Reporters got a look at the Panthers’ leadership transition last week when the team trotted out three players for interviews at the start of the offseason workout program.
During the season, media members have access to the locker room and are free to approach and talk with any player.
But last week the team’s public relations staff picked who would come to the newly renovated interview room – made over with brighter lights and stadium seating – to discuss the Panthers’ offseason moves.
They chose Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and Ryan Kalil.
All seem obvious choices: Each was a captain last season and made the Pro Bowl.
But in past years, this sort of media responsibility would have fallen to Steve Smith and Jordan Gross, formerly the team’s two longest-tenured players who served as the de-facto spokesmen for the locker room.
When the Panthers cut Smith, they did so in part to turn over the leadership and bring in veteran receivers that – in management’s opinion – would be more receptive to grooming young wideouts.
Newton, in particular, might have been reluctant to take on too much of a leadership role in the strong presence of Smith and Gross on the offensive side of the room. Kuechly also was willing to defer to veterans, such as Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, his first two seasons.
Davis, a captain for the past three seasons, is among a core group of leaders in addition to the aforementioned Kalil, Kuechly and Newton. Davis is more vocal than Kuechly and someone who has the respect of both players and the front office.
Defensive end Charles Johnson is a quiet guy, but sets the tone for a talented defensive front with his lunch pail mentality. Tight end Greg Olsen hasn’t been a captain yet, but should be.
Kalil, entering his eighth season, said his appearance Tuesday was his first in the interview room, renovated or otherwise.
The roster turnover the past six weeks will give other players a chance to emerge as leaders, including some of the new ones. The newcomers already have injected something else, according to Kalil.
During the conditioning drills that started last week, Kalil noticed an edge to the workouts that had been missing in previous Aprils.
“The cool thing about what’s happening right now is, there’s a ton of new faces in there and just in these first couple days there’s this sense of competition that I think is going to be really healthy for this team,” Kalil said.
“You see it in a lot of these guys and everybody’s trying to make a good impression with coaches, with some of the established guys. That’s something that I haven’t felt around here in a while that I think is real exciting for this team, and I look forward to it.”
I asked Kalil to expand on his comments.
“Well, just in some of the conditioning stuff we’ve been doing,” he said. “You can tell guys are coming in and sizing themselves up with other guys and established guys and it’s kind of cool. So that’s kind of where I’ve seen it so far.”
The defensive front seven is set, with every starter and key contributor back. Offensively, the Panthers have their quarterback and running back rotation, provided Jonathan Stewart stays healthy.
But there should be several interesting position battles in the secondary, as well in the receiving corps and nearly every offensive line spot other than Kalil’s and left guard Amini Silatolu’s.
And while those competitions at positions such as left tackle, cornerback and slot receiver will obviously shape the 2014 Panthers, so too will the behind-the-scenes conversations, pats on the back and in-your-face tongue lashings that will be part of the changing leadership.
“It’s interesting to go through these sorts of transitions where you see older guys leave and then there’s the whole new young corps of guys,” Kalil said. “I feel great about the guys who are stepping in those roles, and I mean they’re really good people and guys you look up to. To me, those are the best kinds of leaders.
“Not so much the guys that give speeches, and there’s nothing wrong with speeches, but the guys who I’ve always looked up to are the guys who do it on a daily basis, guys who lead by example.”
Three Extra Points on the Panthers and NFL
• The NFL Players Association site lists the Panthers at $1.7 million below the salary cap. They won’t need much more cap space than that for their draft picks – one of the benefits of picking 28th in every round but the seventh.
Only the top 51 salaries count against the cap. And with what amounts to a slotted salary system for draft picks, it’s possible to project that only the Panthers’ first two or three picks will make enough to crack the top 51.
That said, the Panthers still need wiggle room to sign free agents. Rehabbing safety Charles Godfrey remains the most obvious candidate for a contract restructuring.
• A dark horse to watch in the left tackle competition – Nate Chandler. There’s a reason Chandler was able to transition from defensive line to offensive guard without missing a beat: The one-time UCLA tight end is a heck of an athlete. Chandler has the quick feet needed to protect Newton’s blind side, and has added bulk and strength this offseason, according to Kalil.
• Remember the spring show at Radio City Music Hall that caused NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to push the draft back? Well, it ended up getting postponed. Most team officials I’ve talked to don’t like the extra two weeks and the over-thinking that accompanies it. But Goodell loves the idea of stretching out the league year to the point where there are no lulls on NFL Network. The league has yet to announce the dates or location of next year’s draft.