Luke Kuechly (59) at Carolina Panthers OTAs
The Carolina Panthers offseason of organized team activities, minicamps and, oh yeah, the 2012 NFL Draft, is in the books and players are on their own for the next six weeks before final preparations for the 2012 NFL season get underway at training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The Panthers drafted well, selecting Butkus Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner Luke Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick; Division-II All-American offensive lineman Amini Silatolu (Midwestern State) with the 40th overall selection in the second-round; and adding talent throughout the middle rounds with fourth-round picks Frank Alexander (DE, Oklahoma), Joe Adams (WR, Arkansas) and Josh Norman (CB, Coastal Carolina).
Carolina also had full participation at the optional two-week OTAs, which is nearly unheard of in today's NFL, and the Panthers concluded their preseason with a practice head coach Ron Rivera opened up to fans at Bank of America Stadium.
The excitement level is high for Carolina Panthers players, coaches and fans expecting continued improvement from the team heading into training camp and the 2012 NFL season, but wherever there is news, there can never be all good news.
Here is a look at the winners and losers of the Panthers' offseason.
How high will the Panthers' offense rank in 2012?
"Chud," the Panthers' offensive coordinator, is taking full advantage of his first full off-season with Cam Newton and the Carolina offense to install increasingly complex plays and schemes from his encyclopedic playbook.
Jordan Gross recently said that he usually fills up half of a notebook full of new plays and updates to blocking schemes and terminology during preseason installs, but he has never had an offseason with an offensive coordinator like Rob Chudzinski. Via the Charlotte Observer:
“I’ve already been through one (notebook), and I’m working my way through my second,” Gross said Tuesday after the Panthers’ first minicamp practice.
“It’s hard to make people realize how much we’re putting in and how complex what we’re doing is. That’s just going to lead to us being a more attacking offense and giving defenses a lot to handle.”
The Panthers' offense ranked fifth in the NFL in 2011, and it should be even more dangerous in 2012 with Newton entering his second NFL season and with new weapons in Mike Tolbert, David Gettis and Joe Adams to help implement Chud's diabolical offensive schemes.
Rookie fifth-round draft pick Josh Norman is young, athletic and about as headstrong and arrogant as they come.
Who will start at cornerback opposite Chris Gamble?
When it comes to cornerbacks in the NFL, those are all good traits to have, especially if you can back up that arrogance on the field.
Though all in good fun, Norman has talked more trash than any Panthers' player this season, particularly about how well he has covered Steve Smith in organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp practices so far. Via the Charlotte Observer:
“[Smith would] get frustrated,” says Norman. “He’d throw his hands in the air. He’d have a couple words.”
Admittedly, he has backed up his talk by working hard and performing well at practice, but as Smith says, wait until training camp when the pads are on before you can say you have done something.
Never one to be shown up either on or off the field, Smith had this to say to the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person:
“Once late July, August comes, he's going to learn very quickly this isn't Coastal Carolina. I look forward to camp. I hope he looks forward to camp, just like all the other DBs because the first week is never a good day for them when we've got this offense with Chud (offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski). It's going to be early and often and real quick.”
Norman will compete with Brandon Hogan and Captain Munnerlyn for the starting cornerback position opposite Chris Gamble once training camp begins and he has a genuine opportunity to succeed.
Entering his second season as the Carolina Panthers' head coach, Ron Rivera is working hard to not only improve the Panthers' football team, but also to ingratiate his team with the Charlotte community.
Though the Panthers have been the talk of the town since Cam Newton first dazzled fans during his record-setting Rookie-of-the-Year campaign in 2011, Rivera went a step further during minicamp by holding the team's final pre-training camp practice at Bank of America Stadium in Uptown Charlotte.
The practice was free to the public and attracted more than 5,000 fans who came to see their favorite players and potential Panthers compete in seven-on-seven and full-squad scrimmages during their lunch break.
Some fans were even treated to the coolest of NFL souvenirs, an official game ball, as Steve Smith, Josh Norman and DeAngelo Williams tossed a few balls into the crowd.
2012 may be the last strike for Jeff Otah if he is unable to remain healthy for all or most of the season.
How many games will Jeff Otah play in 2012?
The Panthers' starting right tackle "tweaked" his oft-injured left knee during the first week of OTAs and he was held out of all subsequent OTAs and minicamp practices with persistent swelling in the joint.
Fortunately, an MRI on Otah's knee did not reveal any structural damage so he may have just been sidelined for precautionary reasons.
Otah, listed as 6'6" and 330 pounds, has missed 31 of the Panthers' last 35 games and he has only been healthy enough to play in 29 games so far in his four-year NFL career.
Second-year tackle Byron Bell is not in the same class as a healthy Jeff Otah, but he performed admirably in 12 starts at right tackle in 2011, and he is waiting in the wings to claim the starting job if Otah cannot stay on the field.
Sherrod Martin's aggressive play was counterproductive last season when he was the seventh-worst tackling safety (out of 88) in the NFL and he was not much better in pass coverage.
The Panthers signed former Baltimore Raven and Ed Reed's backup, Haruki Nakamura, to solidify their NFL-worst special teams and to compete with Martin for his starting free safety position.
Nakamura impressed Panthers' defensive captain Jon Beason at OTAs and minicamp with his football intelligence and he has a real nose for the football.
Who will start at free safety for the Panthers in 2012?
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler, Beason compared Nakamura to former Panther safety Chris Harris, only "with a lot more ability."
The starting free safety position is Martin's to lose, but he will have to prove to Panthers' defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, and Coach Rivera that he can become a reliable tackler without losing the edge that he brings to his game.
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