The Carolina Panthers have now surpassed the halfway point of training camp in Spartanburg, having completed seven of 13 camp practices.
So, with the Panthers’ exhibition season starting next week, it’s time for another edition of the Panthers mailbag.
Q. Who will start at No. 2 wide receiver?
A. Several readers asked this, and I think the answer is clear — Torrey Smith.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
With Devin Funchess the No. 1 receiver on this team, the second spot is technically an open competition. But Smith — the player the Panthers hope will stretch defenses like Ted Ginn Jr. used to — has gotten separation with a fair amount of frequency in team drills and he’s hung on to several contested balls that I didn’t think he would capture. Not only is Smith a socially active guy, he’s also just a darn good player.
For the regular-season opener against Dallas, I believe we’ll see Funchess, Smith and slot receiver Jarius Wright as the three primary wideouts — although running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen may get more targets than any of them.
Q. Who will start at No. 2 cornerback?
A. This one is tougher. James Bradberry is the No. 1 corner and Captain Munnerlyn is the odds-on favorite at slot corner. But No. 2 on the outside?
It’s a tight race between Kevon Seymour and rookie Donte Jackson. Seymour has a year in the system and has some speed. Jackson is mega-fast but — again — he’s a rookie. You remember Bradberry and Daryl Worley as rookie corners in 2016? Julio Jones and his 300-yard receiving day?
Some of my media colleagues disagree, but I think Jackson will win this job before the Dallas game. When he broke up three Cam Newton passes in a 10-minute span the other day, that was seriously impressive. And that blazing speed is going to make up for some of his mistakes.
Q. How has Newton’s accuracy been and have his passes sailed as high as they have in the past?
A. Look, Norv and Scott Turner — the father-and-son coaching combo now entrusted with Carolina’s franchise quarterback — did not bring any magic beans with them. Newton has absolutely airmailed a few passes high, and he’s also overthrown receivers on several deep routes. He is never going to be Drew Brees in terms of accuracy, no matter who coaches him.
But I think there has been some improvement. The biggest change to me is how often the Turners have Newton looking for McCaffrey out of the backfield — it’s happening so quickly if the first read isn’t open. And Olsen, as usual, is catching everything.
I think Newton’s 58.5 career completion percentage is going to improve a couple of points in 2018 simply because of the McCaffrey/Olsen combo factor and Turner’s emphasis on the high-percentage dump-offs that allow you to throw the deep ball every now and then because of all the first downs you’re making. If those two stay healthy, they might catch 80 balls apiece.
Q. Will Elijah Hood make the team?
A. Hood would be a great story if he did — a local Charlotte kid making good. I think he will stick around, but as a practice-squad player unless there are a couple of key injuries to running backs.
Q. Will the Panthers’ record be better than 8-5 in December when they have to play the Saints, Falcons and the Saints again in their final three games?
A. I’ll be honest — I had to look at the NFL schedule again to make sure this questioner was right (and you were right, @DoubleDoorDoc). December seems so far off, but the schedule-makers have done the Panthers no favors as they play those final three games against the other two best teams in the NFC South — all in a 13-day span. Those games will undoubtedly decide the division title.
And will the Panthers be better than 8-5 then entering that stretch? If I had to guess, I’d say no.
I worry now about the offensive line, the wideouts and the secondary — there are potential trouble spots at all three places. But this also is a team that went 11-5 a year ago and has most of its core back.
The upper limit for these Panthers truly is a Super Bowl victory — they have that kind of talent. But the lower limit is 5-11. There truly is that much variance in what can happen.