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Burning Questions for Carolina Panthers Training Camp

Charles EdwardsContributor IOctober 6, 2016

Burning Questions for Carolina Panthers Training Camp

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    Training camp offers many questions and presents a lot of intrigue.  The Carolina Panthers have many things to work out in August during both camp and in their slate of preseason games.  Some of the questions are fairly obvious, but there are those who may go unnoticed outside the Carolina fanbase.

    Questions about the success of the team, the job security of the coaching staff and how certain players will perform are just a few of the unknown factors going into camp and most likely will be present during the regular season.

    Without further adieu, let's go over the burning questions for the Carolina Panthers as they enter the 2013 training camp.

What Kind of Season Does Ron Rivera Need to Keep His Job?

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    There is no doubt Ron Rivera's seat will be warm when the season opens in September. If he is to keep his job as the Panthers head coach, he will need to assemble the best roster possible in order to compete within the NFC South.

    Of course, that is only the first step.

    How the season begins and, more importantly, how it ends will determine whether or not Rivera will be retained for a fourth season. His first two years as head coach started off slowly, but each time the Panthers were able to finish strong.

    Carolina improved by one game in 2012 by finishing 7-9 and was rewarded with inheriting the hardest schedule of any team this season. This year's opponents had a combined .543 winning percentage in 2012, and five of those teams reached the playoffs.

    Needless to say, Rivera has his work cut out for him, and while a trip to the playoffs should guarantee his job security, a respectable final record could be his saving grace. Considering Carolina's strength of schedule, finishing 8-8 at the worst could be enough for Rivera to earn an additional year.

    However, owner Jerry Richardson wants to see his team competing for the postseason now, and if Rivera can't get the job done, he could be shown the door.

Which Rookies Will Make an Immediate Impact?

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    There were five rookies taken in this year's draft, and another 13 were signed as undrafted free agents.  It goes without saying that the Panthers are expecting great things from their first two draft picks.  While expectations will be modest for everyone else, there have already been a few surprises during OTAs and minicamp.

     

    Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short

    The first two draft choices of the Carolina Panthers will be common fixtures on the defensive front this year and should shore up a line that was terrible at stopping the run.  Lotulelei has the tools to be a shutdown run-stopper, and he will help both Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy from facing constant double-teams.

    Short will most likely spell Dwan Edwards on a situational basis, but he will be just as effective.  Short is more of a pass-rusher between the top two rookie defensive tackles, and his ability, coupled with the contributions of Edwards, could keep the Panthers defensive line fresh each series.

    Expectations are high for these two as some people feel they can help lead the Panthers to becoming a top-tier defense.  However, there is still the matter of the secondary.

     

    Robert Lester and Melvin White

    Both Lester and White were signed as undrafted free agents.  Both have enjoyed a good spring, and both of them have a legitimate shot at earning considerable playing time on defense.  Lester could even make a push for starting at safety.

    While Lester hails from collegiate powerhouse Alabama, there were some concerns about him going undrafted this past spring.  However, Lester has proven to have a nose for the football and picked off eight passes as a sophomore, two as a junior and four as a senior.

    However, he could be the ball hawk Carolina needs patrolling the secondary, and the camp battle between him and veteran Haruki Nakamura should be a good one.

    Melvin White may have a tougher road ahead of him, but the rookie cornerback could be in prime position to do some special things in his career as a Panther.  Veteran Captain Munnerlyn is only signed for one year, and assuming he leaves in free agency following the season, the door will be wide open for Carolina's cornerbacks. 

    Behind Munnerlyn is a stable of young players, and with the exceptions of D.J. Moore and Drayton Florence, White could do himself a huge favor by standing out among the young men on the unit.  There is still a lot of optimism surrounding Josh Norman and Josh Thomas, but White has proven he can hit a receiver with authority.  That kind of ferocity will be needed to help force turnovers.

    White may not start this season, but he could still make the final roster and factor into the team's long-term plans later down the road.

     

    Kenjon Barner

    Initially, Barner was projected to be an asset on special teams returning punts and kicks.  However, in light of the recent news that veteran Jonathan Stewart will be questionable heading into training camp, Barner may see a lot more time in the offense as well.

    Gifted with excellent speed and the ability to make guys miss, Barner could seize this opportunity to not only play with the offense but to stick with it well after Stewart returns.  It's not out of the question, but Barner will need to out-play Armond Smith and Tauren Poole for the job as Stewart's backup.

     

    A.J. Klein

    It only makes sense to list him here as the uncertainty surrounding Jon Beason and Thomas Davis should be very fresh in the minds of everyone within the Carolina organization.  Klein could end up playing as a strong-side linebacker and could prove to be valuable at the position. 

    His presence will allow Chase Blackburn to back up Luke Kuechly and play the outside if needed.  Out of the rookies listed here, Klein's impact could have more value as a depth chart player.

How Much Will Cam Newton Grow as Player and a Leader?

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    As the Carolina Panthers enter the season, the focal point of their offense will be turned to quarterback Cam Newton.  Newton has received a lot of negative attention due to his play and postgame interviews.  However, as he enters his third season, he will try to re-establish himself in a more positive light.

    After two seasons as the Panthers' starting quarterback, Newton has thrown for 7,920 yards, 40 touchdowns and 29 interceptions.  During this time, he has recorded a reasonable 85.3 QB rating.  

    Unfortunately, he has been a part of the Carolina running game regardless of whether or not the play was designed for him.  He has carried the ball 253 times and gained 1,447 yards with 22 touchdowns.  While his ability is a great asset to the team, the coaching staff does not want to see him run a lot this season.

    With that in mind, Newton will need to be a difference-maker more with his arm than his feet.  

    In order for him to do that, he will need to make better decisions with his throws and avoid forcing passes to covered receivers.  

    Newton has a decent supporting cast in Steve Smith and Greg Olsen.  Smith can still stretch the field, and Olsen can turn short-yardage situations into long gains.  Additionally, Newton will have the presence of Brandon LaFell and could benefit from the addition of Domenik Hixon.

    There is no denying the potential that is there for Newton to be great.  His first two seasons have proven that point.  However, fans would like to see a significant bump in his passing touchdown numbers and a low turnover rate.

    As for Newton being named a team captain, he will need to prove himself to his teammates during camp.  He showed some quality leadership abilities in last year's finale against New Orleans, and his performances in the last few weeks were good.  

    However, he will need to be a leader both on and off the field.  That means he will need to refrain from making inappropriate comments during postgame interviews and become more involved with his teammates while on the sidelines.  

    Whether or not he will be named a captain remains unknown, but if he grows as a player and a leader, that time will come soon enough.

     

What Are the Chances Robert Lester Starts at Safety?

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    Robert Lester's decision to sign with the Carolina Panthers was an easy one for him, as he felt he could have a legitimate chance to compete for a job on the depth chart.  So far, he has done his part to catch the eyes of his coaches.

    It is too early to determine if his early success will help him land a starting job when the season opens.

    If he continues to play at a high level and do the things that made him the center of attention during OTAs, Lester will have no problem making the final 53-man roster.  Being named a starter, however, is an entirely different matter.

    Lester will have to compete against Haruki Nakamura and Colin Jones for the top spot.  Working in Lester's favor is the overall weakness of the secondary and the inability on Nakamura's part to assert himself as the starter.

    Granted, he was an undrafted free agent, and that has raised many concerns among the fanbase.  While his production during his last two seasons at Alabama pale in comparison to his sophomore year, Lester knows how to patrol the field and keep receivers in check.

    He could very well be a starter this season, but at the very worst, it seems he can be an asset as a backup.

Will the Panthers Be Able to Return Their Running Game to Its Former Glory?

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    The Carolina Panthers have solid running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  Both have done enough to earn feature back status on any team in the league.  However, the last time either one of them rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season was 2009 when Stewart logged 1,133 yards on the ground.

    Since Williams' rookie season in 2006, the Panthers as a team have averaged 2,109 rushing yards.  2009 was a special year in Carolina as both Williams and Stewart reached over 1,000 yards rushing and combined for 17 touchdowns.

     

     

    The biggest concern since 2011 has been whether or not the tandem of Double Trouble can reclaim its past glory.  Stewart may miss the beginning of the season due to his recovery from surgery on both ankles, and that could put pressure on the passing game if Williams and rookie Kenjon Barner can't rise to the challenge.

    Carolina does not want to put the success of the running game on quarterback Cam Newton's shoulders, as the team wants to go back to its traditional ground-and-pound approach that was so common during the John Fox-Jake Delhomme era.

    Williams can feasibly reach 1,000 yards rushing.  However, he will need to get more touches in order to do so.  Both years he rushed for 1,000 yards, he carried the ball over 200 times.  Of course, his yards per carry helped get him there.

    There is a reason for optimism, as the play-calling will change on offense.  While not completely abandoned, the read-option will be a limited play, and the majority of the running calls should involve the running backs.

    If Stewart can return at full strength, the Panthers will have yet another running back who can gain a lot of yards.  However, he may not be rushed back too soon in order to fully recover from his ankle surgeries.

    The best-case scenario is the Panthers give the ball to their running backs to pick up yards on the ground and perhaps add an extra 200 yards to their average over the past two years.  The bonus will be having one rushing for a 1,000 yards.  Either way, if the passing game isn't constantly pressured to make big plays, the offense should be well-balanced.

    The worst-case scenario will see the beginning of the end for Williams if he is unable to perform at the level fans expect of him.  If Newton leads the Panthers in rushing again, there will be a lot of work done in the offseason to resolve that issue.

Does the Current Roster Have Enough Talent to Compete Within Their Division?

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    On the surface, many fans would think the Panthers have enough to compete with their division rivals.  Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Luke Kuechly proved they can match up against their rivals and then some.  However, does the rest of the roster have what it takes to turn the Panthers into winners?

    Considering that seven of the nine losses suffered by Carolina last season were by a touchdown or less, one would be inclined to think they can compete with anyone on the field.  Of course, the game of football is more about raw talent.  

    It's about fundamentals and executing plays correctly.

    The Panthers lost a couple of games last year due to untimely turnovers and failing to properly finish plays.  Newton's fumble on third and short against Atlanta in the first meeting is a good example.

    While the Panthers were able to recover their fumble, it set up fourth down and they were forced to punt.  This put pressure on the defense to shut down the dangerous Falcon offense.  That was not to be as Matt Ryan found Roddy White for a long completion which set up the game winning field goal.

    Avoiding these kind of mental lapses and giving up big plays will do a lot to increase the Carolina win total in 2013.

    There are many players who are on the roster that can do great things for the team.  

    Rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should both make an immediate impact to the team on defense.  Kenjon Barner could provide an explosive element on special teams and offense assuming he fills in for Jonathan Stewart early in the year.

    Then, we have the veterans.

    Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn, Jr. and Chase Blackburn all hail from teams who know how to win and their presence will be invaluable.  While they may all contribute in supporting roles, they will be great additions to have on the sideline and in the locker room.

Who Will Emerge as the Team's Return Specialist?

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    Ted Ginn Jr.  Armanti Edwards.  Joe Adams.  Kenjon Barner.

    These are the guys who will be at the forefront of the return specialist battle in camp.  Out of the four, Ginn is the only one with any proven success despite joining the third team of his career.  He may also be the favorite to lock down the return duties when camp opens.

    Carolina has been in desperate need of a difference-maker on special teams, and over the last few years, Edwards and Adams have not been the answer.

    Edwards will not only be competing for the role as return specialist, but he will also be playing for his career.  Entering the new season, it seemed that Edwards was firmly on the roster bubble (and still is).  However, he turned in a good workout at OTAs and was praised by Ron Rivera as being the most improved player.

    He will need to build upon that when training camp starts because he will be pushed.

    Adams was thought to be the answer last year after he was drafted out of Arkansas but has failed to live up to expectations.  He encountered a few problems last season with holding onto the ball, and it eventually cost him his job.  

    He will have to prove he can retain possession and give the Panthers great field position after making the catch.

    The wild card of the bunch is Barner.  The Oregon rookie has the ability to make opponents miss in the return game, and he could surprise many this year.  

    Ultimately, it's anyone's job for the taking.  However, it shouldn't be surprising to see Ginn and Barner tasked with return duties when the season starts.

Can Armanti Edwards Build Upon His Successful OTA Workouts?

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    It was mentioned in the previous slide that Armanti Edwards had a great spring.  It was also mentioned that he is one of the few bubble players entering camp this year.  If he is to make the team, he will need to have a great camp.

    During his career, Edwards' production has been anemic.  

    Offensively, he has five receptions for 121 yards.  When it comes to rushing the ball, he has 12 yards on two carries.  On special teams, he has returned 36 punts for 253 yards (7.03 yards per return). and he has 12 kick returns for 295 yards (24.6 yards per return).

    He has yet to score a touchdown in any capacity while on the field.

    It's a safe assumption that Edwards has an uphill battle in front of him to remain with the team.  He could be very impressive in camp.  However, it's what he does during the season that will really count.  If Edwards cannot be a productive contributor to the team after making the roster, it wouldn't be surprising to see Carolina cut him.

Which Key Players Possess Injury Concerns Heading into Camp?

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    Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Jonathan Stewart all have injury concerns heading into camp.  Beason will be returning from knee and shoulder injuries, and Stewart will be doubtful for the start of camp as he is still recovering from ankle surgery.

    Davis finally enjoyed his first full season with the team since 2009 after a series of knee injuries kept him out of action.  However, anyone familiar with Davis' injury history has to have some reservations about him staying healthy this year.

    Fortunately, Davis showed no signs of slowing down and didn't seem to miss a step last year.  If he can repeat that success in 2013, it will alleviate many concerns about the defense as a whole.

    Beason will try to avoid having a Davis-like run of the injury bug.  Until he first went down in 2011, Beason was a durable, every-down linebacker.  When he went down a second time last year, it prompted the Panthers to move rookie Luke Kuechly over to the middle, and the kid thrived.  As a result, Kuechly is now the starting middle linebacker.

    Stewart's injury concerns are more related to his recovery than the injury himself.  This past offseason he underwent surgery on both ankles, and the recovery process may keep him out during camp.  The biggest concern is whether or not he will be able to return when the season starts, and when he does, will he be at full strength?

    It's too early to tell how much of an impact injuries will have to these three players.  The good thing is all of them are in a recovery stage or have returned, and it's a matter of whether or not they can stay on the field.

    Each of them is a key player to the Panthers, and their absences will be felt if they are unable to suit up on game days.  Hopefully, all of them can enjoy healthy, productive seasons.

Who Are the Players Likely to Be Named Team Captains?

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    Every year, there is speculation on who will be named a team captain.  For the Panthers, there are some obvious choices, as they have exceptional leadership on both sides of the ball.  It should be noted that captains are named by their teammates, and being a captain the previous season does not guarantee wearing the captain's patch the following year.

    Only six players can be designated as a captain, and to be named one carries responsibility and respect.  It is considered an honor to wear the embroidered "C" on the game jersey, and those who wear it need to be counted on to be leaders throughout the season.

    Jon Beason is no stranger to being a team captain and offered his insights to Jeff Darlington of NFL.com last year on what it meant to be named a team captain.

    Here I am as a rookie, we're getting ready to play the Cowboys, and Coach Fox calls on me to speak.  I can remember it like it was yesterday. Before then, people saw me as a good player, but nobody really knew me. That's when I arrived.

    From that day forward, I think the coaches and (my) peers had a newfound respect.

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