Tuesday, May 27, 2014
5 things to watch as Panthers return to field
By David Newton
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and half a dozen of his teammates spent Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway signing autographs, posing for pictures and getting a behind-the-scenes look at stock car racing during the Coca-Cola 600.
Now it's back to business.
The Panthers return to the field on Tuesday for the first time since they lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional playoff game in January as Phase III of offseason workouts begin.
It will be the first time all the free agents, rookies and returning players have been through an organized session outside of the weight room and classroom.
"It's going to be great,'' Olsen said. "We had a good week [working out together]. It will be interesting to see how it all starts to come together.''
There are many questions to resolve from a team coming off a 12-4 record and NFC South championship. Here are five areas to keep an eye on:
The receivers: As you've probably read more times than you can count, the Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from last season. Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, was released. The next three went to other teams in free agency. The Panthers replaced them with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Benjamin was impressive in rookie camp, but that was going against players who won't be on the roster. This will be his first big-time test. But the players I'm most interested in seeing are youngsters Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin. One of the reasons the Panthers let Smith go was to allow one or more of these players to develop. One needs to emerge for this to be a strong group.
The offensive line: Outside of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, this unit looks to be completely revamped. The key position is left tackle, where Jordan Gross retired.Right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler are the front-runners for that spot. Much doubt has been cast on whether Bell is ready -- or talented enough -- for the move. How well this group does depends largely on whether he or Chandler emerges as a legitimate candidate to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side.
The secondary: Cornerback Melvin White, an undrafted rookie last season, is the only returning player from the four that started against San Francisco. Like the offensive line, this unit will be revamped with a mixture of veterans in free-agent safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud and young players looking to prove themselves. I'll be most interested in seeing one player who is not expected to compete in OTAs. That's Charles Godfrey, who will move from safety to cornerback. Godfrey missed most of last season with an Achilles injury that he continues to recover from, then had his contract significantly reduced to return and compete at a new position.
The distraction: Defensive end Greg Hardy is expected to be on the field for the first time since being arrested on domestic violence charges on May 13. His next court date is June 27 and he hasn't spoken to the media since his arrest, so it will be interesting to see how he and the team handles this. Coach Ron Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman have said they won't respond until Hardy's case is resolved, and their focus will be on football. But there will be a lot of eyes off the field on Hardy, who was given the franchise tag in February. Meanwhile, second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, will get a lot of work as the Panthers expect him to be a big part of the rotation.
The quarterbacks: Newton will remain sidelined, recovering from offseason ankle surgery. That leaves the throwing to backup Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb. I'm most intrigued by Webb here. The Panthers know what they have in Anderson, a pure pocket passer. They signed Webb from Minnesota, which had moved him back and forth between quarterback and wide receiver, to give them a signal-caller who more closely does the things Newton does with his legs. If he's going to make the team, this will be his best chance to prove himself.