Ron Rivera has been keeping a running countdown of the days and weeks before the season opener at Denver, so the Carolina Panthers’ sixth-year coach can tell you his team has 86 days until its Super Bowl rematch against the Broncos.
The Panthers still have a long way to go before diving deep into the offensive and defensive game plans. But they’ll take the next step in their preparations this week with a mandatory minicamp, with three days of workouts starting Tuesday in Charlotte.
Five storylines as the Panthers wrap up their spring practices:
1. Can Cam Newton sharpen up?
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s whirlwind offseason that included a visit to the White House and the filming of his new Nickelodeon children’s show, and he hasn’t looked particularly sharp during portions of the OTA practices open to the media.
This is not a call to sound the sirens.
Newton missed OTAs and minicamp entirely as a rookie because of the labor lockout, and that did little to throw off his rhythm once the season started. Newton will have nearly a month in Spartanburg to connect with a receiving corps that gets a boost with the return of Kelvin Benjamin, one of Newton’s closest friends and favorite targets on the team.
But cleaning up some of his throws this week would be a good way for Newton to head into the five-week summer break. He is expected to address the Charlotte media this week for the first time since February.
2. Welcome back, KK.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short was at Bank of America Stadium on Monday to take a physical and check in for minicamp, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. That presumably means he’ll participate in the minicamp practices, as well.
Short sat out organized team activities the past two weeks after negotiations on a long-term contract extension stalled. The second-round pick from 2013 would have faced about $76,000 in fines had he skipped minicamp.
Short’s contract talks could extend into the preseason and beyond. Cornerback Josh Norman elected to bet on himself last year and play out his contract, and he’s now suiting up for Washington.
Short, whose 11 sacks in 2015 were the most ever by a Panthers defensive tackle, leads one of the deepest defensive interiors in the league. His two-week absence meant more reps for first-round Vernon Butler, who lined up next to Star Lotulelei, Paul Soliai and Kyle Love.
3. Funch has improved a bunch.
With Benjamin still not all the way back from his ACL surgery, second-year wideout Devin Funchess has been the star of OTAs. Funchess, a second-round pick last year, has shown terrific hands going across the middle, albeit in non-contact drills.
That’s a good sign for a player who struggled hanging on to the ball early in his rookie year before finishing strong. Funchess, 6-4 and 225 pounds, also has looked more fluid in his routes this spring.
An improved Funchess and a healthy Benjamin would be huge to a receiving group that had wideouts playing out of position for much of last season.
4. Secondary still taking shape.
It has been eight weeks since Panthers GM Dave Gettleman jettisoned Norman and what he felt were his exorbitant contract demands. In that time the Panthers drafted three cornerbacks in successive rounds and sent another one packing in the person of Brandon Boykin.
Rookies James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez all have a dozen practices under their belts, and each has flashed at times during rookie minicamp and OTAs.
Bradberry and holdover Robert McClain have gotten the majority of the first-team reps while Bené Benwikere recovers from his leg injury. Worley and Sanchez both have shown good ball instincts.
This week will be another opportunity for the youngsters to get work, although Rivera won’t set the corner rotation until late in training camp.
5. Punting job remains unsettled.
It only seems the Panthers have been holding weekly auditions at punter since Brad Nortman left in free agency when Jacksonville offered four years and $8.8 million.
Last week the Panthers waived former University of Tennessee left-footer Michael Palardy and signed veteran Mike Scifres.
Scifres, 35, was San Diego’s punter for 13 seasons and has a 45.2-yard career average. But his inconsistent 2015 and $4.2 million salary cap number prompted the Chargers to draft Drew Kaser and cut Scifres.
Scifres will compete with former CFL standout Swayze Waters, who missed most of last season in Toronto with a hip flexor injury.
Like the cornerback situation, the punting competition figures to carry over into August.