The Carolina Panthers' offseason has been full of buzz, a trend that will only continue as we draw closer to training camp.
After finishing 7-9 last season, the Panthers are viewed as a team on the cusp of contending for a playoff spot. Third-year coach Ron Rivera will be under significant pressure to lead the team to the postseason and will have a hard time retaining his job if the team falls short of that goal.
Rookie general manager Dave Gettleman took the reigns of a tough situation, as former general manager Marty Hurney maneuvered the franchise into an unfavorable cap situation. Through hard work and critical thinking, Gettleman was able to restructure the contracts of several veterans in order to get under the cap.
Carolina will certainly miss cornerback Chris Gamble, but he was injury prone and the team simply could not afford to retain his services. Considering that Gamble decided to retire after being let go, it's hard to argue with Gettleman's decision to cut ties with the Ohio State product.
The NFL season never really ends, as evidenced by the following buzz that has the ears of Panthers' fans.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both agreed to re-negotiate their contracts this offseason, which allowed Gettleman to move forward with both backs for at least one more season.
Although the Williams/Stewart duo didn't match their production from the 2011, they are still one of the league's most dangerous rushing tandems when both are healthy. Considering that both players were injured for parts of last season, it's hard to confidently predict both backs making it through the season unscathed.
The most the Panthers can hope for is that both Stewart and Williams enter training camp healthy. Unfortunately, that won't be the case.
According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, there is a possibility that Stewart might not be ready for the start of training camp. Stewart, who underwent surgery on both ankles this offseason, is still recovering from the procedures and shouldn't be rushed back.
The running back position is one of the most rigorous the NFL has to offer, so the Panthers must give him all the time he needs to return.
This is definitely a key storyline to watch, as Carolina's running game has the potential to be the league's most successful if everything goes according to plan.
Robert Lester was a starter on Alabama's national championship winning team last season but went undrafted, likely due to his coverage skills. The concern was that Lester could struggle with the speed of the NFL game, which is a concern at his position.
The Panthers quickly signed Lester after the draft, and the young safety hasn't disappointed. According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, Lester has already earned snaps with the first team during OTAs.
That isn't all that surprising, as Carolina doesn't have a slam-dunk starter at strong safety. That is subject to change, as Lester appears to have the potential to develop into a quality starter based upon his current trajectory.
Make sure to keep an eye on Lester once training camp commences, as his emergence could add stability to the Panthers' worrisome secondary.
Lester will have to outplay Mike Mitchell and D.J. Campbell in order to start against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1.
Steve Smith is arguably the most beloved player in Carolina Panthers history. He owns virtually every franchise receiving record and has never played for a different franchise, making him an authentic Carolina Panther.
Set to enter his 13th season, Smith is still the team's best wide receiver. Let's put it this way: If Smith were not on the Panthers' roster for the upcoming season, then Carolina would have the worst receiving corp in the league.
Many expected GM David Gettleman to add a young receiver through the draft, but that did not come to fruition. The next time the Panthers can realistically add another quality wideout is after next season, which means the team may not have another seasoned option at wide receiver outside of Smith until the 2015 season.
Luckily for Panthers nation, Smith has no intentions of hanging up the cleats anytime in the near future. According to Tom Sorensen of CharlotteObserver.com, Smith plans on sticking around a little longer.
I would try to get 15 or 16 and that’s really it. I want to play that long. I’m in the part of my career where I want to be part of something that’s great that, once I’m done playing, I can say, ‘Hey, I was part of that.'
Armanti Edwards has been a disappointment since being drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. Throughout his three seasons with the team, Edwards has only caught five passes, all last year.
He also failed to make an impression as a punt returner. Edwards only returned two punts in 2012 after attempting 32 the season prior.
Truthfully, the Panthers don't need Edwards to develop into an excellent return man. Instead, both parties would be better off if he blossomed into a quality wide receiver.
Jonathan Jones of CharlotteObserver.com reports that Ron Rivera said the following after the final minicamp session:
Probably the guy who’s really improved the most during these OTAs and minicamp has been Armanti. He made a couple really nice plays, I know you guys saw today he made a couple big catches. His development has been really key for us as well.
The Panthers need a receiver to emerge in order to take pressure off of Steve Smith. Not only would it make the offense more explosive, it would allow the franchise's all-time receiving leader to age gracefully.
We are in a golden age for NFL quarterbacks, as elite signal-callers are thoroughly dominating the league. Fortunately for the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton has been extremely productive throughout his first two seasons.
While he may not be ready to lead the Panthers on a Super Bowl run this season, he clearly has the potential to lead them to prominence in years to come.
In order for Newton to develop into an elite quarterback, he needs to be in a system that utilizes his strengths. Although it's crucial for the Auburn product to be efficient from the pocket, his ability to make plays with his feet also needs to be showcased.
Now that Rob Chudzinski has moved on, Newton go through his first serious coaching transition, as Mike Shula is the new offensive coordinator.
Fortunately for Carolina, Newton recently said that he feels comfortable with the offense's direction in an article written by Jonathan Jones of CharlotteObserver.com.
The play of Newton will be key as he attempts to lead the Panthers to the postseason since the first time since 2008.
Ted Ginn has been a major bust since being drafted in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. After floundering in South Florida for three seasons, he was used as a return specialist for another three more years.
Now that Ginn has stumbled into a situation in which he could see significant playing time as a wide receiver, he no longer wants to be labeled as a specialist, according to NFL.com.
I want to show the world that I can still play receiver. I got kind of bashed over the years, being labeled a specialist.
Ron Rivera appears to agree with Ginn.
That's part of the reason he's here, obviously. We know that with his speed, he can blow the lid off, and he's showing it. But it also helps on quick underneath routes because with his speed, he gets the ball, sticks his leg in the ground, makes a cut and goes vertical. A 5-yard pass can turn into a 25-yard gain before you know it.
The Panthers need another wide receiver to step up this season, and Ginn appears to be in the mix to do just that.
Greg Hardy broke out last season, compiling 11 sacks and 61 tackles. He was the perfect complement to defensive end Charles Johnson and appears to have a bright future.
The Mississippi product might have the grounds to hold out for a new contract. He is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract which will pay him just $1.35 million.
In an age when it seems that most players would use whatever leverage they could to aggressively get a new contract while hurting team cohesion, Hardy is choosing to take the opposite approach, according to Jonathan Jones of CharlotteObserver.com.
Yeah, you can’t think about it. That’s what I have an agent for. That’s not really my job. I told my agent don’t even tell me. I feel like it’s hard to play and practice and be an agent for yourself at the same time. I’m going to come out here and do my part and I’ll let him do his part.
Hardy's attitude on this issue is certainly gaining him favor, as he wants to allow his play to do the talking. If he plays at a comparable level to that of a season ago, then the Panthers will likely reward Hardy with a lucrative long-term contract.
Greg Olsen had the best season of his career last year, hauling in 69 catches for 843 yards and five touchdowns. Behind Steve Smith, Olsen was definitely Cam Newton's favorite target.
Only three tight ends accumulated more receiving yards than Olsen last season, as the Miami product's season eclipsed Wesley Walls' most prolific year at tight end.
Coming off such a productive season, Olsen is clearly confident in his play. according to Joseph Person of CharlotteObserver.com.
It was nice to finally get a lot more opportunities, like a lot of the other guys throughout the league get. I think I showed that I can do as much, if not more, than anybody in the league, especially with the way our offense is here. We don't get substituted out on run plays. We don't get substituted out on pass-blocking. If there's 75 snaps, I played 75 snaps. Whatever that job entailed, I had to do it.
Olsen is a true warrior, and he provides matchup problems for the opposition on a weekly basis.