at punter, where Andy Lee showed some rust after coming back from last season's hamstring injury. Lee remains the favorite, although the left-footed Michael Palardy isn't out of it.