Fresh from the Carolina Panthers’ Super Bowl run, fans showed up in record numbers the past three weeks at Wofford.
What they saw (and heard) just about every day were big plays by wide receiver Devin Funchess and a lot of chirping between quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Thomas Davis and other members of the defense.
What they didn’t see: Any serious injuries to key players, a welcome sight following wideout Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending ACL tear last summer.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera declined to name a training camp MVP, after some of his other choices (including Armanti Edwards and Frank Alexander) didn’t pan out so well during the regular season.
“Every time I’ve opened my mouth, something bad has happened,” Rivera said.
But most of the developments over the 14 practices in Spartanburg were positive. A look at what we learned:
1. It could be a big year for a pair of 2015 draft picks.
Outside linebacker Shaq Thompson and Funchess, drafted in the first two rounds last year, appear ready to break through in a big way. Afer showing flashes of their talent as rookies, their improvement was evident from the first day at Wofford.
Thompson intercepted Newton on consecutive days during the first week of camp, and stretched out Monday to deflect a Newton pass that rookie cornerback James Bradberry picked off.
Funchess continually got behind the first-team secondary and hauled in bombs from Newton. Then he’d come out the next day and do it again.
“Man, Funch had an amazing camp. And it really started with OTAs and minicamp,” Davis said. “You see the maturity level start to grow. You don’t really know what it’s going to look like until you get pads on and he comes out here in pads and he does the same thing.”
Funchess’ ascension is critical because ...
2. The Panthers are bringing Benjamin back slowly.
The team’s plan all along has been to gradually increase Benjamin’s workload to build back his leg strength while minimizing the risk of re-injury. Benjamin received several days off during camp and played only eight snaps during the exhibition opener at Baltimore.
Rivera said the goal is to increase Benjamin’s repetitions to 30 by the home exhibition against New England on Aug. 26. That would represent about half of Benjamin’s average snap count from his rookie season.
Benjamin needs the extra work to improve his conditioning. He’d get winded after running a couple of longish routes at practices, and was frequently seen bent over trying to catch his breath.
3. Newton knows how to get under the skin of the Panthers’ defenders.
We learned this last year when Newton and Josh Norman fought after a Norman interception. But it was driven home again this year when Newton would trade barbs with Davis and free safety Tre Boston and loudly celebrate plays – both big and small – by the offense.
“But he does it to other teams, too,” strong safety Kurt Coleman said. “That’s a competitor. He and T.D. go back and forth. But the great thing is we respond, he responds and we know that he’s making us better.”
During an intense practice over the weekend, Newton told defensive coordinator Sean McDermott that he was getting the defense used to playing under pressure. Last year Norman took the bait.
This year the defensive players only took the trash-talking so far.
4. The rookie corners look to be NFL-ready.
There was no breaking-in period for the Panthers’ three rookie corners. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have been starters since the first day of camp, and Zack Sanchez is backing up Bené Benwikere at nickel.
Teammates and coaches talked about the quiet confidence they’ve seen from the so-called Three Amigos, whose performance this season will go a long way in determining whether the Panthers remain one of the league’s top defenses.
“They’ve made some really good strides. And honestly, I can’t expect them to be perfect. I’m not perfect,” Coleman said. “But even when they make a mistake they respond well to it. And also they’re making a lot of plays out there. All three of them.”
There will be plenty of tests to come, including two games against Julio Jones, Mike Evans and whomever is catching passes from Drew Brees. But they’re off to a promising start.
“We came away feeling pretty good about that group, but only time will tell,” Rivera said. “Each preseason game will be very important for those young guys.”
5. The Panthers may still be taking applications for their punting job.
Carolina lost Brad Nortman in free agency when general manager Dave Gettleman wasn’t willing to match Jacksonville’s offer of four years and $8.8 million. Now the Panthers are having trouble deciding on his replacement.
Gettleman has signed four punters since the Super Bowl, including the two currently on the roster – veteran Mike Scifres and former Wofford punter Kasey Redfern.
Scifres, 35, seems to be the favorite to win the job. But the 14th-year player hasn’t been kicking much since his surgically repaired knee (to his non-kicking leg) flared up last week.
Even after all the moves they’ve made already, the Panthers might not be done, yet.
As has been mentioned here before, keep an eye on the punting competition in Denver between veteran Britton Colquitt and seventh-round pick Riley Dixon. The loser could be an option for the Panthers.