What to look forward to during Panthers Organized Team Activities
The Carolina Panthers will begin organized team activities this week, thus fully jumping into the “beginning of the beginning” of the NFL preseason.
For the Panthers, OTAs — which are voluntary — will run from May 21-23, May 28-30 and June 3-6, with a mandatory minicamp June 11-13.
There will be plenty of storylines to monitor throughout that time, before players break in July and prepare for training camp — and the real grind that is the NFL season.
Here’s what Panthers fans need to keep their eyes on through the spring and early summer workouts:
Cam Newton’s shoulder
It’s unlikely that the Panthers staff will rush Newton to throw during OTAs, especially with a previously estimated timeline of having him throw by training camp in late July.
But getting a better sense of where Newton’s range of motion is during this time — like during rehabilitation exercises and weight room workouts — will be important.
And meanwhile, quarterbacks Will Grier, the Panthers’ third-round pick this spring, Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke will all compete for the backup job. Heinicke will be throwing during OTAs after recovering from offseason surgery to repair torn triceps, a league source told the Observer on Friday.
The Panthers could keep three quarterbacks when they ultimately cut the roster to 53 players, but only if they have lingering concern about Newton’s shoulder.
Realistically, they will keep just two quarterbacks — Newton and a backup — on the roster and try to stash a third on the practice squad in order to free up a spot for a player at another position of need.
Two looming contracts
The Panthers picked up the fifth-year option of linebacker Shaq Thompson last year, a smart move considering how substantially his role will expand this season without veteran outside linebacker Thomas Davis on the team.
But it’s a big year for Thompson regardless, as the team must determine whether to extend him long term. Thompson certainly fits into the Panthers’ plans on defense as they become more multiple, but because he has been in a more limited role in his first four seasons in Carolina — and not by his own fault — the clock on consideration for any long-term deal starts during OTAs.
Cornerback James Bradberry also is up for a long-term deal this spring. Bradberry has started at the No. 1 cornerback position for the Panthers since 2016.
There are instances in which long-term deals with players are locked up well before the spring, so Bradberry securing something with Carolina could very well happen prior to training camp. If the Panthers decide to sign Bradberry long term, they will be paying for consistency — he has been an anchor through much transition in their secondary for the past four seasons, and fared well in a “gauntlet” year last season against some of the league’s top receivers.
Make or break time for one defensive tackle
The Panthers decided not to pick up defensive tackle — and 2016 first-round draft pick — Vernon Butler’s fifth-year option this spring, so the 2019 season becomes crucial for him as a “prove it” year of sorts.
Butler has played an extremely limited role — just 33 percent of defensive snaps in 2018, with six tackles and a half sack — despite his first-round pick status, but there might be way for him to shine in more three-man fronts this fall.
Who lines up where on the offensive line?
The Panthers expect rookie left tackle Greg Little, a second-round pick, to step up into the starting role in 2019, will return All-Pro right guard Trai Turner and have a new long-term center in free-agent signee Matt Paradis.
But at left guard and right tackle, there are questions. The Panthers re-signed right tackle Daryl Williams during free agency and will return Taylor Moton, who played well at right tackle in 2018. Moton could be an absolute mauler at guard, but alongside Turner could build a formidable wall of protection for Newton at right tackle.
Williams is more comfortable at right tackle, but the team will explore moving him inside at left guard because Moton played so well at right tackle last season. Meanwhile, Greg Van Roten, who played every offensive snap at left guard in 2018, won’t give up his job without a fight.
There might even be some internal debate about where Williams and Moton line up in the fall, to be sorted out through training camp in order to play each in his best role in 2019.
What is the Panthers’ ‘base’ defense, anyway?
Yes, the Panthers will utilize more three-man fronts in 2019. But you won’t exactly hear the coaching call a 3-4 their “base” defense, simply because they’re in nickel so much.
That will mean three- and four-man fronts, with a lot of nickel when there are four down linemen (meaning four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs).
Oh, that also means that somebody will have to step up at nickel — the Panthers are currently without a starter there, though cornerbacks Corn Elder and Kevon Seymour, and safety Rashaan Gaulden, will all compete for the job.
Gaulden, by the way, has one of the most important jobs this spring: claiming the starting free safety job as his own.
Gaulden is a versatile defensive back who can also play nickel, and spent a chunk of last season re-learning a more traditional safety role, according to head coach Ron Rivera.
The former third-round pick out of Tennessee will have to show coaches what he’s capable of as he enters his second season.
Oddly, Carolina doesn’t have a ton of depth at safety behind starter Eric Reid and Gaulden. They just waived veteran Da’Norris Searcy, so as things currently stand, reserves include special teams captain Colin Jones and former practice squad player Damian Parms.
And while the roster currently stands at 90 players after Friday’s signing of receiver Aldrick Robinson to a one-year deal, that doesn’t mean the Panthers won’t move things around ahead of training camp.
General manager Marty Hurney will have $7.5 million more in his pocket on June 2, after cutting former left tackle Matt Kalil this spring, and there are several talented safeties still on the market — including former Panther Tre Boston.
It’s definitely not out of the question for Hurney to slide in a late-summer safety signing ahead of training camp.