After spending a few weeks on the West Coast, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera got back to Charlotte Tuesday night and went to his office at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday.
He counted as many as 25 guys working out in the weight room. He heard about another seven or eight players running on the practice field. And he knew about a dozen of his pass-catchers were in Baltimore training with quarterback Cam Newton.
Rivera beamed with pride talking about them on Thursday, like a parent who sees his child doing homework without prompting.
Players report to training camp at Wofford College on Wednesday. They’ll have their conditioning tests that day and their first official practice of training camp the following night at Gibbs Stadium.
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Rivera has been known to tweak the details – both big and small – of his practice schedule. But just a few days out, he feels comfortable with where the Panthers are heading in the coming weeks.
“It’s interesting because I’d like to think we finally got to where we needed to be in terms of the things we’re going to do and the way we’re going to do them,” Rivera told the Observer. “That’s what I think is pretty exciting is to be at that point where you feel like you have it. And hopefully it’ll work out that way.”
Not that anyone’s counting, but there are 43 days between the training camp report date Wednesday and the Week 1 game against the Broncos.
Until then, here are the top five questions facing the defending NFC champions as they go to Spartanburg.
Where’s the offensive line depth?
The Panthers are set with their starting five, and they locked up center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Michael Oher – the two most important line positions – with contract extensions.
But there’s not much depth behind those starters. After starting guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, who will step up?
Tyler Larsen signed a futures contract with the team in January, and Carolina is eyeing him as a combo lineman who can play both guard and center.
The Panthers want to get more out of second-year tackle Daryl Williams, who had a good but not great minicamp. Williams is not threatening Mike Remmers for the starting right tackle job just yet, and Carolina has shown interest in using Williams as a tackle and guard.
What good receiver(s) will be cut?
It’s harsh phrasing, but it’s the reality. There is probably more competition in the Panthers’ receiving corps than ever before.
There are three locks before Carolina gets to Spartanburg. Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess are in for their production, and Ted Ginn Jr. joins them for his speed as well as his special teams abilities.
The Panthers will keep five – maybe six – receivers on the 53-man roster and stash two or three with eligibility on the practice squad. Fighting it out for the fourth and fifth spots will be Philly Brown (who should make the team), Stephen Hill, Brenton Bersin, Kevin Norwood and Damiere Byrd.
Norwood, Brown and Byrd all had solid OTAs and minicamps. Hill will be full-go with his knee, and Bersin will be returning from a badly sprained ankle.
Undrafted receiver Keyarris Garrett showed some flashes in June, but he seems destined for Carolina’s practice squad unless he has a breakout camp.
Who will take the starting cornerback jobs?
Josh Norman and Robert McClain started at cornerback for the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
Now Norman is in Washington and McClain is on the bubble in Carolina.
The top three corners, in no order, are Bené Benwikere, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. Though experienced, Benwikere is coming back from a broken leg and is moving from inside to outside cornerback.
Bradberry and Worley got the majority of first-team reps during minicamp, but training camp is a different animal for rookies.
Fifth-round pick Zack Sanchez got some late competition when the Panthers signed Leonard Johnson last week. Johnson played in Lovie Smith’s defense in Tampa, from which Carolina has borrowed elements.
Don’t be surprised to see McClain pitch in at safety to prove his versatility and value to Carolina.
Who is the guy at punter?
Carolina’s punting situation isn’t ideal on paper. The Panthers have already cut on punter, signed a 35-year old coming off a bad season and have another punter who has never played in a regular season game.
Carolina was unwilling to match Jacksonville’s four-year, $8.8 million deal with punter Brad Nortman – who wasn’t one of league’s top punters anyway – so this is where the Panthers stand.
Mike Scifres was, for a while, one of the best punters in the NFL. Last year he dealt with an injury to his non-kicking left knee and ranked 27th in the league in net punting average (38.2 yards).
Scifres seemed to punt much better during minicamp than he did during the 2015 season with the Chargers. And his primary competition, Swayze Waters, appeared to improve his play when Scifres came onto the scene.
Can the Panthers get Kawann Short locked in?
Nothing would please general manager Dave Gettleman more than getting his pass-rushing hog molly locked in to a long-term deal. But he’s not going to break the bank to do it.
Sources have told the Observer that Kawann Short and the Panthers had good conversations during minicamp, and the expectation is that talks will begin again in earnest come the start of camp.
Gettleman doesn’t negotiate during the season, so the deadline to get a deal done would seem to be Sept. 8. Top money is in the $17 million per year range, and the Panthers seem to be dealing in the $15 million a year range.
The other outstanding contract is safety Kurt Coleman. He had seven interceptions last season and is moving from free safety to strong safety with one year left on his deal.