Carolina Panthers rookie minicamp began on Friday morning in Charlotte, and head coach Ron Rivera was sure to remind everybody what that meant — if Mother Nature hadn’t already.
“It’s a Friday, so we’re going to get rained on during practice,” Rivera said dryly, as the first of the day’s two sessions ended as soggily as many of the Panthers’ practices did in 2018.
Panthers coaches got a good look at the construction in progress of a new climate-controlled practice bubble from the adjacent field on Friday morning, as the rain soaked them to the skin. The bubble is expected to be ready by the start of the preseason.
“I’m looking forward to having it,” Rivera said. “I appreciate the efforts that (first-year owner David) Tepper is making to get us a bubble in place and get us ready to go.”
With franchise quarterback Cam Newton’s “Kickin’ it with Cam” charity kickball tournament being held at Bank of America Stadium and two of the team’s three practice fields under construction, the Panthers elected to restructure their rookie minicamp to feature more classroom sessions in meeting rooms within the stadium.
Good thinking, especially considering the weather.
It did make for quite a first day for the Panthers’ rookies — a day in which they both literally and figuratively got their feet wet.
But for on-field time, the 33 newcomers — including all seven draft picks, four undrafted free agents, four of eight Alliance of American Football signings and rostered Panthers with rookie camp availability — ran through half-speed drills without helmets or pads for about 45 minutes as the rain poured down.
Quarterbacks Kyle Allen, who was on last year’s roster and made his first NFL start in a Week 17 win at New Orleans, and third-round draft pick Will Grier threw short and intermediate passes with receivers, with all doing what they could despite slippery conditions.
Defensively, the Panthers showed a glimpse of how they will use the more versatile players on the roster, including first-round pick Brian Burns and fourth-round pick Christian Miller, both defensive ends and outside linebackers.
Both Burns and Miller were featured as standup outside rushers with three down interior linemen as the Panthers worked through a series of gap drills using large overturned trash cans to display the gaps.
“We’re moving around,” Rivera said. “This is just a little snapshot of what we’re looking at. We’ll get an even better feel as we get through the rest of OTAs and minicamp.”
He wasn’t kidding. At the second (much sunnier) session, Burns and Miller were also featured as defensive ends in a four-man front through the same gap drills.
That’s nothing too out of the ordinary for either player, as both played a variety of positions while in college.
“Extremely comfortable,” Miller said. “I did it a lot (at Alabama) and it feels very familiar. I’m definitely very used to it, and I feel very comfortable doing it.”
While the Panthers won’t overtly say they’re switching their base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, they’d like to be extremely fluid between the two depending on the situation. Burns in particular is expected to switch between the two fairly seamlessly.
“It’ll be situational,” Rivera said. “When you’ve got guys with different skill sets like that, it gives you the the opportunity to move guys around and use the pieces a little bit differently. And that’s exactly what we intend to do. You want to keep the offenses off-balance as much as they’re keeping defenses off-balance as well.”
Rivera said he was pleased that Burns and Miller, alongside second-round pick left tackle Greg Little, showed up to minicamp looking the part.
“They look like football players, so that’s probably the best thing to begin with,” Rivera said.
Burns put on 21 pounds between college and last month’s draft. While there is no contact allowed at rookie minicamp, Burns ran through plenty of drills that showcased he has not missed a step of the speed that attracted the Panthers to him during the predraft process.
“I don’t feel like I lost a notch of speed at all,” he said. “I actually feel the power that I put on, I felt it come to fruition.”
But the most important part of rookie minicamp is retention of information, and the young players were tested immediately on Friday.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time in the classroom, a little bit more than we have in the past,” Rivera said. “We’re going to do a lot of position-specific work and then some group work. ... It will be about retention. I told those guys, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lunch break and a little bit of time before meetings, so I’d get back in the (play)books. We’re really trying to see what these guys are absorbing ... And (whether) they can regurgitate back to us.”