The Carolina Panthers have been building.
Take that literally. In the past six months, they’ve erected a new practice bubble which will eventually give way to a multipurpose complex in Rock Hill. But there’s also roster building, with new free agents and draft picks meant to reconstruct a team crippled by injuries and a seven-game losing streak a year ago into an NFL contender.
The next step in that process comes this week in Spartanburg.
The Panthers move into their dorms at Wofford College on Wednesday, and over the next three weeks, they’ll build the foundation of this 2019 team. Many aspects of that foundation will endure for years to come, but the present is paramount. And if there’s anyone worth tracking throughout training camp, it’s these 10 building blocks — the people who will form the foundation for the Carolina Panthers, present and future:
Regardless your opinion of Newton, there’s no denying the Panthers only go as far as he takes him. Arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January somewhat stunted his offseason. But since June, it’s basically been business as usual.
Last month, Newton threw some at minicamp, but the more encouraging sign was how normal he looked at his annual summer gathering with the team’s pass-catchers. Now we get the chance to see if his shoulder is fully back, as the team has maintained all offseason. If so, there’s reason for optimism based on last year’s 6-2 start. But as the subsequent losing streak proved, this isn’t a playoff team without a healthy No. 1 behind center.
In such a team-oriented sport, it feels sort of wrong to say the Panthers’ season and future hinges on Newton’s shoulder. But that’s how important he is.
Turner, Carolina’s quarterbacks coach, will be a bug in Newton’s ear throughout training camp. Scott’s dad, Norv, may be the puppetmaster pulling all the strings on offense, but Scott will the one working through drills and mechanics with Newton.
Even last year, Turner was working with Newton on compacting his throwing motion to ease some unnecessary stress. How that process continues — or changes — now becomes even more crucial.
Noticing a theme yet? Newton’s talent and improvisational ability are the reasons Carolina’s offense can be so dynamic, but he’s only as good as the players protecting him.
While Newton is the man everyone is watching, hopefully Little is the one nobody notices. The Panthers’ front office traded up in the second round of this year’s NFL Draft to snag the athletic Ole Miss product, but he still needs to hone his physical tools. And given Newton’s shoulder, the team can’t afford Little to have a steep learning curve.
Gone are Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Captain Munnerlyn, Ryan Kalil ... but not Olsen. The Pro Bowl tight end is more than just the final remaining member of last year’s old guard — he’s also looking to prove he still belongs.
There were rumblings Olsen would retire this offseason for a cushy broadcasting job. But those rumors ignored Olsen’s competitive fire. After back-to-back, season-ending injuries, 2019 will be an opportunity for the 34-year-old to show he still can play at an Olsen-like level.
Tepper is more than just a $12 billion earth-mover, although he has already rolled through the region and made his impact felt. Continued development in Charlotte, Rock Hill and other parts of the Carolinas will be a cornerstone of his ownership, and both communities should be better for it. As the team enters its last contractual training camp in Spartanburg, it’ll be interesting to see what his presence is like the next few weeks.
But for all the credit Tepper deserves for his visionary plans, he probably doesn’t get nearly enough recognition for re-shaping the organization’s culture. Under Tepper, the Panthers have made significant strides to become a more inclusive, nurturing and transparent franchise — that impact shouldn’t be understated.
When Tepper hired Glick as team president in December, it was clear the former soccer executive would play a huge role in how the Panthers grew regionally and even nationally.
Now as the point man for Tepper’s MLS expansion bid, Glick’s real impact is becoming clear. He’ll be a pivotal part of the team’s continued efforts to land a soccer team at Bank of America Stadium, and if Tepper trusts him with such a large undertaking, there’s no telling what else — from training camp sites to development in uptown — he’ll be part of.
There was perhaps no better signal of the culture Tepper is building than when the team signed Reid after Week 2 last season.
Both as a close friend of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and outspoken civil rights activist in his own right, Reid was the type of player that previous Panthers ownership never would have even considered. But Tepper, general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera did, and Reid rewarded them by stepping in as a defensive enforcer from Day 1.
Reid and receiver Torrey Smith are two of the most articulate, intelligent players in Carolina’s locker room, and they both will be key figures as the NFL ushers in a new era of players rights. Reid is a darn good football player, too, and he’ll also set the tone for a Panthers secondary that is still growing into itself.
Matsko, Carolina’s run-game coordinator, will have perhaps the toughest training camp job of anyone in the Panthers’ organization: figuring out what to do along the offensive line.
There’s definitely talent. Guard Trai Turner is a consistent Pro-Bowler, and Daryl Williams is a former All-Pro. Free agent signee Matt Paradis grades out as one of the best centers in the league when healthy, and Little was a top draft choice. That’s all without mentioning tackle Taylor Moton, who was the team’s most consistent — and arguably best — offensive lineman in 2018.
It’s up to Matsko to work those individuals into one cohesive unit. He was up to the task last season, but the injury concerns here aren’t unfounded.
It feels like ages ago that Rivera’s job was in question, but those are the perils of a seven-game losing streak. Rivera is among the NFL’s longest-tenured coaches for a reason, though, and he has tremendous backing in the locker room and in the community.
That respect goes a long ways in such a competitive league, but only so long as winning comes with it. Tepper said when he first arrived to Charlotte that winning is his only priority. Rivera is capable of that, but his team must produce to prevent Tepper from bringing in his own guy.
As the Panthers transition from being a 10-day-a-year business to a 365-day operation, the fan’s voice is louder than ever. Tepper wants to know what you like, what you don’t like, what you want and what you don’t — hence why the team sent out a fan survey this offseason.
And more than just Tepper, the entire organization is reaching out to loyal fans to steer the next phase of the Carolina Panthers. What development makes the most sense? What gameday experiences do you value most? Will you come see concerts at Bank of America Stadium, or an MLS team or zany acts from all over the world?
The Panthers’ footprint around Charlotte is already massive, and construction continues daily. But there’s no building in a vacuum.
It’s all built with fans in mind.