Carolina Panthers Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch
With the Carolina Panthers training camp slated to start later this week, there are a number of storylines heating up in Charlotte as impatient fans prepare to see their team at full speed for the first time in over six months.
As camp gets underway and builds toward preseason action, these topics will be closely monitored, as they will have a huge impact on how the team looks when it first takes the field on August 8 to take on the Buffalo Bills.
Read on to find out what we already know regarding these developing stories and what we are likely to find out in the coming weeks.
Cam Building Chemistry with Receivers
Due to offseason ankle surgery holding Newton out of most offseason activities, he is on an abbreviated schedule to build chemistry with a new-looking receiving corps.
However, he's wasting no time getting to work, and despite not being fully back to 100 percent, per Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer (h/t NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal), he put in overtime with his receivers last week when he met with them at receivers coach Ricky Proehl's training facility in Greensboro.
With fewer longtime Panthers veterans surrounding him on the offense this season, Newton will be counted on to provide both leadership and points on the scoreboard. Without a stellar group of receivers, he'll be asked to make big leaps forward in his command of the game, and that begins with developing timing with the players who he'll be throwing to.
According to The Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones, he's been doing exactly that during the player-organized training sessions:
Occasionally Newton paused the session to instruct, and listen to, receivers on certain routes.
He wanted to know which way they preferred to juke on a route so he could place the ball in a certain spot. Newton also jogged out to the numbers and used his arm to demonstrate a route.
That's exactly the type of role that Newton needs to assume if the Panthers offense is going to take a step forward this year instead of a step back, as some are projecting.
Position Battle at Left Tackle
This topic has been thoroughly covered throughout the offseason, and it will come to a head in the next few weeks, as the team will have to declare a starter for its preseason opener in just over two weeks.
It looks like it will come down to Byron Bell or Nate Chandler, but don't count out veteran Garry Williams if neither of the youngsters can prove that he's ready to take the reins as Newton's blindside protector.
Chandler came into the league as a defensive linemen but made the switch to the offensive side of the ball last season. He was inconsistent but showed impressive flashes, especially considering that he made the change on such short notice, without even a full offseason of preparation at the position.
Bell has also been up-and-down throughout his three years in the league (all with Carolina). He has started 41 games, mainly at right tackle, but experience has not brought with it rapid development for the 25-year-old lineman. 2014 could be his last chance to prove that he's worth a future investment, as the Panthers can't afford to waste any time attaining proper protection for their franchise quarterback.
Greg Hardy Facing Assault Charges
Many have jumped the gun on condemning Greg Hardy as a women abuser who should be suspended because, as it stands, he's still involved in the legal process.
Although he was found guilty of assault on a woman and communicating threats in a trial by judge that concluded last Tuesday, he will receive a trial by jury in superior court where the fate of this case will truly be determined.
Normally, the league's stance is they don't address anything until the legal process concludes. Part of that legal process is the appeal process. So if they follow what they usually do, I don't think the league will get involved in this until the appeal process is through. Could they come out and say he was found guilty and have Roger Goodell address it right now? They could, but I don't think they have in the past.
Until a date is set for the jury trial, it appears that Hardy will be back to business as usual as he prepares for the start of the season. 2014 will be another contract season for the defensive end, so he'll have to push the case out of focus if he's to post another double-digit-sack performance.
Potential Return of 'Double Trouble'
Since 2011, the Panthers have gone from the third-best rushing team in the NFL to the the ninth best and then just the 11th best in 2013; they're still in the top half of the league, but as a historically ground-and-pound franchise, they'd like to be back in the top five in that category.
Not so coincidentally, running back Jonathan Stewart has played in fewer and fewer games over the past three seasons—16 games in 2011, nine in 2012 and six in 2013. If the team is to get its rushing game back up to par, it'll need him to be on the field for a full season.
So far this offseason, signs are pointing to Stewart being as healthy as ever; during OTAs in June, The Charlotte Observer's Joe Person reported that Stewart "showed great burst every time he touched the ball."
His legs should be fresh with just 866 career attempts, and fellow running back DeAngelo Williams (31) has showed no signs of aging, with just under 1,200 all-purpose yards in 2013.
Also helping the cause is an offensive line that, while suspect in pass protection, has several road graders on the interior of the line; from left guard to right guard, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner are all great run-blockers who can really create room for these backs to take the league by storm just as they did back in 2008.
Bonus Read: Bleacher Report's own Cian Fahey put together a great read on the encouraging signs from Stewart's short-lived return to action last season and makes a great argument for why the tandem between him and Williams may be revived in 2014.
'Legion of Whom' Secondary
While much of the focus has been on the offense this offseason, the Panthers have quietly made a number of moves to shake up the secondary, but one thing remains the same: They are getting no respect from the media.
Many seem to forget that general manager Dave Gettleman's strategy of signing short-term starters on the cheap last offseason was key to the success of Carolina's defense—which ranked second in the league. He's followed the same formula this year, and for now, there's little reason to doubt his signings.
Safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper have three combined Pro Bowl selections in the past five seasons, and cornerback Antoine Cason has had at least two interceptions in each of six seasons in the league.
None of these players are the pieces to a shutdown secondary, but behind the league's best pass rush, they don't have to be all that great. Few expected much out of last season's group before the season, but it would go on to finish sixth in the league at defending the pass.
The takeaway from this brief overlook is to wait and see before jumping to conclusions about this secondary. Unexpected things happen when you have as much talent as the Panthers do within their front seven.
All statistics and individual awards are courtesy of NFL.com.