The Carolina Panthers are right in the middle of their 2009 training camp. While the injury to mammoth-sized Maake Kemoeatu at the start of camp and the recent news that Steve Smith is likely out for the preseason have taken hold of the headlines, there is a constant news flow coming from the Sparkle City.
Here is a collection of my thoughts on camp so far.
We'll get the worst news out of the way first. We all know that Kemoeatu has been placed on IR with his achilles injury.
Steve Smith took an incidental shot from Chris Gamble and landed hard on his right shoulder. He was carted off the field and taken for X-rays, which turned out negative. Smith will likely be shut down for the preseason, but barring a setback will be ready for Week One.
Keep in mind that in 2003, when the Panthers made it to the Super Bowl, Jake Delhomme didn't have a single preseason game rep with Smith or Muhsin Muhammad.
Jon Beason has returned to practice after a slight hamstring tweak at the beginning of camp.
Jonathan Stewart has been limited in practice with his bum ankle, but it seems like more of a precautionary measure to ensure he's ready for Philadelphia.
Thomas Davis has been held out of practice with a knee injury but again, looks like more precaution. All of the guys mentioned above, along with Nate Salley and backup offensive lineman C.J. Davis have been working out on the sidelines during practice but have not been participating in the team activities.
Big Cat Makes a Surprise Appearance
Team owner Jerry Richardson, still recovering from a heart transplant that took place at the end of last season, made a surprise appearance to the Panthers' training camp activities on Monday morning.
Richardson, accompanied by former Panther Mike Rucker, gave a motivational speech to the team (pictured). The contents of that speech have remained under wraps as the players and coaches alike choose to plead the fifth when asked to elaborate upon the specifics.
Richardson and his golf cart have become a fixture at Panthers training camp, and it was great to hear the Big Cat is well on his way to a full recovery.
The New Defense
After stumbling out of the gates and being overmatched by the offense in the first few days of camp, Ron Meeks' new defense has been playing extremely well.
With an increased emphasis on stripping the ball and getting multiple players to each tackle, the unit as a whole has played with more energy and has frustrated the first team offense.
For those who attended Fan Fest last weekend, you saw the defense perform well in the short period of live action "scrimmage" the team put on. Granted, the players on both sides of the ball weren't quite the starters, but the basis behind the scheme was evident and was exciting to watch.
The Offense Returns
With all 11 starters back from last year's offensive unit, the emphasis in camp this year is on expanding on a successful playbook.
Offensive Coordinator Jeff Davidson has been working with his coaches and players to incorporate a few new looks on top of the play calls that carried the Panthers to a 12-4 record last season.
A lot has been said about the defense making strides but the chemistry and communication within the offensive group is setting the stage for another high-octane year.
The performance of camp so far might have to be awarded to second-year tight end Gary Barnidge. The Panthers dished out a pretty solid chunk of change this offseason to keep Jeff King around as a restricted free agent. King went into camp as the starter, with Dante Rosario behind him.
Barnidge has since been elevated to the first team and is working now as the starting tight end. His mutli-dimensional game is the biggest reason for the change. Not only is Barnidge a solid blocker, which is critical in the Panthers' run-heavy offense, but he is a heck of a pass catcher who can spread the field.
The Panthers haven't had a solid pass catching tight end since Wesley Walls left town, and if Barnidge can provide that element to an already explosive offense, fans could be in for a real treat.
Perhaps the most intriguing rookie at camp so far this year has not been the guy the Panthers traded their 2010 first round draft pick away for. Not that Everette Brown hasn't impressed in Spartanburg, but it seems like every day there is another Mike Goodson highlight that has those covering the camp blogging, tweeting, and chatting.
Goodson, the Panthers' fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M has gotten a good chunk of playing time at running back with Stewart and DeAngelo Williams getting a considerable amount of time off.
Goodson's speed and agility from whatever position the coaching staff plays him continuously impresses, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that Goodson could get the call on kickoff return duties.
Speaking of Brown, his pass rushing techniques have had many camp spectators questioning his status as a rookie. Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jordan Gross has said that Brown is stronger than he is given credit for, and with the Panthers having depth problems on the defensive line, Brown could get a chance to help the team right away.
The battle for roster spots at the receiver position has been a heated one. The general consensus is that the Panthers will carry five receivers on the final 53-man roster.
Smith, Muhammad, and Dwayne Jarrett are three locks and Ryne Robinson is pretty much guaranteed the fourth slot. The real competition is for that last spot on the depth chart.
So far Kenny Moore, Jason Carter, and Larry Beavers have all made a case for that fifth spot. Just as it seems that one will run away with the competition, the others make equally impressive plays to level the field.
If I had to make a prediction, I would guess that Kenny Moore will escape the executioner at the end of the preseason, but we'll see how these guys fare in game action before making too much of a solid prediction.
Dwayne Jarrett has been given a prime opportunity with Steve Smith going down. Jarrett will be able to work with the first team as a starting receiver and will get a good number of reps with the starters in preseason action. If this isn't the best chance that Jarrett has had to prove his worth here then I don't know what is.
The word from camp is that Jarrett has improved and should be able to contribute this season as a solid third wideout.
Only problem is, we've heard this before.
It's Almost Here
The Panthers first chance to put all of their new pieces on the field and evaluate the effectiveness of the changes that have been made will be Monday night, as they will travel to the Meadowlands to take on the Giants in primetime.
Don't expect to see too much from the Panthers' starters, as another major injury would be a devastating blow at this point. As is usually the norm under Fox, the starters will probably see two series.
Want to read about the Panthers' practices every day? There are several ways for you to do this. Check out one of the following:
-Follow Andrew Mason of Panthers.com on Twitter. Mason provides realtime updates straight from the sidelines in Spartanburg. You can also check out Mason's column, 'Mason's Minutes' at Panthers.com, complete with photos and interviews.
-Check out Steve Reed of the Gaston Gazette and CarolinaGrowl.com's daily recaps from practice. Also, for those of you in the Charlotte area, check out Reed's live updates from Spartanburg on WFNZ 610 AM at 8:40am on 'The Mac Attack' and at 12:45pm on 'The Frank and Buck Show'.