Wofford College dorm rooms, a long drive down gnarled I-85, the sweltering Spartanburg sun out in full force — it can all only mean one thing:
Carolina Panthers training camp is back.
As players move in to their summer housing Wednesday and take the field for the first time Thursday, fans will get their first glimpse in more than a month of what this roster looks like. There are still key battles to be sorted out along the offensive line and in the secondary, as well as at backup quarterback and linebacker. Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney won’t make those decisions strictly off training camp practices, but the groundwork players lay now will carry them through the end of the preseason and into regular-season action.
With that said, the Observer took an initial stab — before anything actually transpires in Spartanburg — at projecting the Panthers’ 53-man roster. This is all subject to change as injuries crop up and players prove their worth, but for now, here is where Carolina stands:
Cam Newton, Will Grier, Kyle Allen
The big question is whether the Panthers opt to keep one or two quarterbacks behind Newton. Considering Newton is still recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January, it probably makes more sense to keep an extra body behind him. The team invested a third-round pick in Grier this spring, and they’d like him to emerge as Newton’s backup of the future. In the battle for the third spot, Allen gets the edge over Taylor Heinicke based on both his higher ceiling and the way he performed as the fill-in starter in Week 17 last year.
Running back (3)
Christian McCaffrey, Cameron Artis-Payne, Jordan Scarlett
Rivera said heading into the offseason that finding a complement to McCaffrey in the backfield was a priority, and the team certainly has options. Artis-Payne hasn’t received enough touches through his first four seasons to truly be called a known quantity, and he should finally receive an opportunity to spell McCaffrey. But behind those two is a much more interesting battle, where Scarlett, undrafted rookie Elijah Holyfield and former UNC star Elijah Hood will all compete for the third spot. Scarlett’s blend of size and speed, coupled with the fact that he’s not a complete liability in the passing game, gives him a slight edge over the others, but that’s privy to change during the preseason.
Wide receiver (6)
DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith, Chris Hogan, Rashad Ross
Moore and Samuel are interchangeable as starters, and Wright was quietly one of the more underrated players on this roster last season. Injuries and Newton’s sagging deep ball limited Smith’s effectiveness last season, but he can still take the top off a defense and provides valuable leadership in the locker room. Hogan is another veteran possession receiver who can play outside or in the slot, and he could be a fill-in in the return game. Ross will have to earn the final receiver spot over seventh-rounder Terry Godwin and Andre Levrone, but his value as a kickoff returner gives him the early advantage.
Tight end (4*)
Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz, Alex Armah*
Expect Thomas to play much more alongside Olsen this year in two-tight end sets, especially with Olsen coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries — Thomas showed late last year that he has breakout potential. Manhertz is a dependable blocking tight end despite his limited impact in the passing game. Armah practices with the tight ends and is grouped as such, but his role as a fullback in Norv Turner’s offense can’t be understated. He’ll help pave the way for McCaffrey, and it’ll be interesting to see if he parlays route-running work this spring into an advanced pass-catching role.
Offensive line (9)
Taylor Moton, Trai Turner, Matt Paradis, Daryl Williams, Greg Little, Greg Van Roten, Tyler Larsen, Dennis Daley, Taylor Hearn
With all the injury concerns among this group, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team ultimately decides to keep a 10th lineman. Turner returns at left guard, but he may be the only player from last year’s starting group in the same role. Carolina would love for Little to emerge at left tackle after trading up for him in the NFL Draft, but he has a way to go, technique-wise, if he’s the Day 1 starter — especially considering Newton’s shoulder concerns. If he’s not ready, Moton could easily slide to left tackle and have Williams try to re-claim his old right tackle position. That would leave Greg Van Roten at left guard again, with Larsen and Hearn as interior backups. Hurney likes Daley’s physical potential, and the team can help mold him into a depth tackle ... hopefully without having to rush him into action.
Defensive end/EDGE rusher (7)
Mario Addison, Brian Burns, Bruce Irvin, Christian Miller, Marquis Haynes, Efe Obada, Bryan Cox Jr.
As the team transitions to more 3-4 concepts, arguably no position will be greater affected than along the defensive front. Addison, Burns, Irvin and Miller will alternate between rushing with their hands on the ground and from a stand-up position, with situational advantages to one or the other. Haynes could be the biggest beneficiary of the scheme change, because while his sleight frame limited his upside playing traditional defensive end, his speed will be an asset on the edge. Cox’s versatility is one of his greatest assets, as he can play 3-technique and 5-technique along the line.
Defensive tackle (5)
Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy, Kawann Short, Kyle Love, Vernon Butler
McCoy and Short will see the most usage from this group, given how they can fit in the 3-4 and 4-3. The real treat for football geeks will be when those two and Poe line up as three down linemen, which theoretically makes for one of the stoutest fronts in the NFL. Getting Love back this year was an important offseason signing; he was one of the more underrated players on this team in 2018. He’ll ensure there’s little drop-off between the first and second units.
Luke Kuechly, Shaq Thompson, Jared Norris, Jermaine Carter Jr., Andre Smith
How Kuechly, the model 4-3 inside linebacker, adjusts to the 3-4 will be a key point of observation at training camp, although it’s safe to bank on someone as savvy as he is figuring it out. Thompson will see his most expansive role yet with the team, and while his athleticism will come in handy on disguised blitzes, he needs to improve in coverage. Norris has been a special teams stalwart in recent years and will again provide depth at backer. Carter and Smith have a year’s experience under their belt, but they’ll still have to contribute on special teams to earn their spots over undrafted rookie Jordan Kunaszyk.
Defensive back (8)
James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Eric Reid, Rashaan Gaulden, Corn Elder, Kevon Seymour, Colin Jones, Ross Cockrell
Three quarters of last year’s starting secondary returns, but there’s still room for growth at cornerback. Bradberry has been working on his ball skills as he enters a contract year, and Jackson has to refine his technique to avoid giving up the big plays he was prone to in 2018. Reid will be an enforcer who plays in the box, but he also has to prove he can still drop back in coverage when necessary. Rivera said this spring that the team is giving Gaulden every opportunity to earn the vacant starting safety spot, but he too must prove his consistency to stave off an outside free agent signing. Gaulden also could be an option at nickel given Elder’s struggles in limited time last year. Jones is a special teams captain and Seymour offers depth outside, leaving Cockrell, Javien Elliott and Cole Luke to compete for one final spot. Despite his injury in camp last season, Cockrell’s proven track record and ability to play nickel and outside puts him over the top.
Graham Gano, Michael Palardy, JJ Jansen
No surprises here. Jansen is among the league’s more reliable long snappers, and punter Palardy has improved yearly. Gano had his standout 63-yard game-winning field goal against the Giants last year, and while he shouldn’t see much competition, he’ll need to show he’s fully recovered from last year’s leg injury.