Carolina Panthers

Panthers mailbag: Cam Newton’s deep passing, safety depth, final wide receiver spot

Y’all, it is so good to have actual football to write about again.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the offseason speculation as much as anyone, but I also love pads, hitting, and the thud of a ball finding a receiver’s hands.

I’m also growing to love these mailbags. It’s clear that Panthers fans have a deep understanding of their team and how it’s assembled. The first week of training camp is sort of like taking a fire hose worth of information to the face, but in a good way.

Anyway, onto your questions, which of course begin with the man everyone has been watching the last week in Spartanburg:

1. Why was Cam Newton throwing deep balls on the first day of training camp, and how is this year’s rehab different than last year?

Great questions, and two that definitely warrant some explanation.

Ever since Newton’s arthroscopic shoulder procedure in January — which was more “cleanout” in nature than to repair any particular injury — the team has maintained that he would be ready to participate by training camp. And on move-in day at Wofford College last Wednesday, coach Ron Rivera re-iterated that Newton would be “ready to roll,” albeit on a pitch count. What exactly that meant was still to be determined, though.

Then Newton came out firing in the team’s first practice, completing two deep passes that traveled at least 35 yards in the air — much further than anything he was capable of by late 2018. Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner said afterward that Newton had “no limitations” in practice, and that so long as someone was open, he had the clearance to throw to anyone. Turner also said that Newton would continue to have rest days throughout camp while the team worked to have his shoulder back to full strength.

So, what to make of all this?

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It’s twofold really. First, Newton will stay with the team’s plan throughout camp while he rehabs. Turner has incorporated new stretches to activate the quarterback’s upper body, loosen his muscles and lessen tension on the shoulder. He also continues working with Newton on the fundamentals of his motion, including maintaining a strong base and keeping a compact, singular move on each throw.

Now, neither Newton nor the Panthers nor anyone else in the world knows how the former MVP’s shoulder will hold up during the season. So what the Panthers can do now — and the reason Newton was out there slinging it deep on Day 1 — is teach him the best habits to support his shoulder. They’ve also surrounded him with an array of talented weapons while improving his protection up front. All of that’s no coincidence. It’s about putting him in the best position to succeed, regardless of whether the shoulder holds up or not.

Because again, there’s no way to know.

2. What are the odds Christian McCaffrey gets 2,000 all-purpose yards this season?

If what offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Monday is any indication, then pretty high.

Turner said the team won’t look to minimize McCaffrey’s workload this season because of how dynamic he is, even if they’d like to get another back on the field. Basically, you can’t have enough dangerous backs in this league, and of course the Panthers are hoping either Cameron Artis-Payne, Jordan Scarlett, or Elijah Holyfield can become that player.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey has a shot to become the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Jeff Siner

Regardless, McCaffrey will be on the field for the majority of the Panthers’ offensive snaps. As Rivera reminded us this weekend, the reason the Panthers selected McCaffrey eighth overall in the 2017 draft was to give Newton a do-everything outlet. McCaffrey proved last season he could be that type of workhorse, and as Newton continues rehabbing, utilizing the third-year runner will be even more inmportant. .

Also, don’t forget he had 1,965 total yards last season — and that he only played 10 offensive snaps in Week 17.

Barring injury, I’d say there’s at least a 90 percent chance he gets 2,000 all-purpose yards — the real question is, can he do 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving?

3. How is the competition shaking out for wide receiver? You could make a good case for about eight people.

With 53-man roster limits, it’s hard to make the case for keeping more than six receivers. As much as the Panthers want to surround Newton with weapons, they won’t sacrifice a third quarterback spot or a depth offensive lineman.

Curtis Samuel, DJ Moore, and Jarius Wright are all essentially locks, leaving three spots for the taking. And there are a lot of players — Torrey Smith, Chris Hogan, Terry Godwin, Andre Levrone, Rashad Ross, and Jaydon Mickens — competing for them.

Rivera already has praised Hogan’s locker room presence, and his ability to play both outside and in the slot helps his case. I think he’s probably safe. Same for Torrey Smith, who struggled with injuries last season and couldn’t fully thrive as a deep threat with Newton’s shoulder limitations. Smith is as articulate and well-liked a guy as you’ll find in that locker room, and after starting camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, I’m looking forward to seeing him operate the next month.

Which leaves one final spot, and a bunch of different playing styles to pick from. Godwin’s hands have impressed since rookie minicamp, and Newton has specifically offered his former 7-on-7 player extra sideline coaching. Levrone, from #FlexFriday fame, is physically imposing, but has to prove his hands are consistent. Ross and the recently signed Mickens are both lightning fast and among the favorites to start at returner, which gives them an extra purpose.

In the end, I think this comes down to Mickens and Godwin. Mickens’ return experience would be really valuable to have around, but Godwin has tremendous hands, a relationship with Newton, and is getting a shot in the return game, too. I’ll give Godwin the slight edge for now, but really any of those final four has a case for making the cut.

4. Who has stood out for safety depth behind Eric Reid and Rashaan Gaulden?

First things first, it’s still not a given that Gaulden starts at free safety, although Rivera has said multiple times this summer the team is giving him every opportunity to do so. Gaulden has taken the majority of the first-team reps through five training camp practices, but more clarity will come once the team gets into the preseason next week.

A number of players have rotated in behind those two. Colin Jones has taken the bulk of second-team strong safety reps behind Reid, but he’s potentially even more valuable on special teams. As for depth/competition behind Gaulden, former Charlotte Latin and Duke star Ross Cockrell saw a surprising amount of action on Monday — at times with the first team. After practice, Rivera cited Cockrell’s ability to break on the ball and make plays in the air.

Cole Luke is another depth option (and he can also play some nickel), but this is definitely an area the team will continue to monitor. Worst case scenario, if Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney aren’t satisfied with what they see during the preseason, there’s still time to sign a late free agent for depth.

5. Who are the emerging leaders to replace guys like Ryan Kalil, Julius Peppers, and Thomas Davis? I’m curious how young veterans like Trai Turner and Kawann Short interact with “new” but established players like Matt Paradis and Gerald McCoy.

I love this question. You saw in Amazon’s “All or Nothing” how the 2018 team rallied around those older veterans, and subsequently how disappointed they were not to send them out on a better note.

That goes to show you not just that those players were loved by their teammates, but how impactful their leadership was. And now, there’s a void to be filled.

On offense, Newton and Greg Olsen provide a solid jumping off point, and Newton especially came across as a top-notch leader in “All or Nothing.” Turner certainly is a name that comes to mind, especially given his standing as the rock of the offensive line, but I wouldn’t discount McCaffrey here either. His play speaks for itself.

Gerald McCoy with the fans
New Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has routinely climbed outside the white fence that separates players and fans to sign autographs during the early part of training camp, making himself a fan favorite. Jeff Siner

Defensively, Luke Kuechly is still the guy. Around him, I’d expect Short and McCoy to both step up — even in his short time in Carolina, McCoy is working overtime to make his presence known. A surprise name to consider here: safety Eric Reid. He’s beloved in that locker room, incredibly passionate, and clearly isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Davis was similar in those respects, and even though he’s only been around one season, Reid’s standing jumps out.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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