The Carolina Panthers report to Spartanburg on Wednesday for the start of training camp, and you’d be hard-pressed to recall a season with as much anticipation.
Certainly the inaugural camp in 1995 would be up there. Ditto 2004, following the Panthers’ first Super Bowl appearance.
But there’s an electricity surrounding this team, coming off a 15-1 regular season last year and subsequent march to the Super Bowl.
The team last week made 60,000 tickets available for its annual FanFest and about broke the Internet.
The Panthers boast the reigning league MVP in quarterback Cam Newton and another superstar in Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. Long-armed wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin returns from a knee injury.
And though cornerback Josh Norman is gone, there looks to be enough playmakers to keep the Panthers among the top 10 defensively.
In honor of the Panthers’ 22nd training camp, here are 22 preseason predictions:
1. It will be hot
It’s summer in Spartanburg; it’s always hot. But it’s going to be broiling this year with temperatures in the mid-90s with heavy, humid air forecast for the first 10 days of camp. Coaches will find out immediately who stayed in shape during the six-week break.
2. There will be a fight. Or more than one
Norman won’t be at Wofford to goad Newton. But three weeks of banging against the same bodies every day in stifling heat will set tempers flaring. Keep an eye on DE Kony Ealy vs. LT Michael Oher, who seemed to be on the verge of fisticuffs at minicamp.
3. Cam will infuriate the defense with his arm and mouth
Newton does a good job of keeping the energy level up by talking after big plays, a tactic that often does not sit well with his defensive counterparts. Someone – cornerback Bené Benwikere and safety Tre Boston are two good bets – undoubtedly will fire back. Which will lead to ...
4. Ron Rivera will stop a practice
The Panthers’ sixth-year coach does this every year at camp to get on his players for displaying either a lack of energy or too much trash-talking. This year will be no different.
5. The Kawann Short negotiations could spill into next year
In yanking the franchise tag from Norman, Dave Gettleman proved again he’s not afraid to play hardball. While Gettleman values defensive tackles more than corners, he’s still unlikely to give Short the $17 million per year Muhammad Wilkerson and Fletcher Cox received. Much like Norman a year ago, Short seems willing to bet on himself in his final year of his rookie contract.
6. Kurt Coleman’s new deal will prove to be good for both sides
Coleman had seven interceptions his first season in Charlotte and will move from free to strong safety following Roman Harper’s departure. The Panthers like Coleman, and on Tuesday they gave him a three-year extension.
7. Jonathan Stewart will sit out several practices
Given Stewart’s injury history and the lack of a proven backup behind him, the Panthers will be careful not to overwork Stewart to make sure he gets to Week 1 healthy.
8. Kuechly and Charles Johnson also will get plays (or days) off
Rivera said last month he expected Kuechly to be full-go for the start of camp. But there’s no reason to take unnecessary risks with a player as important as Kuechly, who is coming back from February shoulder surgery. Trainers also will be smart with Johnson, who has been plagued by injuries the past two preseasons.
9. It will be feast-or-famine for the rookie corners
Second-round pick James Bradberry seems to have the inside track on replacing Norman. Despite his small-school background, Bradberry has good size and appears to be poised. Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez arrive with stronger playmaking backgrounds, but also look vulnerable to big plays.
10. Benjamin will make the entire receiving corps better
It was easy to forget last season when the Panthers finished as the league’s highest-scoring offense, but Benjamin’s injury forced a couple of receivers (Ted Ginn in particular) to play out of position. With Benjamin back and Devin Funchess a year older, the receiving rotation gets a lot deeper.
11. There could be more competitors for the punting job
I’ve written this before, but the starting punter might not be on the roster yet. Maybe veteran Mike Scifres or former CFL standout Swayze Waters wins the spot with an impressive preseason. If not, keep an eye on the loser of the Broncos’ competition between Britton Colquitt and Riley Dixon.
12. First-round pick Vernon Butler, big and quick, will give the interior linemen fits but could tire in the heat.
13. A veteran defensive tackle (either Paul Soliai or Kyle Love) will be in danger of not making the team.
14. If Soliai or Love is cut, that means a couple of the young defensive ends (Ryan Delaire, Rakim Cox, Arthur Miley) will have played well enough to earn roster spots.
15. The Panthers have seven tight ends on the 90-man camp roster. Odds are good one of them (seventh-rounder Beau Sandland? Undrafted free agent Braxton Deaver?) will emerge as a receiving threat.
16. One of the tight ends will be moved to fullback.
17. Right tackle Mike Remmers will retain his starting position, setting up a Week 1 rematch with Von Miller.
18. Backup guard/center Gino Gradkowski, a free agent acquisition, will get a lot of repetitions.
19. Wide receiver Stephen Hill will stay healthy and make plays, but continue to struggle with drops.
20. Rivera will decline to name his camp MVP, given how a couple of his past choices (Armanti Edwards, Frank Alexander) panned out.
21. Second-year running back Brandon Wegher will break off several long runs and be in the mix for one of the last spots on the 53.
22. Rivera will not break camp early.