Carolina Panthers: Amini Silatolu

Panthers rule Williams out for Saints

December, 5, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers officially ruled running back DeAngelo Williams and guard Amini Silatolu out for Sunday’s game at New Orleans.

 Williams, the team's all-time leading rusher, fractured a bone in his right hand during this past week’s loss at Minnesota. Jonathan Stewart, who had 85 yards on 12 carries against the Vikings, will start.

Silatolu has missed the past two games and five of the past six with a knee injury.

Center Ryan Kalil and defensive end Kony Ealy returned to practice on Friday after being sent home on Thursday with a stomach virus. Mario Addison (foot) and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (ankle), who did not practice on Wednesday, both are listed as probable.

Lotulelei has missed the past two games.

Tight end Greg Olsen practiced for the second straight day after missing Wednesday’s practice with swelling in his knee. He was limited on Friday, but coach Ron Rivera expects his leading receiver to play against the Saints.

Rivera said no decision has been made on whether rookie Tre Boston would get the start over Thomas DeCoud at free safety. But Boston said earlier in the week he’s been getting a lot of first-team snaps in practice.

“We’re going to rotate [them],’’ Rivera said. “Looking to shake some things up.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Mike Remmers could pass for the Minnesota Vikings mascot “Ragnar’’ with another 4 inches of growth on his beard and a horned helmet.

The Carolina Panthers simply hope he can pass for a starting right tackle.

With guard-turned-tackle Amini Silatolu doubtful for Sunday’s game in Minneapolis, the journeyman lineman will make his first career start in the 1 p.m. game against the Vikings.

Who is this player who will help protect quarterback Cam Newton?

Good question.

Here’s what I know. He entered the NFL in 2012 with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted rookie out of Oregon State. He was cut at the end of the preseason, and then signed to the Tampa Bay practice squad.

The San Diego Chargers signed him in October 2013. He made his NFL debut -- and currently only NFL playing time -- in Week 7. He suffered a high ankle sprain a few plays after replacing the starting left tackle and was cut three days later.

Minnesota signed Remmers in November 2013. He didn’t play a game. He was on the St. Louis Rams practice squad when the Panthers signed him in on Oct. 28 due to injuries on the offensive line.

He appeared headed for a backup role against the Vikings until Silatolu, preparing to replace starter Nate Chandler (injured reserve, knee), experienced soreness and swelling in his knee on Thursday. When Silatolu missed Friday’s practice, Remmers became the best option.

Need more? Here’s how Remmers, 25, described himself.

“I’m very hard working,’’ he said. “I’m smart. I do everything I possibly can to make the block. I’ve got good technique and listen well.’’

That Remmers spent time with the Vikings at least makes him ready for Sunday’s temperature, predicted to be in the mid-teens.

“I remember one time I got in my car and it was negative-17,’’ Remmers said. “Your mustache literally freezes immediately once you step outside.’’

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Remmers has done a nice job in practice.

“We’ve watched the last few weeks with interest because of the situation we’ve had,’’ Rivera said of injuries on the line. “We’ve kind of been looking for the right opportunity to put him in this position.’’

Rivera added that Remmers’ technique stood out when the staff first evaluated him. He didn’t mention the scruffy beard that makes the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder mascot-worthy, but it stands out as well.

“I need to grow little handlebars,’’ Remmers said. “I’d really fit in then.’’
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Amini Silatolu said earlier in the week he expected to make his season debut at right tackle when the Carolina Panthers face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in Minneapolis.

That's in doubt now.

Silatolu, who has played guard since being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, missed Thursday's practice with a knee injury. He missed the final 13 games last season after suffering a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee.

He was inactive for Carolina's last game, a 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Nov. 16, due to swelling and soreness in the knee.

Before the latest setback Silatolu appeared set to replace starting right tackle Nate Chandler, who was placed on injured reserve last week with a knee injury.

If Silatolu is unavailable for Minnesota, Carolina will go with Chris Scott or Mike Remmers. Scott also is a converted guard who was released at the end of training camp. He signed to the practice squad in mid-October and moved up to the 53-man roster later in the month.

Remmers is with his sixth different team since being signed by Denver in 2012 as an undrafted rookie out of Oregon State. The Panthers (3-7-1) recently signed him off the St. Louis Rams practice squad.

Carolina's offensive line has been decimated by injuries this season. Center Ryan Kalil is the only starter who hasn't missed at least one game.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- First up in the Carolina Panthers’ attempt to replace starting right tackle Nate Chandler appears to be veteran Amini Silatolu.

Silatolu has played left guard since the Panthers selected him in the second round of the 2012 draft.

But with Chandler placed on injured reserve with a knee injury last week, and Carolina impressed with the way undrafted rookie Andrew Norwell played at left guard while Silatolu was out three games with a knee injury, a switch was made.

For Silatolu (6-4, 315), it is a return to the position he last played at Division II Midwestern State in 2011 when he was a starting left tackle.

Not that it’s a done deal Silatolu will start on Sunday at Minnesota. Coach Ron Rivera said he’s looking at Mike Remmers, Chris Scott and David Foucault as well.

“This is going to be a work in progress,’’ Rivera said on Monday as the Panthers (3-7-1) resumed practice after a five-day bye break. “We’ll take a look at a couple other guys.

“We’ll take a look at them on Wednesday. That’ll be a pretty hard practice and give us a good feel as who we’re going to go with there.”

Norwell missed Monday’s practice with a leg injury, which meant Scott got some work at left guard as well. Rivera didn’t appear overly concerned.

The only other player who sat out of practice was starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He missed the last game against Atlanta with a knee injury.

Lotulelei said prior to the bye week that he had targeted Minnesota for his return. He didn’t sounds as confident on Monday. Neither did Rivera.

Rookie Bene’ Benwikere, who has missed the past six games with an ankle sprain, worked at full speed and could resume his duties as the nickel corner.

W2W4: Panthers vs. Eagles

November, 10, 2014
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Quarterback Cam Newton says every week is a "must-win situation" for the Carolina Panthers for the rest of the season.

He’s right.

The Panthers are 3-5-1, having gone 1-5-1 over their past seven games. Their best -- and likely only -- chance to return to the playoffs is to win the NFC South.

They trail division-leader New Orleans after a 28-10 loss to the Saints 12 days ago. With a December 7 game at New Orleans looming, they can’t afford to fall further behind.

Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Panthers face NFC East-leading Philadelphia (6-2) on Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field:
  • Fast-break football: The Eagles wear defenses down with their up-tempo offense. It is especially hard on linemen that have to shuffle in and out at speeds they’re not accustomed to. If Philadelphia gets into a rhythm where linemen get stuck on the field for six or more plays it typically spells trouble. It is especially a precarious situation for the Panthers since they rotate so many linemen on a normal basis, particularly at end where Wes Horton is considered the run-stopper and Mario Addison the pass-rusher. The key will be holding the Eagles to minimum yardage on first and second down so they can’t hit you with those quick runs on third and short. That starting quarterback Nick Foles (collarbone) is out and Mark Sanchez is in could be a factor. Sanchez is prone to turnovers, having thrown more interceptions than touchdowns for his career. He had two touchdowns and two interceptions after replacing Foles last week.
  • Newton
    Slumping Newton: The Panthers quarterback hasn’t thrown a touchdown in two straight games for the first time in his career, and he’s completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the past three games. He’s become impatient at times, taking off and running before going through all of his reads. At times he’s become fixated on rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was targeted 10 times in his last outing but caught only two passes for 18 yards. Newton needs to get back to spreading the ball around more, as he was doing early in the season when the offense had more success. As he said this week, he has to trust the system and trust his teammates. Newton has risen to the occasion on Monday night in the past. He is 2-0 with five touchdown passes and no interceptions for a quarterback rating of 90.3. Over the past three games that rating has been 24.6.
  • Healthy offensive line: Both teams have had their share of injuries up front this season. The Eagles have gone through a league-high 11 offensive linemen, followed by Carolina with 10. The good news for Carolina is the left side of the line will be back with tackle Byron Bell and Amini Silatolu. This is key for many reasons. Tight end Greg Olsen stayed in to help slow the pass rush for the past few weeks. His production has dropped significantly with him catching only four passes for 46 yards in the past two games. Getting him more involved in the offense will help Newton (above). Stability up front also should help Newton’s accuracy. He was throwing off his back foot more than normal in the previous outing because there wasn’t room to step up in the pocket or he simply didn’t have a pocket to step into.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are as close to full strength from an injury standpoint as they have been all season heading into Monday night’s game at Philadelphia.

With the exception of nickel cornerback Bene’ Benwikere (ankle), all players who missed Thursday night’s 28-10 loss to New Orleans were back at practice on Wednesday.

That included the left side of the offensive line in tackle Byron Bell and guard Amini Silatolu. Bell said the time off allowed the swelling in his elbow and knee to go down. While he’s not 100 percent, he vowed, “I’m playing Monday.’’

Starting right guard Trai Turner also was back, but undrafted rookie Andrew Norwell was getting work with the first team at that position.

Norwell started the last two games for Silatolu on the left side. Coach Ron Rivera said Turner, recovering from a knee injury, looked “OK.’’ He said a decision on his status moving forward won’t be made until after seeing how he responds on Thursday.

But Rivera said for the Panthers (3-5-1) to have any chance of making a playoff run over the final seven games the offensive line – as well as the secondary – has to develop some continuity.

Just having everybody healthy on the line is a good starting point.

“It’s good for a lot of things,’’ Rivera said. “First of all, we got to increase the age of our offensive line by having guys back on the field. You get an opportunity to build that cohesiveness again. We’ve used different offensive lines almost the entire season. It would be nice to settle in and have a group play together for a while.’’

Meanwhile, Joe Webb was not wearing a red jersey and worked with the wide receivers instead of the quarterbacks.

Webb had six career catches in his brief stint at that position with the Minnesota Vikings. He returned two kickoff for 53 yards the past two weeks while replacing the injured Philly Brown (concussion), who also was back at practice.

Midseason report: Carolina Panthers

November, 5, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Third-and-goal from the Seattle 1 in a Week 8 home loss sums up the first half of the Carolina Panthers' season.

Seattle blew up the right side of Carolina's offensive line, which had two undrafted rookies playing at guard and tackle because of injuries. Running back Jonathan Stewart lost 7 yards.

Carolina settled for a field goal.

Missed opportunities, as well as inconsistency on offense and a defense that has gone from one of the best in the NFL to subpar at best, says it all. So do injuries that limited leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to six quarters and led to four undrafted players starting on the offensive line.

Midseason MVP: This has to go to tight end Greg Olsen. He's been Carolina's most dependable and consistent player. He ranks among the league's top tight ends in catches (45), receiving yards (539) and touchdowns (5) to put him on a career-best pace in all three categories. In a Week 7 loss at Green Bay, he set a regular-season high with 105 yards receiving on eight catches. Until the past two games, when he was limited to four catches for 46 yards, he had easily been Carolina's best weapon. He has made a strong case for his first Pro Bowl selection.

Biggest disappointment: The defense. You easily could say defensive end Greg Hardy, who, before the third game, was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. His off-the-field issue has by far been the biggest single-player disappointment. But the defense overall has underperformed at mind-boggling proportions. It has gone from No. 2 in the league in points allowed per game (15.01) to 25th (26.2). It has given up 236 points in nine games after allowing only 241 all of last season. Bad gap control. Missed tackles. Lack of discipline. Everything this unit excelled at in 2013 has been consistently lacking.

Best moment: It occurred on second-and-10 early in the fourth quarter of a Week 2 win over Detroit. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had just dropped a routine pass. Quarterback Cam Newton came right back to Benjamin on the left side. The ball was overthrown and off target, but 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin twisted his body and hauled in the pass with one hand, then got two feet down before going out of bounds, for a 24-yard pickup. It led to the decisive touchdown and showcased the reason the Panthers drafted Benjamin to replace all-time leading receiver Steve Smith.

Worst moment: Baltimore faced third-and-2 from the Carolina 39 in the second quarter of a scoreless game in Week 4. Quarterback Joe Flacco overthrew a pass to tight end Owen Daniels, who got his fingertips on the pass just enough to tip the ball into the air. Smith caught the ball in stride and went 61 yards for a touchdown. Smith, whose release in March dominated Carolina's offseason talk, went on to catch seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers lost 38-10 to begin a 1-4-1 skid.

Key to the second half: The schedule gets considerably easier. The combined record of Carolina's remaining opponents is 21-32. Injured players are starting to get healthy. Leading rusher Williams returned for a Week 9 loss to New Orleans after missing four straight games. Starting left tackle Byron Bell, left guard Amini Silatolu and possibly right guard Trai Turner should be back for Week 10 against Philadelphia. But it all comes down to the consistency of the defense. When it plays well, the Panthers have a chance. If it doesn't, repeating as NFC South champs won't happen.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New Orleans Saints will start five drafted players on their offensive line in Thursday night's NFC South showdown against the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers will start one.

In terms of experience, the Saints will have 41 combined years up front. The Panthers will have one undrafted rookie making his second start and four other players with less than 20 full years combined.

[+] EnlargeTrai Turner
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesTrai Turner, the one starter on Carolina's offensive line who was drafted, was taken in the third round of this year's draft.
It begs the question: Should the Panthers have done more during the offseason to strengthen their line, particularly at tackle?

"No," coach Ron Rivera said. "We felt good coming out of camp, and I thought it showed early on. If we can get everybody healthy and get everybody back, we have a chance."

To be fair, the Panthers (3-4-1) didn’t plan to have four undrafted players starting on the line. Amini Silatolu, a second-round pick in 2012, was the starting left guard before a calf injury sidelined him three weeks ago.

Right guard Trai Turner was drafted in the third round this year.

Carolina also didn’t plan to be this inexperienced. Garry Williams, who had 20 starts since coming to Carolina in 2009, was set to be a backup guard and tackle until he was placed on injured reserve with a back injury.

So injuries have taken a toll. Undrafted rookie David Foucault of Canada, in an idea world, would be on the practice squad. Because the Panthers wanted to protect him from being picked up by another team he was kept on the 53-man roster.

He played 30 snaps in Sunday’s 13-9 loss to Seattle because of injuries.

And it could be worse against the Saints if left tackle Byron Bell (knee, elbow) can’t play. Despite being undrafted out of New Mexico in 2011, he has the second-most starts (48) on the line behind Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.

But the Panthers did make the conscious decision to go with undrafted players Bell and Nate Chandler at the two tackle positions after making a run at Cincinnati’s Anthony Collins, who signed with Tampa Bay.

They also made the choice to pick wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round instead of a tackle. It’s hard to debate that since Benjamin, with 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns, is a rookie of the year candidate.

And when you look at the tackles available after the top four went in the first 19 picks, none have done anything to warrant being selected in the first round.

"We’ve got guys that can come in and play winning football," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "The hardest thing about it is just getting those guys the quality reps during the course of the week.

"We like the guys we have now. You would like for those guys to have more experience than they have."

The good news is this group hasn’t cost Carolina much. The Panthers rank 27th in the league in offensive line spending. The Jets, Redskins and Falcons rank Nos. 3-5 and they have a combined record of 6-18. The Saints at 3-4 rank eighth.

Is what Carolina has good enough to play winning football?

"It has been good enough to win," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It’s up to people like myself to make things right. There’s been holes to have room to run through, there’s been time to throw the football and it has been opportunities for us to make big plays."

Getting running back DeAngelo Williams back after missing the past four games with an ankle injury should help. He had 106 yards on 25 carries in slightly over five quarters when the line was healthy.

While Newton has been sacked eight times in the last four games, the Panthers are a respectable 15th in the league in sacks allowed per play.

"We have a great group of guys," Chandler said. "Whatever anyone else says really, there’s no place for it to be in our heads. We know we’re a good group, and that’s what we’re going to prove."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams appears on target to return for an Oct. 30 Thursday night game against the New Orleans Saints.

Williams has missed the past three games with an ankle injury and is not expected to play Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

He has been on the practice field this week working on the side with the trainer, but has not participated in drills.

"This is kind of like Jonathan [Stewart] a couple of weeks ago, sitting there saying, 'How close are we, how close are we?'" Rivera said of his other back who returned Sunday against Green Bay after missing three games with a sprained knee.

"We could put him out there and say, 'Well, we were 95 percent close,' and all of a sudden something bad happens and now you're back to 65 percent. DeAngelo is the same way. We're being very smart with this, very calculated."

Nickel cornerback Bene' Benwikere (ankle), linebacker Chase Blackburn (knee), wide receiver Philly Brown (concussion), guard Amini Silatolu (calf), guard Trai Turner (knee), running back Fozzy Whittaker (quad) and right tackle Nate Chandler (thigh) also did not practice.

Rivera said he expects Chandler to play against Seattle. Silatolu appears doubtful, which means rookie Andrew Norwell will start at left guard.

Left tackle Byron Bell practiced for the second straight day after suffering an elbow contusion Sunday and is expected to play.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers could have running back DeAngelo Williams back on the practice field Wednesday, coach Ron Rivera said Monday.

Williams has missed the past three games with a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half of a Sept. 28 loss at Baltimore. The team’s all-time leading rusher hasn’t participated in practice since.

Williams walked through the locker room Monday with no visible signs of a limp, but there was tape on his right ankle.

The Panthers' offensive line has several injury situations to work through this week. Rookie right guard Trai Turner has a sprained ankle and knee and likely won’t be available for next Sunday’s game against Seattle.

Turner suffered the injury in the first half of Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Green Bay.

Left tackle Byron Bell suffered an elbow contusion that doesn’t appear to be serious. His status for the Seattle game will be determined later in the week, but Rivera sounded optimistic on his availability.

Left guard Amini Silatolu, who missed Sunday’s game with a calf injury, could return this week.

Rivera didn’t sound optimistic that nickel cornerback Bene Benwikere, who missed his second straight start with an ankle injury, would return. But he said Benwikere would replace Charles Godfrey in the lineup when he does.

Rivera remained in wait-and-see mode on whether Josh Norman, who has missed two games with a concussion, would return as a starting cornerback.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers will be without their top three running backs and possibly starting defensive end Charles Johnson when they face the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

Quarterback Cam Newton’s surgically repaired left ankle remains an issue.

The defense has given up 75 points in consecutive losses after giving up only 21 in the first two games.

Yes, there are a lot of questions as Carolina (2-2) begins the second quarter of the 2014 season. I’m here to answer them for you:

@DNewtonESPN: No. Players, for the most part, understand it's a business. Veterans, even those that have been with the same organization, get released or not re-signed all the time. San Francisco traded Joe Montana to Kansas City and let Jerry Rice go to Oakland. I can't think of two bigger names than that as examples. Do I agree with the way the Steve Smith release was handled? No, if it went down exactly as Smith said on the radio. A player that one day might have his statue outside the stadium deserves better treatment. Not making excuses, but Dave Gettleman was a year into the job. He came from a New York Giants organization that was tight-lipped, to say the least. Perhaps he learned from this experience. But I can't see it influencing future free agents from coming here. In the end, money talks louder than Smith.

@DNewtonESPN: I appreciate your sarcasm. My answer is serious, though. Of course, Smith has lost a step. He's 35. But he's still playing at a high level and is a threat every time he steps on the field. He proved that last week against the Panthers. The bigger question should be: Can Smith still do this for 16 weeks?

@DNewtonESPN: First, there aren't any good options. Second, to bring somebody in and implement him into the system would take longer than you think. What you see is what you're going to get with Byron Bell. Either he steps up and plays to the potential the Panthers saw in him or they go looking for a replacement next year in the draft or free agency -- or both. They probably will do that regardless. Right tackle Nate Chandler hasn't played all that well, either. But give this group time. Remember, you've got a former defensive player in Chandler, a guard in Amini Silatolu coming off an ACL injury, another guard in Fernando Velasco coming off an Achilles injury and Bell at a new position. Chemistry takes time to develop.

@DNewtonESPN: I've said from the beginning it would take two to three players to replace Greg Hardy. So yes, he is replaceable. But after watching this defense allow 75 points in the last two games, something is missing. It could be Hardy.

@DNewtonESPN: Not yet. The Panthers still are tied for the NFC South lead and they still have enough pieces to fix the problem. NFL players are resilient. Look at Tampa Bay. The Bucs looked to be in a shambles two weeks ago, and then they went to Pittsburgh and won. The Giants looked like the worst team in the NFL after the first two weeks. Now they look like a top-15 team. Heck, who thought the Panthers would win eight straight at 1-3 a year ago.

@DNewtonESPN: Newton has been dealing with this injury since his senior season at Auburn. Each offseason, with rest, it has gotten better. This time it didn't. By the time the trainers and doctors realized something needed to be done, it was March. In hindsight, immediately after the season would have been better. But you know what they say about hindsight.

@DNewtonESPN: Yes, unless the Panthers simply decide they're going to take a big hit on the salary cap and get nothing in return. DeAngelo Williams has one year left on his deal and will count $6.3 million against the 2015 cap. Jonathan Stewart has three years remaining, and $2.5 million of his 2015 salary is fully guaranteed. He has an $8.3 million camp number next year. Both are making too much to trade and are too expensive to cut. 
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The offensive line for the Carolina Panthers appears set.

A big question entering training camp, the revamped line looks like this as Carolina ended its stay on Tuesday at Wofford College: Byron Bell, left tackle; Amini Silatolu, left guard; Ryan Kalil, center; Trai Turner, right guard; Nate Chandler, right tackle.

The only real question entering camp was whether Bell or Chandler would replace the retired Jordan Gross as the left tackle. They flip-flopped between right and left for the first week and a half.

But Bell took most of the reps at left last week and started there in the preseason opener against Buffalo. He took all of the snaps there -- except when he was spelled for what was described as patella tendinitis on Monday -- the past couple of days.

"You can see we're pretty close to settling on a group," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "Now it's a matter of them learning to play with each other, get comfortable, trust each other."

As complementary as coaches were of Bell after his performance against Buffalo, he still appears shaky on the bull rush. He was pushed back into the quarterback against the Bills a couple of times, and Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy did the same Tuesday during one-on-one pass rush drills.

"We have some work to do," Kalil said "There is going to be some growing pains with this group [compared] with some of the older groups we had. But we have some really tremendous talent that I think will set us up for years to come.

"I have been happy with all of the guys, Byron at left tackle, Trai coming in, first timer. He's been doing a really good job."

A lot more will be learned in Sunday night's preseason game against Kansas City in which the starters will play into the third quarter because of a short turnaround before the third preseason game.

But for now, the line appears set with Bell as the left tackle.

"As we go forward, yes," Coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a big week. This will be a big test for Byron, it'll be a big test for Nate, and we'll get a good feel for it."
A look at the offensive line position in my series on where the money is for the Carolina Panthers:

Total position spending: $17,624,047

League rank in spending: 28

Analysis: Yes, four teams -- Arizona, Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh -- are spending less under the 2014 cap on the offensive line than Carolina, and yet public perception says Carolina is in the most dire need for help. Indianapolis is spending less than a $100,000 more and there's not a woe is me cry. But bashing the offensive line is nothing new at Carolina. It was considered the weak link a year ago and it turned out pretty good considering both starting guards were lost to injuries. Talent wise, this unit has a chance to be better. You can't discount the loss of left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement. But in Nate Chandler or Byron Bell they have two players who at least can match Gross' athletic ability, especially Chandler. Even better, they count less than $3 million between them on the 2014 salary cap. Whoever wins the position, the Panthers have a bargain if they perform close to Gross' standard. The loser of that battle likely will start on the right side, so there's potentially another bargain. The guard position is full of bargains, from Amini Silatolu returning from a season-ending knee injury to rookie Trai Turner that the coaching staff absolutely loves. And then there's Kalil. At $7.2 million he keeps this unit from being the cheapest in the league. With four Pro Bowl selections, he gives this unit a solid base from which to build. As I mentioned when this series began, the Panthers are about $6 million under the cap. Had they wanted to get in a bidding war with Tampa Bay for Cincinnati left tackle Anthony Collins, who got a five-year, $30 million deal, they potentially could have. They didn't because they didn't feel Collins at $6 million a year was significantly better than Bell or Chandler. If they're right, they fell into another bargain. If they're not, they'll fall in the standings.

Camp preview: Carolina Panthers

July, 17, 2014
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

 NFL Nation's David Newton examines the three biggest issues facing the Carolina Panthers heading into training camp.

Offensive line: In many ways, the success of the Panthers comes down to how well this revamped group comes together. With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, there's a chance only center Ryan Kalil returns to the position he started at the end of last season. It's not as dire as many think, though. The Panthers are high on starting right tackle Byron Bell or right guard Nate Chandler moving into Gross' spot to protect Cam Newton's blind side. The loser of that battle probably will start on the right side. Carolina also has veteran Garry Williams, coming off an ACL injury, ready to play either tackle or guard. The Panthers love rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott has experience there if needed. Amini Silatolu had won the starting left guard spot last season before suffering a knee injury in the fourth game. He has 18 career starts, so he's solid. It all comes down to chemistry for a team that wants to rely on the run and give Newton freedom to improvise as he does so well.

Wide receivers: No position has drawn more scrutiny during the offseason at Carolina with the top-four receivers from 2013 gone. The biggest reason was the decision to let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go. When Carolina didn't sign a big-time name to replace Smith, the naysayers became more outspoken. But here's my take. The Panthers are better at receiver than they were a year ago. Nothing against Smith, but at 35 he was no better than a No. 2 receiver and at the end of his career. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon really weren't big losses when you look at it closely. Hixon wouldn't have been a loss at all were it not for the game-winning touchdown against New Orleans. The key here will be chemistry, but first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks like a red zone beast at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Free agent signees Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are solid possession receivers, and more dependable than the players they replaced. Who steps up as the fourth receiver will be the biggest question, whether it's free agent Tiquan Underwood or one of the young receivers. The Panthers plan to run a lot more two tight-end sets makes that less critical.

Cam Newton: I was going to go with the secondary here. The Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. But that position is as good or better than it was this time last season, so I'm going with the franchise quarterback here. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. The diagnosis is the ankle will be better than ever, which makes him even more of a threat as a runner since he'll be pain free for the first time since college. I mention Newton here not because of the ankle, but because his ability to take his game to another level will be more important than ever with changes to the line and receiving corps. The leadership and consistency he showed last season will be called upon even more. Just because of the changes he can't be lulled into thinking he has to do it all as he did his first two seasons. But as former left tackle Jordan Gross said last season, as Newton goes so goes the Panthers.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- One by one reporters from around the NFL stopped by the table of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who under strict orders from his wife was eating a healthy plate of fruit at Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast.

One by one they asked about wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina's decision to cut its all-time leading receiver, which Rivera and management believe was healthy for the Panthers.

The rest of those at the NFL owners meeting apparently aren't so sure. I've had my doubts as well. So Rivera spent well over half of his 45-minute interview period talking about the newest addition to the Baltimore Ravens.

He finally had enough.

He finally became animated -- at least for him -- and defended general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to part ways with one of the most popular players in team history. He talked passionately about how Gettleman took a hit for the team.

He expressed his frustration over reports that it was personal and that Smith was a distraction to the locker room. He made it clear that it was neither.


Had he done this two weeks ago, we might have moved on to another topic for the defending NFC South champions.

And it is time to move on.

The Panthers have. They believe they are headed in the right direction even though much of the league believes they are headed for a hard crash after a 12-4 season.

That is understandable. Even Rivera was a bit nervous when it became obvious the Panthers would not have their top four wide receivers from last season and quarterback Cam Newton needed ankle surgery.

But as I said early in the process, what did they really lose? Not that Rivera wanted to lose Brandon LaFell, or even Ted Ginn Jr. But when he explained that Carolina averaged more than 100 yards rushing in 15 of 16 games last season, and in doing so the wide receivers collectively averaged 10 catches a game, you knew what he meant.

Ten catches? That's not much to replace.

The likes of veteran Jerricho Cotchery, along with his kiddie corps of Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and whoever else you want to throw into the mix, surely can catch 10 passes cumulatively.

Now, many of those have to be the big catches. While Smith's numbers were down last season, he still made many of the big third- or fourth-down receptions that made 2013's turnaround possible.

None were bigger than the 19-yard catch into double coverage on fourth-and-10 from deep in Miami territory with 2:33 remaining. That led to a last-minute 20-16 victory that extended Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

But surely Cotchery, 31, can replace that. He had 10 touchdown catches last season for Pittsburgh. That is more than Smith (4) and No. 2 LaFell (5) combined for in 2013.

A funny aside. The Panthers never intended to go an entire week after releasing Smith without signing a wide receiver, which added to the anxiety of many. They wanted to bring Cotchery in early, but he was on vacation and couldn't.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera is confident the additions of veterans like safety Roman Harper will keep Carolina on track despite its losses in free agency.
"I really do wish people and hope people will understand there's a process," Rivera said of the team's plan. "If you do things the right way you have a chance going forward. That to me is what we've done."

And the Panthers aren't done. They plan to add other pieces in free agency and the draft. Some of them will be key.

But with the front seven of the league's No. 2 defense intact, and with Newton expected to be better than ever after surgery for a left ankle issue that has been lingering since college, Rivera has just as much or more to work with now than he had a year ago.

It's not like he has the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster.

There still are some key areas -- the secondary and offensive line at the top of the list -- that must be addressed. If the season started today, right tackle Byron Bell likely would start at left tackle, with Nate Chandler or Garry Williams on the right side.

But is that so bad? Rivera really likes Bell, who played left tackle in college, even though public sentiment is that this is a disaster. Sometimes you have to trust the coach's instinct.

The Panthers already have a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Kalil, and the guard situation is solid with Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila back from injuries that kept them from starting last season.

So the line could be as good or better than a year ago.

The biggest concern in the secondary is the nickel back. Rivera likes the competition he has for the two cornerback spots in Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

He believes Charles Godfrey, if he returns healthy from last season's Achilles injury, can play the nickel as well as free safety. He's thrilled to have New Orleans free agent Roman Harper at strong safety, and if Godfrey doesn't return, Rivera has Robert Lester and a few other young players who played well in spurts last season.

It's really no different than it was this past August when the big questions were the offensive line and secondary.

So Rivera is upbeat. He's ready to talk about something -- no offense -- other than Smith.

"We're headed in the direction of being a better team," he insisted.

Think of it like his breakfast. Sometimes you have to eat fresh fruit instead of bacon and eggs that taste good but aren't exactly good for you in the long run.