Carolina Panthers

What we learned from Panthers’ camp: Curtis Samuel’s growth and the biggest surprise

Training camp, we hate to see you go.

The heat? Not so much.

Over the past three weeks at Wofford College in Spartanburg, we’ve learned the value of sweat equity as it pertains to this year’s Carolina Panthers. There’s no better example of that than quarterback Cam Newton, who has continued rehabbing from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in January. Newton admittedly said he’s still a “work in progress,” but he’s also much further along than he was the last time he took the field in December.

But Newton isn’t the only player we learned about the last three weeks. We’ve seen certain players shine, others underwhelm, and the large majority somewhere in the middle.

Now the next step for everyone is finishing the preseason, starting with Friday’s home opener against the Buffalo Bills. After two days of joint practices, coach Ron Rivera said he’s excited to see how that work carries over to live action. The staff hasn’t finalized how many reps players will play Friday, he seemed to indicate that starters — potentially even Newton and Luke Kuechly — would get at least a few snaps.

“For the most part, we’ve been giving them gameplan material for the game, just so they’re familiar with it,” Rivera said. “(Thursday) we’ll finish it up with the number of reps we’re going to play everybody and go from there.

“The anticipation is to give everybody a shot to get out there on the football field and work, including all those guys.”

For all Rivera did say after camp broke Wednesday, he stuck to what he’s done in years past and didn’t offer any training camp superlatives — but that’s what we’re here for as we review 15 days of practice in South Carolina.

Offensive MVP

Any credibility we have would be lost if we didn’t pick third-year receiver Curtis Samuel. Rivera said he’s “light years ahead” of where he was in years past, and it has shown on the field practically every day. From the moment he snagged his long touchdown grab from Cam Newton on the first night, Samuel has been practically impossible to cover. He makes one or two plays every day that bring a wow-factor and it’s a safe bet the same continues once the regular season gets underway.

Defensive MVP

A number of guys stood out the past three weeks, but new defensive lineman Gerald McCoy takes these honors. First, if the last three weeks mean anything, the man still has plenty left in the tank. There were days he was simply unblockable; grown men aren’t supposed to be able to throw other grown men as easily as he does. But more than that, he’s already inserted himself into the fabric of the team, which is impressive for a longtime rival.

Biggest surprise

Again, an easy one: the return of Newton’s deep ball. Specifically, think back to the first practice of camp at Gibbs Stadium when Newton connected on two passes — one a touchdown to Samuel — that traveled at least 35-40 yards in the air. As recently as Dec. 2018, Newton could barely toss a ball 10 yards without visible pain. That’s what made Newton’s quick turnaround so surprising. The deep ball is one of his strengths, and it’s been largely absent from this offense the past two seasons — there’s no way correcting that won’t pay dividends.

Most tense moment

Luckily for Panthers fans, there have been fewer of these in 2019 than a year ago, when Ross Cockrell and Daryl Williams suffered gruesome injuries. The most worrisome moment came when Luke Kuechly got tangled up in a team drill and subsequently missed a handful of practices. With Kuechly’s history of head injuries, that naturally was everyone’s first fear, but Kuechly returned to practice a few days later and hasn’t looked back. Something worth monitoring, but nothing crazy.

Funniest moment

“Funniest” may not be the exact word, but the most amusing part of camp? The reunions before the first day of joint practices with the Bills. Newton and ex-Panther Captain Munnerlyn were especially hilarious jawing back at forth ... before never actually lining up against each other.

Best quote

This one could be a tie. When the Bills signed Munnerlyn days before joint practices, Rivera was asked if the cornerback’s presence would mean a louder training camp: “It’ll be like the yappy dog,” Rivera joked of Munnerlyn. “Somebody rings the doorbell, and the dog starts barking.”

But as far as anything of substance, owner David Tepper was pretty forthcoming about his desire for a new facility to replace Bank of America Stadium: “I’ve been talking about some sort of a new stadium,” he said. “It’s really a whole, big statewide sort of deal. With stadiums, if you do a retractable roof, you have to do a real big open thing for this part of the country ... I’d really like to see basketball be played there, too. (Partner) with the ACC at some point, and try to do a broad strategy with North Carolina and South Carolina.”

What still needs work

It’s not clear who starts for this team at nickel cornerback. Corn Elder entered camp as the presumptive favorite, but Javien Elliott made a number of impressive plays on the ball to insert himself into the conversation. Even Ross Cockrell has gotten some snaps inside, especially after the team signed Tre Boston to play safety. And is Rashaan Gaulden still in the mix, too? Money is on Elder if the season started tomorrow, but locking up the nickel spot is key given the league’s love for passing.

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.
Support my work with a digital subscription