Panthers mini-camp began today. Usually, mini camps for playoff-caliber teams are only important for the younger players given their inexperience with everything professional.
In the case of the defending NFC South champions, there is serious turnover on the weakest portions of the team; so every audible and snap is important and necessary for everyone within earshot.
Outside of Pro-Bowl Center Ryan Kalil, there will be old faces in new places for the team’s offensive line. The first vacancy that needs to be filled is perhaps the most important—the one that protects the blind side of the team’s lone offensive star.
Cam Newton has never had a left tackle other than Jordan Gross (who was selected to the Pro Bowl three times in his 11-year career) and the QB will need to get comfortable with whomever takes over the role fairly quickly. While the numbers for the offensive line are solid (14th in sacks allowed, 11th in rushing yards, and 13th in rushing touchdowns) those numbers may be inflated by a strong and elusive quarterback who will be coming off the first significant injury and surgery of his professional career. The fight to replace him will be waged in the camps and preseason games leading up to their September 7th opener in Tampa Bay.
A lot was (rightly) made of Steve Smith leaving, and the subsequent departure of the top wide receiving threats only heightened the criticism levied on management. A team that was 29th in the league in pass yards per game lost most of its receiving threats to free agency.
To compensate, the Panthers drafted Florida State WR, Kelvin Benjamin.
Not only must Benjamin use this mini-camp to further acquaint himself with his surroundings and teammates, he must learn from veterans how to be a number one receiver – veterans, who have never themselves been a number one WR. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant will be crucial to Benjamin’s development, and team-wide workouts such as this one will be vital in accelerating the rookie’s learning curve.
While neither Roman Harper nor Thomas DeCoud are rookies, they are both foreigners to the Panthers (although not the NFC South).
Harper comes over from the Saints after being essentially replaced by their 2013 first round pick Kenny Vaccaro. DeCoud was similarly let go after six productive seasons with the Falcons (including a Pro Bowl appearance in 2012). Their chemistry on the back end of a talented defense will be important given that the team lost both starting safeties (Quintel Mikell and Mike Mithcell) and a couple of cornerbacks (Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence) during the offseason to free agency.
The 6’5” 245 elephant in the room will be Cam Newton’s pending free agency. For his part, Newton hasn’t expressed any concern about his contract (which ends at the conclusion of this year), despite the fact that negotiations have yet to commence.
With little in the way of offensive weapons, and a division that constantly has a different champion, it’ll be interesting to see how a poor record will impact the team’s ability to lock up Cam long-term moving forward.