5 Questions Carolina Panthers Must Answer in Training Camp

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent IJune 25, 2012

5 Questions Carolina Panthers Must Answer in Training Camp

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    The Carolina Panthers report to training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., on July 27, and there is as much optimism surrounding the team as there are unanswered questions heading into the 2012 NFL season.

    The Panthers defense battled with health issues all of last season and they enter training camp with questions and competition battles at several key positions, including on the defensive line and in the secondary.

    Across the line of scrimmage, Brandon LaFell must prove he is worthy of the No. 2 wide receiver position and everyone is wondering what new gimmicks offensive coordinator Rob "Chud" Chudzinski has up his sleeve.

    Finally, the Panthers' special teams units were the worst in the NFL in 2011, and we will soon find out whether their offseason focus to improve on special teams was a success.

    Here is a look at five of the most burning questions the Panthers have yet to answer heading into training camp next month.

No. 1: Will the Panthers Be Healthy to Start the Season?

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    The Carolina Panthers' 2011 season was marred by injuries, beginning when they selected cornerback Brandon Hogan in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft despite his torn ACL.

    Then, in training camp, defensive tackle Ron Edwards (triceps), wide receiver David Gettis (ACL) and tight end Gary Barnidge (ankle) each suffered season-ending injuries.

    However, the most devastating injuries occurred in the first two games of the regular season when starting linebackers Jon Beason (Achilles) and Thomas Davis (ACL) were lost for the year.

    Hogan spent most of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list before returning for some light action late in the season, and the rest of Carolina's walking wounded have participated in offseason mini camps and organized team activities (OTAs).

    As for the Panthers' star linebackers, Beason showed amazing agility and quickness in this video he released on YouTube of an offseason workout that took place in April 2012, and he participated fully in the Panthers' final mini camp in June.

    Davis, however, is still being eased into things as he attempts to become the first NFL player to return to the field after three ACL surgeries.

    Carolina Panthers fans can only hope their team makes it through training camp without any serious injuries and begins the 2012 NFL season with a healthy roster.

No. 2: Who Is the No. 2 Receiver?

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    The Carolina Panthers passed on Plaxico Burress' highly-publicized plea to become a Carolina Panther on a Charlotte sports radio show last week, so they must be set at wide receiver, right?

    Not necessarily.

    Remember, the Panthers worked out a veteran wide receiver, Jacoby Jones, in early May before he signed with the Baltimore Ravens and it would not be surprising to see another experienced receiver sign with the team in the weeks leading up to—or even during—training camp.

    However, the "Panthers Way" is to build the team through the draft and develop young, homegrown talent.

    The coaching staff likes the potential it sees in Brandon LaFell, who came on strong towards the end of the 2011 season and could be a make-or-break player for the Panthers this season, but I do not believe they are fully convinced he is the best man for the position.

    LaFell is Carolina's likely No. 2 receiver to start the season, but I expect fellow third-year receiver, David Gettis, to earn his way onto the field as well.

    The season may be halfway over before we really know who Cam Newton's second-favorite wide receiver target behind Steve Smith will be.

No. 3: Who Is the No. 2 Cornerback?

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    Chris Gamble had a Pro Bowl-caliber season at cornerback for the Carolina Panthers in 2011, but the same cannot be said for his counterpart across the field, Captain Munnerlyn.

    Munnerlyn had the statistically worst season of any starting cornerback in the NFL last season, surrendering a league-high 73.8-percent completion rate and 10.0 yards per attempted pass thrown in his direction.

    Second-year player Brandon Hogan, who sat out most of his rookie season on the PUP list while recovering from a torn ACL, and rookie Josh Norman, a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, will compete with the undersized Munnerlyn for the starting position.

    Though Hogan faced stiffer collegiate competition than Norman while playing at West Virginia, Norman performed well at the Panthers' mini camps and OTA workouts this offseason, and he is definitely up for the challenge.

    The entire Panthers' secondary, with the exception of Gamble's spot, is open for competition, but the No. 2 cornerback position is the most vulnerable and important defensive position still up for grabs heading into training camp.

No. 4: Have the Panthers Improved on Special Teams?

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    The Carolina Panthers arguably made their most significant upgrades on special teams this offseason after collectively ranking last in the NFL in 2011, according to Football Outsiders.

    The offseason additions of special teams stalwarts Haruki Nakamura (safety, Baltimore Ravens), Kenny Onatolu (linebacker, Minnesota Vikings) and Mike Tolbert (fullback, San Diego Chargers) should greatly improve the Panthers' coverage teams, which allowed three punt returns and a kickoff return for touchdowns in 2011.

    Carolina also upgraded at the punt returner position by drafting Joe Adams, who led the nation with four scoring punt returns and had a 16.9 yards-per-return average last season at Arkansas.

    The Panthers also drafted a punter for the first time in team history, selecting Wisconsin's Brad Nortman in the sixth round.

    Adams will compete with beleaguered wide receiver Armanti Edwards, who averaged an NFL-worst 5.5 yards per punt return last season, for the starting punt returner position.

    The proof will be on the playing field, but it appears that this is one question we may already know the answer to—yes, the Panthers have improved on special teams.

    They certainly cannot be any worse than they were last season.

No. 5: Can the Defensive Line Stop the Run?

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    The Carolina Panthers were abysmal against the run in 2011, allowing 130.8 rushing yards per game a season ago.

    Their inability to stuff opposing running backs for most of the season—they allowed seven different 100-yard rushers in 2011—had as much to do with the poor play of the interior defensive line as it did the loss of their best two linebackers, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

    Carolina's only true veteran on the interior line last season, Ron Edwards, tore his triceps and was lost for the season in his first training-camp practice with the team, so the Panthers turned to a pair of rookies, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain, to shore up the defensive front.

    Barring another injury, the Panthers will have a healthy Edwards in 2012, and Fua and McClain will be joined by Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse in the defensive line rotation.

    Carolina will get an early test of their ability to stop the run in their first and third preseason games against the Houston Texans and the New York Jets.

    Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers.

    You can follow Jimmy Grappone on Twitter @imapone24.

    Also, check out my new writer fan page on Facebook, and be sure to "like" me. I look forward to your comments.

    Recent articles by Jimmy Grappone:

    Constructing the NFL's OKC Thunder

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