Carolina Panthers: Early Impressions from Training Camp
On Friday at Bank of America Stadium, months of speculation came to a halt and the period of observation began.
As the Panthers took the field that night for their first training camp practice, the mixed emotions of excitement for the new season and uncertainty stemming from a roster overhaul spanning several position groups were palpable among fans and team personnel alike.
The team would hit the field again Saturday, Sunday and Monday. So with those practices in the rear-view mirror, what have we learned about the Panthers so far? Read on to find out.
Offensive Line Depth Becoming a Concern
Perhaps it's just a testament to Carolina's depth on defense, but the second-string offensive line has really struggled early on. This could be cause for worry because injuries are more common among linemen than at any other position.
Backup guard Edmund Kugbila is now out for the season. And, beyond him, the only capable pure guard on the team is Chris Scott, who has started just eight games in his career.
Garry Williams can play all over the line, but he's the only other backup who could be relied on to step up to replace an injured starter. And with that said, he's better off at tackle, where he can be the third wheel behind Nate Chandler and Byron Bell.
If this group can't stay healthy, then the Panthers will have to hit the free-agent market swiftly. Nothing can throw a bigger wrench in your postseason plans than troubles along the offensive line.
Nate Chandler in the Lead for Starting Left Tackle Duties
While the position battle at left tackle is still far from decided, Nate Chandler has been more impressive than Byron Bell this far into training camp.
Chandler had a solid Day 2 of training camp, displaying quick feet and holding his own against Greg Hardy. On Day 3, he appeared to be the victor in a matchup against Charles Johnson, which is saying a lot as Johnson is one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the league.
For now, Chandler and Bell are going to continue splitting time. But as we approach preseason football, we'll get a better idea of who is in line for the start. Head coach Ron Rivera is looking to name a starter after two weeks of preseason action, according to David Newton of ESPN.com.
New-Look Receiving Corps Is a Step Up from Last Season
Missing from all the criticism of the Panthers' fresh-faced receiving corps this offseason was the realization that the group actually had the chance to be an improvement from 2013—and so far, that potentiality appears to be reality.
The most talented receiver on the roster, rookie Kelvin Benjamin, is leading the way in terms of making the most positive impressions. According to ESPN.com's David Newton, he is "becoming quite comfortable with [Cam] Newton in a hurry."
Coming out of Florida State, one question mark on Benjamin was the consistency of his hands, but he's caught everything within reach so far at camp, which is very encouraging.
Veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have also been just as advertised, making few mistakes if any and offering leadership to the youngsters, of which there are many within this group of receivers.
One of those youngsters, 24-year-old Brenton Bersin, is making a strong pitch for a spot on the 53-man roster, which will likely include only six receivers.
Bersin has been impressive thus far, and if he can keep it up, then look for him as a dark-horse candidate to make a surprise impact on the Panthers offense this season.
Punt Returners Not Looking Ginn-Like
When the team lost 2013 punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. to free agency, it was apparent that it might not be able to replace his explosiveness in the return game. But at this point, the Panthers are just looking for someone who can securely field a punt.
The team has tried out three players at the position so far: cornerback Antoine Cason, running back Kenjon Barner and receiver Philly Brown. And all have struggled to hang on to the ball.
Cason is the only experienced NFL punt returner of the three, as second-year pro Barner has returned only kickoffs for the team and Brown is just a rookie.
An ideal situation would be if Barner or Brown could earn the starting role, because the Panthers would like to keep their starting cornerback as fresh as possible. But Cason was very effective in San Diego as a punt returner (16.1 yards per return), so he could be in line for the start.
Tight Ends Impressing
Since 2011, the Panthers have seen a steady decline in two-tight end sets, but that will change in 2014.
With free-agent signee Ed Dickson and a matured Brandon Williams on the roster, the team has two solid receivers from the position whom they did not have last season.
But the list of potential targets does not end there; take a look at this excerpt from ESPN.com's David Newton's observations from the third day of camp:
Tight end Greg Olsen was wide open on a touchdown catch down the left sideline. Tight end Ed Dickson made a diving catch on a slant pattern. Tight end Brandon Williams made a nice over-the-shoulder catch deep in traffic. Tight end Mike McNeill made a tough catch in traffic over the middle. Tight end D.C. Jefferson made a solid catch in stride about 25 yards deep.
Clearly, the team will have the ammunition to throw plenty of multiple-tight end sets into their offensive game plan. This could be a difference-maker because it will allow them to give Olsen, a poor blocker, more rest while keeping a legitimate receiving tight end on the field.