5 Biggest Areas of Concern for Carolina Panthers Heading into Training Camp
As it stands, we are just nine days away from the start of the Carolina Panthers training camp and several question marks still exist concerning what the team will look like in its first game action come August 8 when they host the Buffalo Bills in their preseason opener.
Before that comes, there are several position battles that will be decided and perhaps some that will heat up before the front office and coaching staff finalize the roster at the end of the preseason.
The following areas encompass the primary concerns that the franchise will hope to address in the next few weeks. If the Panthers are to repeat as NFC South champions, they'll need to resolve these issues quickly.
Ahead you'll also find out how likely the team is to find solutions to these roster deficiencies or if it will need to game plan around them.
We'll begin with the flaws which will impact the team least or those for which the team is most likely to find a satisfactory solution. Then I'll move on to the more dire issues, some of which may leave readers skeptical as to the Panthers' chances of finding their way into the playoffs in 2014.
Every team has more than five areas of concern heading into training camp, so it only makes sense that we mention one that just missed the cut.
One that will be overlooked at times is the team's lack of a proven kick returner. Last season there was no question who would be returning punts and kickoffs: Ted Ginn Jr.
However, when the team allowed Ginn to leave, there was no clear-cut replacement waiting in the wings as Carolina they did not address the need through free agency or the draft.
They did pick up Philly Brown as an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, but he lacks the explosiveness to truly make an impact. It also might not make logistical sense to use a roster spot for the sole purpose of returning kicks, and that's what the team would be doing by keeping Brown on the active roster.
Kenjon Barner appears to be the more likely candidate to take over duties as both a punt and kick returner, because he also offers value as a backup running back. He was highly effective as a return man in college at Oregon, even while simultaneously holding down duties as the starting running back.
5. Offensive Line Depth
The good news is that the Panthers have 16 offensive linemen currently on the roster. Surely they can find a solid group of 10 to keep on the active roster
I've been asked this question throughout the offseason, and my current response is "Not so fast."
My reason for my pessimistic viewpoint lies in the lack of proven commodities among the 16 players, which includes seven newcomers, of which four are rookies and only one was even drafted.
Only seven linemen on Carolina's roster have even started an NFL game during their career, and beyond that, just one player, rookie Trai Turner, is expected to compete for a starting job. This leaves me skeptical of how the line will hold up should it suffer even one injury to a starter.
If we slot Byron Bell, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner and Nate Chandler into the starting lineup (listed left to right), we're left with three solid backups: Garry Williams, Edmund Kugbila and Chris Scott.
Kugbila was placed on injured reserve in the preseason, and Williams joined him after tearing his left anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in Week 1. Scott missed six games last season.
In short, the Panthers must stay healthy along the offensive line or the playoffs will be out of reach.
Although he lacked the potential to develop into a high-caliber NFL cornerback, former Panther defensive Captain Munnerlyn certainly brought consistency to the nickelback position.
With Munnerlyn now gone to the Minnesota Vikings, the Panthers are evaluating the nine cornerbacks on their roster in hopes of finding a suitable replacement. As it turns out, the battle at the position could come down to a veteran vs. a rookie.
Charles Godfrey had been a safety with Carolina since the franchise drafted him in 2008, but he has switched back to the position he played in college at Iowa, cornerback. The adjustment should be a quick one for Godfrey, but he has a talented rookie who won't give up this job without a fight.
Bene Benwikere, a fifth-round pick out of San Jose St., isn't as quick as Munnerlyn, but he is certainly an upgrade in run support and playmaking ability. He has a nose for the ball that can't be taught, and his combination of long arms and excellent leaping ability makes him an exciting player to keep an eye on in the preseason.
Neither Godfrey or Benwikere is a perfect fit for the position, but competition should bring the best out of both. If neither proves up to the coaches' standards, there are several players who will be waiting for their chance to take on the role, including Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.
3. True No. 1 Receiver
Sure it's easy to slot in the rookie first-round pick, Kelvin Benjamin, as Cam Newton's go-to guy from day one, but that requires a bit too much imagination for my liking.
Benjamin isn't exactly a sure thing; he oozes raw talent, but inconsistency in concentration and attention to detail explain why four receivers were drafted ahead of him in May.
Also causing me to pause before putting my full belief in the rookie are the growing pains associated with any receiver who is just coming into the league. NFL coverage schemes are drastically more complex than those Benjamin faced in college.
Even if he develops chemistry with Newton at a rapid pace, Benjamin still needs this year to be mainly about getting acclimated to the pro game, and team must resist foisting upon him too much pressure and responsibility.
The team may not need a true primary target at the position, but it would certainly help open up the running game and allow more freedom for offensive coordinator Mike Shula to further utilize some of the talent that's hiding lower on the depth chart, including tight end Brandon Williams and receiver Tiquan Underwood.
2. Greg Hardy
Tuesday brought some disappointing news for Panthers fans concerning their star defensive end and franchise player Greg Hardy: Hardy has been found guilty of assault and communicating threats. Here are more details from the Associated Press:
Hardy's attorney Chris Fialko said he'll appeal and Hardy has asked for a jury trial in superior court. In North Carolina that means the terms of Hardy's probation are on hold until the trial -- so he's free to travel with the team to training camp and compete in games.
So while there still exists the possibility that "The Kraken" will be spared of any jail time and a suspension from the NFL, it's tough to imagine that the Panthers will not begin handing out more reps to backups Kony Ealy, Wes Horton, Mario Addison and Frank Alexander.
That the Panthers have four solid backups with starter potential is a great insurance policy if Hardy does lose his appeal, but none are Pro Bowl-caliber players yet.
If the star defensive end does miss significant time this season, it will be a huge hit to the Carolina defense, which relies on a ferocious pass rush to hide a secondary that doesn't excel in coverage. Keep a close eye on this case, because whether or not Hardy will remain in Carolina long-term, his role on the team is huge for 2014.
1. Protecting Cam Newton
Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross' retirement earlier this offseason was felt immediately. The team began an active search for free-agent options, but the Panthers couldn't fit any under their tight salary-cap situation.
Instead, they are turning to two linemen already on the roster, Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, to battle it out for the responsibility of protecting Cam Newton's blindside.
Chandler seems to be carrying momentum into training camp and is expecting to win a starting tackle job, but Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman gave Bell a vote of confidence earlier in the offseason.
However, it's been a bit disappointing to watch Bell's lack of development over the past two seasons so many fans and observers, including myself, are ready to give Chandler a shot. Just one season after making the position switch from the defensive line, he's progressed rapidly and is the more athletic player out of the two.
Newton can certainly evade pressure better than most quarterbacks, but if the Panthers can't find solutions at either tackle position, he'll have nowhere to run. It will be crucial for either Bell or Chandler to create separation from the competition and generate confidence heading into the season because if the line can't consistently create time in the pocket, it will be tough for the offense to find balance in its playcalling.