Carolina Panthers: What to Watch for at OTAs
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The first session begins May 21st and will end on May 23rd. The last two are scheduled for May 28th through May 30th and June 3rd through June 6th. These will be the only workouts prior to the start of training camp at the end of July.
OTAs are designed to develop and improve a team's players and allows the coaching staff to work with both rookies and veterans on the roster. Changes were made to OTAs by the most recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which outlined what teams are allowed to during these sessions. Failure to comply results in a fine.
There is no contact involved at any stage of the OTAs, which are broken down into three phases:
The first phase will focus on strength and conditioning and restricts the wearing of helmets. The second phase allows the coaches to be on the field and conduct drills without wearing helmets or pads. The final phase allows helmets to be worn and the coaching staff to conduct offense versus defense drills. A complete breakdown of the rules and regulations of OTAs can be found by here from Bleacher Report's own Jesse Reed.
So, what can be expected of the Panthers in this year's round of OTAs?
The biggest issue will be the overall health of the team. Another aspect to watch will be how well the young players perform individual player drills. While there won't be too much to take away from these three different sessions, it will most likely set the stage for training camp.
Here are the some of the key things to watch in the Carolina Panthers 2013 OTA workouts.
Health of Key Players
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As noted in the introduction, the health of the team will be important for the Panthers moving forward. Last year, injuries took a toll on both sides of the ball for Carolina, and it showed. The two units affected the most were the offensive line and linebacker unit.
Veterans Ryan Kalil and Jordan Gross both missed time last year because of injuries. Their absence forced the backups and the young guys on the line to step up, which didn't pan out too well in the long run. The running game struggled at times, as holes weren't opened up, and players like Amini Silatolu and Byron Bell looked lost or overmatched at times.
On the defensive side of the ball, injuries kept Jon Beason out for most of the season, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it prompted the move of Luke Kuechly to the middle. His play earned him AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
However, the most concerning part of Beason's injury was it kept him out of action for the second consecutive year. Beason isn't expected to do too much over the summer, as the coaching staff will want to keep him healthy before the start of the preseason.
While these two units are just a small example of what can happen to a team ravaged by injuries, there are others on the team to watch.
Players like Jonathan Stewart (played in nine games last year) and Steve Smith (entering his 13th year) are good examples of those who are generally durable but whose absence could have adverse effects on the overall success of the team.
In recent years, the defensive tackle position was a patchwork ensemble of multiple players receiving starting nods as injuries took their toll and left the interior of the defensive line extremely vulnerable. The addition of two young, quality defensive tackles should negate this from repeating.
Injuries can happen to anyone, but it's those affecting key players that can be extremely devastating to a team through the duration of the season. The strength and conditioning program will be essential in limiting injuries, but a lot depends on the individual player's discipline to maintain game-day conditioning.
Rookies Adjusting to the Pro Game
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The speed of the game is faster than at the college level. Incoming rookies either pick it up and quickly adapt or struggle to adjust to the fast pace that defines the NFL.
Carolina's rookie minicamp has already given the young players a taste of what is to come, and working with the veterans will aid in their transition heading into training camp and the preseason.
Rookie Kenjon Barner was among the rookies who was at the most recent minicamp and is ready for the challenges the pro game presents. According to a recent article at Panthers.com, the former Oregon running back is used to a fast tempo, but the pace in OTAs and camp will be faster than that. Barner seems to be up to the challenge.
As a competitor, you've got to look forward to any challenge that comes your way. If you don't, you're not a true competitor.
That is the kind of attitude all rookies need to have entering OTAs; otherwise, their tenure with the Panthers will be short lived.
While every player needs to come out and compete, the rookies' adjustments to the fast style of play in the NFL will play a significant role in whether they will have a career as a professional football player or be a footnote in the team's preparation for the regular season.
Those rookies with a strong, never-ending motor will be on the right track to making the jump from college ball to the next level, but those who have been labeled with question marks could find themselves struggling early this spring and summer.
Cam Newton Establishing a Rapport with His Receivers
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While there will be limited passing drills during OTAs, quarterbacks are allowed to work out with receivers. This will be important to Cam Newton, as he needs to establish a rapport with the team's veteran receivers and new additions.
There is no doubt Newton and Steve Smith have a great working chemistry on the field, but they will need to work on their timing to stay one step ahead of opposing defenses.
The same can be said of receivers Brandon LaFell, who is a solid second receiver but lacks breakaway speed.
Attention should be paid to Joe Adams, who could be in line to compete for the fourth or fifth wide receiver spot in addition to returning punts—there are still those who believe Adams can be an asset in the Carolina offense with his speed and shifty moves.
Newcomers Ted Ginn, Jr. and Domenik Hixon will need to get some reps in with Newton as well. Since they are unfamiliar with each other on the field, it will be crucial for Newton to work on timing and learn the tendencies of his new receivers.
The best case will be securing another quality receiving option for Newton, while the worst case will be a glaring need to improve the receiving corps through the draft or signing a top free agent.
However, Newton needs to improve his accuracy, as he has a 58.7 completion percentage. His 57.7 percentage last year ranked 26th among qualified quarterbacks. That needs to change if the offense is to be successful. Despite a low completion percentage, he has managed to throw for over 7,000 yards in his first two seasons. Imagine what his stats would like if he were to improve the number of completions by 10 percent.
A single player does not make an offense. However, if Newton can't get the ball to his receivers, it will put a lot of pressure on the rushing game and could turn the season into a long one.
New Coordinator Means New Playbook
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While the Carolina Panthers hired their new offensive coordinator internally, don't expect Mike Shula to utilize the Rob Chudzinski style of offense.
Shula was a good choice for the Panthers, as he is familiar with the offense. And aside from the rookies, the offense is familiar with him. However, Shula will be implementing his own game plan, and it should look a bit different than what Carolina has put on the field the past two seasons.
Shula is expected to use his running backs with a little more frequency and in a traditional manner. Like the coaching staff and front office, Shula would like to see Newton become more of a pocket passer than run all over the field making plays with his legs instead of his arm.
While being considered a conservative play-caller, Shula knows how to use running backs. He did an exceptional job with Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn while at Tampa Bay. Now that he has exceptional talent at quarterback and in the receiving corps, he may be able to do more.
The good news for the Carolina offense is that it won't have to learn a completely different playbook. Shula will probably keep a few familiar plays that made the Panthers offense a top unit in 2011, but he will probably limit the read option, so opposing defenses aren't preparing for it every series.
If all goes well and the playbook sinks into the offense, the Panthers should be very balanced and effective when the preseason opens—if not at the start of the regular season.
Sean McDermott May Have Some New Plays Too
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When the Panthers drafted Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two picks of the NFL Draft, they not only upgraded a gaping hole in the middle of their defensive line, but they also gave Sean McDermott more options for various plays and formations.
McDermott will be entering this third season as the Carolina defensive coordinator and looks to have a strong unit up front and in the middle of the defense than the past two years.
Last year, he would occasionally move Greg Hardy from the edge to the inside where he was effective. With Lotulelei and Short rotating with Dwan Edwards on the inside, McDermott will not only be able to enhance the front seven but also establish an aggressive blitz scheme.
The addition of Lotulelei and Short up front should free up double-teams on the outside, and not only allow Charles Johnson and Hardy to penetrate the backfield but to get the linebackers more involved in pass-rushing as well. Being a student of the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, McDermott will take full advantage of the personnel on defense.
The Panthers could have a talented front seven provided everyone stays healthy. With that in mind, it shouldn't be surprising to see different formations or personnel lining up at multiple positions throughout a game. The goal should be constant pressure and penetration of the opposing backfield limiting the deep ball and taking away any rushing attack.
An even better scenario has Johnson and Hardy each getting double-digits in sacks again but seeing a bigger increase compared to last year's totals.
The Carolina secondary may not be the strongest unit on the field on game day, but it may not matter if the pass rush does its part and forces quarterbacks to make poor throws. The unit was ranked 10th in total defense last year—expect to see it climb a few spots in 2013.
Who Is Going to Be Special on Special Teams?
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Aside from the competition battles that will take place in camp on the offense and defense, the OTAs should allow for some drills regarding the return aspect of special teams. In recent years, the unit has been far from special, as it has shown inconsistency in kicking and in the return game.
There will be two kickers and two punters going into OTAs and presumably training camp. Ron Rivera has a style of coaching where no one's job is secure, and that has proven especially true on special teams.
The release of Justin Medlock during the middle of last season—despite him winning the job over Olindo Mare in last year's camp—is a prime example of that.
Joe Adams was relieved of his duties during the season last year, as he struggled with holding onto the ball. Ted Ginn, Jr., Armanti Edwards and Kealoha Pilares will be each be given long looks returning kicks and punts this summer. However, grasping the fundamentals during OTAs will be key in who will earn the job.
Special teams can either be an asset or a liability for the Panthers in 2013, but it will ultimately come down to how the players assigned to each task perform.