Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers: NFC South champs hit the field Tuesday

The Carolina Panthers return to the practice field Tuesday for the first time since January, when they were preparing to face San Francisco in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

The big question that week was the status of wide receiver Steve Smith’s sprained left knee. Smith randomly threw out percentages when asked whether he would play against the 49ers in the Panthers’ first playoff appearance in four years.

He ended up playing and scored the Panthers’ lone touchdown in what was likely his final game in a Panthers uniform.

Two months later, Smith was released in the biggest move during an eventful offseason.

The Panthers’ defense of their NFC South title in some ways begins Tuesday, when they take the field missing the franchise’s all-time receiver leader, their left tackle over the past decade and their starting quarterback.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who had ankle surgery in March, is expected to be back for the start of training camp in July.

But the Panthers have a number of other pressing issues to deal with as they begin the third phase of their offseason workout program. The Observer looks at five.

Who replaces Smith as Newton’s go-to receiver?

Maybe no one – or everyone, depending on your point of view.

Coach Ron Rivera said during the offseason the Panthers don’t necessarily need a No. 1 wideout, which is what you’re supposed to say when you don’t have one.

The Panthers brought in several high-character wideouts after turning over their entire receiving corps following the loss to San Francisco, but all of them have the look of complementary receivers.

General manager Dave Gettleman selected Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick in the draft with the hopes the former Florida State wideout can be an elite receiver. Benjamin, 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, will be a red-zone threat immediately, but he’s not a No. 1 yet.

Greg Olsen last season became the first tight end to lead the Panthers in receiving since Wesley Walls in 1997. Olsen could be a busy man on Sundays again this fall.

Is Byron Bell ready to slide over to left tackle?

For his first three seasons, Bell flew mostly under the radar at right tackle while veteran left tackle Jordan Gross served as a team spokesman and motivator. But Bell, undrafted out of New Mexico in 2011, was thrust into the spotlight when Gross retired in February.

Bell (6-5, 340) is plenty big and strong enough, but the issue is his quickness. He often struggled to handle speed rushers, and he’ll see more of them while protecting Newton’s blind side.

The dark horse in the competition is Nate Chandler, who started nine games at right guard last season after moving from the defensive line. Chandler is a former UCLA tight end who has added strength this offseason.

Canadian David Foucault (6-7, 300) signed last week and has a good story and cool accent but won’t be a factor this season.

Time to patch together the secondary again

Gettleman has stuck with the Giants’ philosophy on defense, preferring to reload with pass rushers up front and piece together things in the back end.

Gone are cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence and safeties Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell. In their place are corner Antoine Cason and longtime NFC South safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, both of whom are coming off disappointing seasons.

The wild card in the secondary is Charles Godfrey, who is recovering from Achilles surgery and has moved from safety to corner. Godfrey will participate on a limited basis in OTAs and could play a role in the fall if he’s healthy.

What’s Greg Hardy’s status?

Hardy, the defensive end who received a $13.1 million franchise tag this offseason, resumed working out with the team last week, a week after his May 13 arrest on charges of assaulting a female and communicating threats. The Panthers and the league don’t plan on taking any action against him while the criminal case is pending.

Hardy is due in court June 27, so there should be some resolution before training camp. But the altercation with his former girlfriend could affect Hardy’s negotiations with the Panthers for a long-term deal, which already had stalled.

The Panthers took Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round as insurance in the event Hardy and/or Charles Johnson, who has a $17.4 million cap figure next year, aren’t around in 2015.

Who are some players to keep an eye on?

For all the change this offseason, the entire defensive front seven returns intact. Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis again will spearhead the defense from their linebacker spots, but some younger players could make an impact.

Defensive end Mario Addison, a situational pass rusher, will have more opportunities while Frank Alexander serves a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short came on strong at the end of 2013, with four tackles during a Week 16 win against New Orleans and four pressures in the regular-season finale at Atlanta. Second-year linebacker A.J. Klein’s role also could increase.

On offense, all of the new receivers bear watching, including Tiquan Underwood, if only for his speed and his hair.

Tight end Ed Dickson is an intriguing addition. He caught 54 passes in Baltimore three years ago and could team with Olsen to form an effective pass-catching, tight end tandem.

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