- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was trying to explain what he liked about offseason workouts as a group of kids surrounded coach Ron Rivera chanting, "We love coach!''
Gettleman smiled as he glanced at the scene that nearly drowned out his voice.
But it's not just Rivera that makes Gettleman believe the Panthers have a chance to record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It's also the attitude of the players.
"I think they feel they have unfinished business," he said. "It's been since they walked in the door back in April. They've worked very, very hard. They've been very diligent. They're focused."
Rivera has had something to with that. Instilling work ethic starts at the top and filters down. Rivera learned a long time ago as a player with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears what it takes to be successful.
Creating good competition at every position has helped. Players fighting to win -- or keep -- a job tend to work harder than ones that feel they are secure.
That the critics believe the Panthers will take a hard tumble from last season's 12-4 record also is a factor. It has created a chip on shoulders to prove them wrong.
Rivera seems to relish in Carolina being overlooked as a playoff contender. He had sergeant first class Cedric King, who lost both of his legs in duty, speak to the team before breaking for vacation.
"He talked about ... that a lot of people have written you off, a lot of people aren't expecting much of you, then think last year was a bolt of lightning and it won't strike twice,'' said Rivera, who has had King speak to the team before. "It was neat to have him give these guys a little parting shot in terms of 'let's go out and defy a lot of people.' ''
Neither Gettleman nor Rivera would grade the offseason or make predictions other than for Gettleman to say he likes where the team is -- now.
But a lot remains to be determined between now and the opener at Tampa Bay. So with players and coaches headed for a break before reporting for training camp on July 24, here are a few final observations from offseason workouts:
Most important competition: This hasn't changed since offseason workouts began. It's finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler are the primary contenders, with Garry Williams expected to figure in as well.
"One of the blessings we have is these pass-rushing defensive ends that we've got," Gettleman said of Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and rookie Kony Ealy. "The toughest days for these [tackles] is going to be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We've talked to them about helping each other, with the tackles talking to the ends and the ends talking to the tackles. ... You just let nature take its course."
Bell appears to have the upper hand, but don't rule out Chandler. A former defensive lineman, the Panthers signed him to a three-year extension this week worth close to $8 million. Like he did last year, Chandler will spend a few weeks with Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater between now and camp.
Chandler got to know Slater through his son, Matt, at UCLA.
As Gettleman reminded, "the kids wants it.''
Once the Panthers solidify who will protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side, the talent is there on the rest of the line to be solid.
Toughest cut: That likely will come at tight end, where there are five legitimate candidates to make the roster. Greg Olsen is a given. So is Ed Dickson, signed from Baltimore. Those give Newton two solid targets. Former basketball player Brandon Williams continues to impress as well. Free-agent acquisition Mike McNeill should be kept as a blocking tight end, and Richie Brockel has the flexibility to play tight end and fullback. I could see the Panthers keeping one less wide receiver -- or somebody from another position -- on the final 53-man roster to keep all of these players.
Good to see: You could name several players here, beginning with Newton. The team's franchise quarterback took snaps in seven-on-seven drills in Thursday's final minicamp practice, putting him about a month ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation for March ankle surgery. But the player I'll go with is outside linebacker Thomas Davis. He wasn't wearing a knee brace on Thursday, and looks faster than ever -- and he looked pretty fast last season with the brace. After becoming the first known NFL player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee, an extra step for Davis will only make the NFL's No. 2 defense from last season stronger.
The beast: You'll probably get tired of reading this, but first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin really is a beast. The 6-5, 240-pound wide receiver made yet another unbelievable catch on Thursday, reaching over the cornerback in the left corner of the end zone and literally snatching the ball from the defender's hands while falling backwards and staying inbounds. Benjamin began OTAs going high over the middle between two defenders to snatch a pass so high many couldn't reach. The play made Gettleman go to his knees and grab his heart. If this carries over into the season, there will be "Steve Smith Who?'' T-shirts all over town.
The roster: I won't give you the full depth chart right now, but I'll give you the starters as I see them going into camp. And I'm going with a three wide receiver set on offense, although you'll see a lot of two tight end sets.
Offense: Quarterback -- Cam Newton; WR -- Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Kelvin Benjamin; TE -- Greg Olsen; LT -- Nate Chandler; LG -- Amini Silatolu; C -- Ryan Kalil; RG -- Trai Turner (R); RT -- Byron Bell; RB -- DeAngelo Williams.
Defense: DE -- Charles Johnson; DT -- Colin Cole; DT -- Star Lotulelei; DE -- Greg Hardy; MLB Luke Kuechly; OLB -- Thomas Davis; OLB -- Chase Blackburn; CB -- Melvin White; CB -- Antoine Cason; FS -- Thomas DeCoud; SS -- Roman Harper.
Kick returner: Kenjon Barner
Punt returner: Kenjon Barner
Punter: Brad Nortman
Placekicker: Graham Gano
Keep in mind Charles Godfrey, moving from safety to cornerback, will figure in as a nickel back or possibly every down corner when he returns in full from an Achilles injury. And I went with Chandler at left tackle just because I have a hunch he will come out of this competition with the job.