Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said the thing that kept him awake at night last summer before training camp was this: What if No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin got injured?
Gettleman’s nightmare played out on the grass turf at Wofford last August when Benjamin went down during a 1-on-1 drill against a Miami defensive back with a season-ending knee injury.
The Panthers survived – and even prospered – after Benjamin’s torn ACL, thanks to Cam Newton’s MVP season, Greg Olsen’s clutch catches, a stout offensive line and contributions from other receivers in what became the NFL’s highest-scoring offense.
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But Gettleman’s after-the-fact admission about his fears of a Benjamin injury prompt this question: As Gettleman relaxes and continues his recovery from knee replacement surgery at Cape Cod, what’s keeping him up at night this year?
Based on his recent, unflinching comments about his hard-line negotiating stance, it does not appear Gettleman is losing sleep worrying about the contract talks with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short.
And while the Panthers may still not have their starting punter on the roster – Britton Colquitt, anybody? – it’s tough to envision Gettleman getting worked into a lather over the punting position.
But here are three player and/or position issues that might give Gettleman pause on the Cape:
1. What if Jonathan Stewart is lost for a significant amount of time?
Stewart’s injury history has been well documented and doesn’t need to be recounted here.
And in fairness, Stewart has played in 13 games each of the past two seasons while rushing for 1,798 yards. In short, he’s been the workhorse back he was early in his career.
But the options behind Stewart are not ideal.
Fullback Mike Tolbert is a Pro Bowler who remains an effective blocker and pass-catcher, but is not an every-down back.
Neither is change-of-pack back Fozzy Whittaker, who has never had more than 32 carries in a season.
Cameron Artis-Payne showed flashes when Stewart sat the final three games with a foot injury, but not enough of them.
On his playoff carry, Artis-Payne fumbled against the Seahawks (the Panthers recovered). He was inactive for the final two postseason games.
Brandon Wegher ran well and showed a nose for the end zone during the 2015 preseason, but does not look like a long-term answer.
It’s possible the Panthers could keep churning yards with a backfield-by-committee approach were Stewart to go down for a couple months or longer. More likely they would need to find outside help.
2. What if the young cornerbacks are overmatched?
Gettleman went all-in at corner after rescinding Josh Norman’s franchise tag in April, drafting James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez with successive picks in the second, third and fifth rounds.
All of them had their moments during organized team activities and minicamp, but those practice were conducted in shorts and helmets.
The coaching staff will learn much more about the young corners during the dog days of Spartanburg when, for instance, Bradberry lines up opposite Benjamin during 1-on-1s or Worley sees a double move from Ted Ginn Jr.
It could be that one or more of the corners is ready to be an NFL starter from the jump, and the loss of Norman is minimized.
There will be bumps in the transition from college; ask Norman. But if those struggles become more than just the learning-curve variety, corner could turn into a position crisis.
3. Mike Remmers vs. Von Miller, Part 2, is coming.
No, Miller is not yet under contract. But assuming the Super Bowl MVP is newly minted in time for the Sept. 8 NFL opener in Denver, he’ll get another crack at Remmers.
We trust – and Newton hopes – offensive coordinator Mike Shula will give Remmers more blocking help in the rematch. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera grew a little agitated this month answering (more) questions about Remmers. Rivera and Gettleman have stood by the right tackle throughout the offseason following his difficult night in Santa Clara.
After Gettleman chose not to draft or sign an offensive tackle, there’s really only one other option – and second-year man Daryl Williams did not exactly push Remmers during the spring.
Remmers was solid enough for most of last season when not matched against speed rushers such as Miller and Atlanta’s Vic Beasley. He held his own last year against J.J. Watt – with help, which Remmers will need Week 1 in Denver.