It feels like the Carolina Panthers just stepped onto Bank of America’s practice fieldin Uptown Charlotte on a toasty May morning. Over the past two-plus months, the Panthers ushered in a new look to their roster and an infectious energy that has players and fans percolating at the possibilities.
Fast forward to late-July when the Panthers kicked off training camp at Fan Fest in Charlotte, before sliding down I-85 to Spartanburg to continue their offseason workouts.
As is true during most training camps, certain stories rise to the surface and catch everyone’s eye. 2014′s installment, the 20th camp in this franchise’s young history, was no different when it comes to storylines.
Here are five observations that stood out during Carolina’s 2014 Training Camp in Spartanburg:
Kelvin Benjamin is the real deal
The rookie out of Florida State has been a daily headline grabber since OTAs back in May. He still has to polish his first step off of the line-of-scrimmage, but that technique can be easily coached-up over the course of the next season or two.
Benjamin is the perfect weapon for a quarterback like Cam Newton and their instant chemistry has been a beautiful sight. The former FSU wide receiver has an energy about him that screams “big-time talent”. On the field, Benjamin stands out amongst his receiver brethren and will give Carolina a giant target that they have not enjoyed since Keyshawn Johnson‘s lone season in Charlotte. Benjamin will take time to assume the role of WR1, but having mentors like Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Ricky Proehl around to show him the ropes, he is on a short-track to being a premier receiver in the NFL.
Greg Hardy is still The Kraken
Despite his character issues and off-the-field drama, Greg Hardy went about camp the same way he ended the 2013 season. Beastly.
Hardy was the Panthers most aggressive and hungry player on the defensive side of the ball during camp. Though contact was limited for most of the camp, Kraken was blowing by offensive linemen, knifing through blockers and antagonizing the offensive backfield. He is in his prime and he looks every bit the role of an All-Pro DE. Hardy was very focused on the field in Spartanburg and is gearing up for what looks like a repeat of last season. The Panthers will have a tough decision to make in the offseason, that’s for certain.
Cam Newton’s Time Is Now
For all of the production that Cam Newton has displayed in his first three years, to think that he is on the precipice of greatness is mind boggling.
Entering his fourth season under center, Newton has embraced the role of offensive leader of this team. His confidence is real, yet relaxed. He looks comfortable, but forceful. Though an ankle injury kept him from going 100% in camp, he was still out there taking reps with his teammates. His arsenal of receivers and backs are on par with the 2011 roster, so look for Newton to be a more dangerous version of his rookie self. He and Benjamin have connected often in Spartanburg, and Newton is opening up his vision more with the arrivals of Cotchery, Avant and Ed Dickson. If the offensive line can do their job, and the running backs can be better than 2013, Newton is poised to jump into the elite class of quarterbacks in 2014.
The Return Game Needs Improvement
Ted Ginn, Jr leaving for the desert of Arizona is looking like the biggest loss from last season’s roster. Steve Smith was huge, but Ginn’s role on Special Teams played such a huge factor in games. Ginn’s ability to change the field of play on kick returns and punt returns helped give the offense a shorter field.
Thus far, the six or seven candidates that were trotted out during Training Camp left a lot to be desired. Kenjon Barner and Tiquan Underwood look like the most viable options to secure this important spot, but neither have separated themselves. Additionally, Antoine Cason, Bene Benwikere, Philly Brown, Kealoha Pilares, and Darrin Reaves have taken their shot at returning kicks. None of these players have come close to mirroring the threat that Ginn brought. For a Panthers’ team predicated on defense, this unit will have to find its’ way soon.
Byron Bell is Carolina’s LT
When camp started, Bell and Nate Chandler were in a heated battle for both offensive tackle positions. It appeared early on that Chandler would have the inside track, but not so fast.
Each tackle spent time
rotating at both positions throughout camp. Bell played very well at LT in the game against the Bills. Bell is still a work in progress, so please don’t expect Jordan Gross 2.0 to walk out there on September 7th. Byron Bell did look a little more comfortable at LT than Chandler, but that’s not to say that their roles won’t reverse again as the season wears on. Regardless of who finishes the season where, these two players are better options on the line than any of the draftees available when Carolina’s selections came up. This was supposed to be a highly contested position battle to watch, and it was. Byron Bell is the victor.