Carolina Panthers

8 training camp practices in, 8 things we’ve learned about the Carolina Panthers

Who knew eight practices could feel so ... thorough?

Because while we’ve only seen the Carolina Panthers take the field a week’s worth of training camp, including at Fan Fest on Friday night in Bank of America Stadium, we already know much more about how this team is coming together.

Of course there’s still much to do — another seven practices, plus the start of the preseason — but here are eight things that have stood out thus far:

1. Cam Newton feels and looks good, even if he’s not 100 percent

The Panthers’ quarterback spoke to local reporters Thursday for the first time in nearly seven months, and he came across as very self-aware. Newton stressed how he’s learning to be more conscious of his health, especially as he continues rehabbing from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January.

“One thing that I wanted to work on that’s simple is just being honest with myself,” Newton said. “Knowing when my body’s talking to me, knowing that it’s OK to sit out a practice.”

Newton said he doesn’t want people to assume, “‘Oh, Cam’s back.’” The 30-year-old reiteratedthat he’s still getting his shoulder to full strength.

That said, there are reasons for optimism among Panthers fans. Newton has completed a number of deep passes, including one to Curtis Samuel in the first practice, that traveled at least 35-40 yards in the air. Quarterbacks coach Scott Turner and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have said Newton has no limitations in practice. So from here, it’s about honing his fundamentals and rebuilding his timing with his pass-catchers.

When Newton dropped another pass of 40+ yards to Samuel at Fan Fest, that only reaffirmed that notion.

2. Reinforcements at safety have a trickle-down effect

Bringing back safety Tre Boston, a member of the Panthers’ 2015 Super Bowl team, says multiple things about Carolina’s current secondary. But more than anything, Boston’s return will have a trickle-down effect on the entire secondary.

Boston will compete to start at free safety next to Eric Reid, and the team wouldn’t sign him at this stage to stash him on the bench. Boston’s eight interceptions over the last two years align with the ball-hawking mentality coach Ron Rivera said he wants at that position. The former UNC star does take gambles in coverage that don’t always work out, but Boston said Thursday he understands when and when not to take risks.

More than anything, his arrival means second-year defensive back Rashaan Gaulden can drop down to the nickel spot. Gaulden was among the competitors to start at free safety. But Rivera said the team likes the physicality he offers at “big nickel” — a position linebacker Shaq Thompson filled last year. Gaulden should now see time at safety, regular nickel, and big nickel, allowing him to showcase the versatility that made him attractive in last year’s NFL Draft.

3. Greg Olsen is healthy, but won’t be asked to carry the load

Olsen said on training camp move-in day that he’s been 100 percent for months, in reference to the foot issues that have prematurely ended his last two seasons. The former Pro-Bowl tight end is now two years removed from his last 1,000-yard season, and at 34, there have been questions about how much he has left.

If Olsen’s one-handed grabs downfield have been any indication so far, he still can be a valuable contributor — just so long as he isn’t expected to do too much. His chemistry with Newton is still there. But with DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel at receiver, Olsen won’t have to force himself into a starring role immediately and push that foot.

4. Disruptive defensive line is one thing, but can it defend the run?

Playing more 3-4 fronts this season, even without completely departing from the team’s old 4-3 scheme, will absolutely get more speed on the field at any given time. Between Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin, Brian Burns and Christian Miller, Marquis Haynes and Efe Obada, there’s plenty of hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers to rotate. That should help the team’s 27th-ranked pass rush from last season, which in turn should leave the secondary less exposed.

But while that injection of speed should be a welcome addition, the switch to the 3-4 also comes with disadvantages; namely, run defense. The team’s streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher came to an end early last season, and that was an issue for the remainder of 2018. Having three down linemen and fewer linebackers on the field may allow for running space on the exterior. Plenty of 3-4 teams defend the run well. But keep an eye on Todd Gurley and the rest of the Rams’ running game when the Panthers open in Week 1.

5. Deepest position on the roster? Has to be ...

Wide receiver. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel are the team’s duo of the future, and Jarius Wright complements them well in the slot. With that trio set for the majority of snaps, the Panthers already are operating with a strong foundation.

But for the remaining receiver spots — the team will keep five or six total — there’s more qualified players than space on the roster. Former New England Patriot Chris Hogan was signed in the offseason as another dependable possession receiver, and his leadership qualities have carried over to his new team. He also seems to be developing a nice rapport with Newton.

Torrey Smith struggled with knee injuries last season, and coupled with Newton’s shoulder issues, Smith’s effectiveness was limited. He’s still working his way back. Then there are plenty of younger guys, like Terry Godwin and Jaydon Mickens, who could earn a spot with their special teams value. That’s leaving out a number of other veterans and up-and-comers, but whoever ends up sticking, Newton won’t lack for pass-catchers.

6. Carolina wanted a promising developmental quarterback. Now they have two.

When the Panthers drafted Charlotte native Will Grier in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft, the team said it wanted a young quarterback to groom behind Newton. The team hadn’t invested a draft selection at the position since Newton almost a decade ago, and with longtime No. 2 Derek Anderson no longer around, there was a clear need. Grier is that player, and while his short-to-intermediate accuracy still is developing, he already has nice touch and a feel for the deep ball.

But so does Kyle Allen.

Between Allen and Grier, the team has two players it feels can grow and mature behind Newton. Unlike in years past, there’s a true backup competition, which should bring the best out of each of them. To date, Grier and Allen have split the second-team reps, rotating on an almost daily basis. Allen has the benefit of a year’s experience in Norv Turner’s offense, but Grier has draft pedigree on his side. This might be the final battle decided.

7. Nickel cornerback will continue to be a rotation.

While the Tre Boston signing helps solidify things at safety, the nickel cornerback competition is alive and well.

Corn Elder and Cole Luke have been the main two taking reps at that position, and Elder has obviously improved since his disappointing 2018 season. Luke projects as more of a depth figure, but given how often the team goes to its nickel package, having more than one option is crucial.

One thing to watch in the coming weeks: How much time Ross Cockrell and Rashaan Gaulden get at nickel. Both had been taking first-team reps at free safety until Boston arrived, and now the pecking order adjusts. Gaulden has been out recently with back soreness/tightness, but as noted earlier, the team likes likes how he fits its “big nickel” package. Cockrell has played both nickel and outside corner in the past, in addition to his time at safety. Where he slots now will be worth tracking.

8. Less talk and more focus — from everyone — sends a message.

Offensive coordinator Turner said Monday that Newton is quieter this year than in the past. When Boston spoke to reporters Thursday, he echoed that sentiment, and said there is a better overall sense of focus at camp this time around.

So what to make of that? After last year’s seven-game losing streak, perhaps this is a group that realizes now how quickly things can go sideways in the NFL. And given the tenuous nature of so many on this team, from Newton’s shoulder to a number of key players with expiring contracts, there’s no wasting 2019 as well.

Owner David Tepper has made it clear that winning is his only priority, even joking Friday that he’s already booked his hotel room in Miami for this season’s Super Bowl.

That’s ambitious goal, but if the Panthers aren’t at least tracking in that direction, Tepper won’t hesitate to make changes.

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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