NFC South: Carolina Panthers

Panthers Camp Report: Day 5

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • For the second straight day coach Ron Rivera extended practice, only this time was because he liked what he was seeing. He called it the best practice of camp, and he's liked most of the others. The biggest difference today was the energy. It began on a high note when left tackle candidate Byron Bell opened with what he calls his "hopping" dance -- something he learned in his college fraternity at New Mexico -- that fired everyone up. It included one moment in which quarterback Cam Newton hit the ground after bumping into a teammate and then having most of the offense rush to pick him up. OK, so Rivera believes Newton pulled off a "flop." But it showed the camaraderie and chemistry this team is starting to build. And the energy was there, even if it could be attributed to cooler weather (low 80s) and that Wednesday is a day off.
  • Speaking of Bell, this was the first day he's stood out over Nate Chandler at left tackle enough to say he's the leading candidate to replace the retired Jordan Gross. Still too close to call, but I'm starting to lean towards Bell.
  • The Panthers are counting on second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, to strengthen the league's best pass rush. They are counting on him to add more flexibility to the line with his ability to play end and tackle. So far he's been relatively quiet, not doing anything to make himself stand out. On the plus side, he's not done anything to draw heavy criticism.
  • The Panthers may have made a tactical error in waiving sixth-round pick Tyler Gaffney, out for the year with a knee injury. They figured he would clear waivers, allowing them to put the former Stanford running back on injured reserve without carrying his salary on the current 90-man or late 53-man roster before going to IR. They got outsmarted when New England claimed Gaffney on Monday afternoon. Rivera was surprised by New England's move -- and disappointed. The Panthers really liked Gaffney and no team wants to give away draft picks like that. Gaffney could have been a potential replacement for DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart when their contracts expired in a couple of years.
  • Undrafted rookie wide receiver Marcus Lucas (Missouri) had one of those days when he seemed to catch everything in his direction. With the next two to three receiver spots open after Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, it's not unthinkable that Lucas could slip into the mix. Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King have had moments, but have not been consistent. Tiquan Underwood has the coolest hair in camp, but he hasn't consistently stood out. With Brenton Bersin playing well and Lucas shining in spots, you could see a few surprises on the final roster. Either that or the Panthers will watch the waiver wire for receivers cut by other teams.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Not many football players can say they played every regular-season snap of their career -- pee wee league, junior high, high school, college and NFL -- within two hours of his home.

Travelle Wharton can.

He was born in Greenville, South Carolina, played high school football in nearby Simpsonville, played college football at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and spent 10 seasons with the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He almost broke his string in 2012 after signing with Cincinnati, but suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp and never played a regular-season down for the Bengals.

The Panthers picked Wharton up last season in an emergency situation because of injuries and he started 12 of 16 games at left guard.

Now he's calling it quits.

It was no secret. Wharton hinted soon after the season, after watching good buddy Jordan Gross announce his retirement as Carolina's longtime left tackle, that he was done. That the Panthers didn't seriously pursue him for another season made the decision that much easier.

Fortunately the player who never got the credit he deserved was given an appropriate sendoff. His "official'' retirement was announced on Tuesday at the Richardson Building during a break in Carolina's training camp.

In attendance was team owner Jerry Richardson -- making his first appearance at camp -- head coach Ron Rivera, general manager Dave Gettleman, Gross, many of the current players and lots of family.

They paid tribute to a player whose 115 games played and 111 starts ranks second among Carolina offensive linemen, to a player who had the versatility to start at left guard and left tackle, to one who showed class in everything he did and said.

Gross fittingly introduced Wharton and admitted as a going-away present that Wharton beat him in a 40-yard dash after their last practice together before the NFC Divisional playoff loss to San Francisco.

Good thing Wharton did that before Gross lost 70 pounds to look more like a tight end.

Wharton capped the event with a moving speech about how lucky he was to have played his entire career so close to home, and to have been surrounded by so many players and coaches that remain friends.

I know this has nothing to do with speculation on when wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will return from a bruised left knee or when Cam Newton's left ankle will be 100 percent.

I know this has nothing to do with anything that will factor into how the Panthers will do this season -- aside from the fact the character Wharton always displayed is what Richardson wants the organization to be about.

But it was a moment that was worth sharing as the team prepared for an off Wednesday before resuming practice on Thursday.

"It was an awesome experience playing in the NFL,'' Wharton said. "But to do it at home was amazing."
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Luke Kuechly is watching four teammates play a friendly game of cards as he waits for the dining hall to open late Monday afternoon. He's excited about dinner, but more excited about the Carolina Panthers' team meeting and walk-through that will follow.

Then he'll sleep.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Chuck Burton/AP PhotoDuring Panthers training camp, linebacker Luke Kuechly can be found either on the field practicing or on the sidelines signing autographs for fans.
The Panthers' third-year middle linebacker wouldn't watch television even if he had one in his Wofford College dorm room, although he finally does have cable for his television back home in Charlotte, North Carolina, which seemed almost like a news story when he confirmed it.

His training camp routine is consistent: Breakfast, practice, lunch, meetings, dinner, meetings, sleep.

You won't see him playing pingpong with kicker Graham Gano or taking a nap on one of the couches outside the dining hall like you do others.

That it took five days of camp to get around to a story about the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has nothing to do with him not doing anything worthy of writing about. He just makes everything look so easy and does it so well you almost forget he's there.

Kuechly is a coach's dream. He doesn't create problems off the field, but he creates a lot of problems for opponents on it.

He also signs more autographs than arguably any Carolina player, particularly in training camp where shouts of "Luuuuuuke!" rank close to, if not ahead of, shouts of "Cam!"

Asked jokingly if he ever gets writer's cramps, he laughs and says, "No, no, I'm good. Those guys come out and watch us, so you've got to show a little appreciation."

Success changes some athletes. Not Kuechly. He's as down to earth and humble now as the day the Panthers selected him with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. He seemed almost embarrassed during an offseason fundraiser when the wife of four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon bid $6,000 to play a round of golf with him.

Other than driving a pace car for the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, starring on the first mini-trailer for "Madden NFL 15" and going to the Super Bowl, he has spent most of his down time looking for ways to get better.

He's got a one-track mind now -- OK, almost always -- and it's all about football. As good and focused as he is, you can't shock him into talking about himself. One writer tried, asking if he ever sits alone in a room and says, "Man, I'm good!"

"No," Kuechly said with a big smile. "The thing I like about football is it's a team game."

He went on to talk about the front seven and other players who make it possible for him to collect tackles faster than any player in the league since he arrived. In two full seasons, he has 330, including 24 last season in a Dec. 22 victory against New Orleans that tied an NFL single-game record.

He really is a "tackling machine" as he was dubbed at Boston College. He just doesn't tackle questions and attention very well.

"Unless you were to truly feature him as you're watching him, you don't see the little things that he does," coach Ron Rivera said.

Kuechly also is a role model for what the Panthers want to become.

"Luke is one of the standards we have on this team," quarterback Cam Newton said. "He's low maintenance, but he brings to the table a hard-working guy that strives for excellence each and every time he's between the lines. He's a great role model not only for the first-team defense, but everybody that watches him."

Kuechly is a big reason Carolina's defense should remain one of the best in the league as it was last season when it finished second, behind Super Bowl champion Seattle. And that's a big reason there are fewer concerns about replacing key players on offense.

"I told the offense a couple of days ago, the challenge is already set," Newton said. "This is a top-five defense we're going against each and every day in practice. If we can be effective against this, we're setting the standard for ourselves."

Kuechly sets a standard every time he walks onto the field or walks into a room. He's not all that interested in the endorsements his fame has brought, especially now that camp has begun.

He's all about practice, meetings, eating and sleeping.

"Even if I had a TV in my room," he said, "I probably wouldn't watch it."

Panthers Camp Report: Day 4

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • The scariest moment of camp for the Panthers came Monday morning when rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin complained of soreness in his left knee after bumping it on the knee of a teammate the day before. He was sent to Charlotte, North Carolina, for an MRI, which revealed a bone bruise but no structural damage. Benjamin will miss only a few days, possibly a week, recovering, which is good news for quarterback Cam Newton. They've developed a lot of chemistry and it's obvious Newton looks for the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin early and often in practice. Without Benjamin, 31-year-old Jerricho Cotchery stepped up to the No. 1 spot and everyone else adjusted forward. Nothing against Cotchery, but he doesn't have the speed or the size to make the catches Benjamin does. The sooner Benjamin gets back the better because he'll need all the reps he can get before his first season.
  • Coach Ron Rivera liked the tempo of Monday morning's practice so much that he extended a no-huddle drill by three series. The energy definitely was better than on Sunday. Players began practice by yelling "energy'' and "fresh legs'' in individual huddles. They seemed to run faster between drills. It was slightly cooler in the morning than it had been the previous afternoon when the temperature was in the lows 90s and there was a breeze, so that may have had something to do with it. Rivera also noted the media had more energy, but that had more to do with being able to stand under the shade trees on the far side of the field. Coach declined our request for chairs.
  • Charles Godfrey's transition from safety to cornerback has been slow. He continues to have what Rivera calls "dirty eyes,'' peaking into the backfield and getting beat deep on plays. At this point it's hard to see him beating out Antoine Cason or Melvin White for one of the every-down corner jobs. But it's early, and Rivera likes the speed and physicality Godfrey has shown.
  • With backup cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Josh Norman nursing minor injuries, undrafted rookie Carrington Byndom is getting a few more snaps. He's made the most of it, intercepting a pass in each of the past two practices. In case you aren't familiar with Byndom, he is 6-foot and 180 pounds. He didn't have an interception last season at Texas, but was second on the team in solo tackles. He's a long shot to make the team, but so was White last season and he wound up the starter.
  • Breaking: Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, finally has cable television at his home in Charlotte. As for his POY trophy, it remains somewhere at his parent's home in Cincinnati. And he doesn't have cable at training camp. He doesn't even have a TV. He is all about football and sleep, leaning heavy on football.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- One thing was clear on Monday as the Carolina Panthers held their first practice of training camp without first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who will miss at least a few days with a bruised left knee.

They need him.

One thing was clear as quarterback Cam Newton talked about limiting his runs in camp as he continues to work the surgically-repaired left ankle back into shape.

The Panthers need him -- 100 percent.

As much as I've insisted the offense has a chance to be better than a year ago despite the loss of the top four wide receivers from a season ago -- including the team's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith -- it's a fragile situation.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Kelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFirst-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as the No. 1 wide receiver during offseason work.
Benjamin and Newton are the two biggest pieces the Panthers can't afford to break.

Fortunately for Carolina, Benjamin's injury suffered during a collision with a teammate on Sunday isn't anything that will keep him out long term. It's fortunate because at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds the 28th pick of the draft has looked liked anything but a rookie during offseason workouts and camp.

He has clearly defined himself as the No. 1 receiver and a target that Newton doesn't hesitate to throw to despite his inexperience. He has a chance to be the next Calvin Johnson sooner rather than later. He has looked so good that Smith seems like a distant memory.

Newton, who has a tendency to sail passes high at times, doesn't have to be perfect when throwing to Benjamin. The former Florida State standout showed that during Sunday's practice when he caught a couple of passes on which his height and acrobatic athletic ability came in handy.

When I asked Newton about having that luxury, he said, "For Kelvin, man, he's a playmaker."

Then he paused and said, "I see where you're trying to go, but I'm not going to go there."

Newton doesn't want to single any player out, particularly a rookie. He wants to spread his love to all his receivers, tight ends and weapons in general. It's a sign of leadership.

Newton already is showing more signs of being a leader this camp than a year ago, when he led Carolina to a 12-4 season.

The ankle has slowed him a bit. He's not running nearly as much in practice as he would have in the past, by design. The Panthers don't need him to run now. They're being smart.

They will need him to run once the season begins, and he understands that even though it's not easy holding back.

"The big picture is trying to get back 100 percent," Newton said. "The competitive side always tells a person you can go, you can go. The big picture is trying to be 100 percent by Week 1.

"I just know I'm putting myself in a position when it's time for my number to be called in the game, I will be ready to go."

So Newton is willing to step back as a runner, but not as a leader. Nobody has been more active in pumping up teammates. His longest runs of camp have come while rushing to the player who just made a big play for a flying hip bump, as he did after fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard had a good scramble on Sunday.

When asked about defensive end Greg Hardy, who said he hated that his legal issue on domestic violence has been a distraction to the team, Newton addressed it head on but with tact.

"I can say this," he said. "As a team, we're getting closer. The talks that we need to have, the conversations we need to have, have been great. We don't need to have this conversation about Greg Hardy. I will refuse to have a conversation about Greg.

"Greg understands. He's a grown man. I don't need to remind everybody how important he means to this team."

Newton is more important. The drop-off from him to backup Derek Anderson -- as well as he has been throwing -- is as big as the one between Benjamin and the rest of the receivers.

The Panthers need them to be a dangerous and productive combination to return to the playoffs and become the first in team history to record consecutive winning seasons. If they click, that will open things up for the rest of the offense.

It's a fragile situation.

That was clear on Monday.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers running back Mike Tolbert looks like a boxer the way the Pillsbury Doughboy looks like a swimsuit model.

The same for left tackle candidate Byron Bell.

But both spent a part of their summer training with boxers to help take their game to the next level. Both also believe firmly if they met in the ring he would be the winner.

Imagine the introduction.

In this corner, from Carrollton, Georgia, weighing in at 5-foot-9 and 237 pounds, the Tub of Goo, Plate of Paste, Bowling Ball, heavyweight contender Mike Tolbert.

In the other corner we have a former Golden Gloves contender, weighing in at 6-5 and 330 pounds, the pride of Greenville, Texas, Byron "Ring My" Bell.

Are you ready to rumble?

Tolbert believes he is. With his cardio capacity now off the charts, he doesn't believe there's a player in the locker room that could take him. He said Bell might be the closest contender, but pointed out it's been since high school that the fourth-year player out of New Mexico competed in Golden Gloves.

He apparently hadn't heard Bell spent time this summer in Ohio with his old boxing trainer.

Bell admits Tolbert might be quicker, but when it comes to arm reach his advantage would be too much to overcome.

"Tolbert, if he thought he was going to get in [for a punch] I would touch him on his chin and he wouldn't know what hit him,'' Bell said defiantly on Sunday before the Panthers practiced in pads for the first time in training camp.

But the plan isn't to use their boxing skills to beat on each other or any of their teammates. The plan is to use their skills to help the 2014 Panthers become the first to have consecutive winning seasons in team history.

Through their training, both have slimmed down 13 pounds, Tolbert down from the 250 that made him a goal-line force and Bell from 343 that made him a solid run blocker at right tackle.

Tolbert practiced the art of what he called "cross boxing'' -- cross training involving boxing to improve the overall shape -- at the House of Boxing in San Diego. He got good enough at it that he actually sparred with real heavyweight fighters.

"It's man on man,'' Tolbert said. "It's the ultimate sport of either you win or I win. That takes a lot of intensity. Everybody knows the mentality I have is that I will never let the man across from me beat me.''

Tolbert never has felt better. He insists the extra weight was a hindrance and that the lighter version will make him faster and just as powerful on fourth-and-1.

Coach Ron Rivera, who has shed more than 30 pounds himself, likes what he's seen so far.

"Oh, yeah, Round is in good shape,'' he said.

Bell returned to boxing to improve his footwork and hand placement that will be necessary when facing some of the league's top pass-rushers and help him beat Nate Chandler for the left tackle job. He's not so sure the extra weight was a hindrance, but he likes fitting into smaller clothes.

Neither is a player you'd want to mess with on the field. Tolbert would just as soon run over a defender than around him. If you need proof, go back and look at the way he blasted Atlanta's William Moore to set up a touchdown in last year's regular-season finale.

Ask him who he models his boxing style after and he declares it's a mix between Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.

Cover your ears.

Bell arguably was involved in more scuffles during last year's training camp than any other player. He didn't mention who he models his boxing style after, but judging by his girth it would have to be George Foreman -- late in his career.

"I'm not going out there to fight my teammates, but I've got to come out here and be physical so I can transfer it to Sunday,'' Bell said.

Sundays are when both want to be ready to rumble, and both believe boxing will help.

"[My trainer], he incorporates a lot of football movement, a lot of hand-eye coordination, a lot of footwork, a lot of cardio,'' Tolbert said "It's a pro boxer's workout. It's definitely tough, but I mean, the strong survive and I've got to be ready.''

Examining the Carolina Panthers' roster:

Quarterbacks (2)
Joe Webb was signed to simulate the things Newton did while the franchise quarterback recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Newton is healthy and general manager Dave Gettleman has the philosophy of keeping only two quarterbacks.

Running backs (5)

The top three are a given and Barner is the leading candidate to return kicks in addition to his running back duties. Gaffney isn't safe, but the Panthers drafted him in the sixth round because they are high on his ability to block. He is part of the future.

Receivers (5)

I'm still not convinced Underwood is safe. While the Panthers love his speed, he has a tendency to drop passes. King also isn't a shoo-in. Don't be surprised if Brenton Bersin, Kealoha Pilares or Marvin McNutt are a part of the final picture.

Tight ends (5)

Normally I would say four players here, but the Panthers plan to run a lot of two-tight-end sets and Brockel also doubles as a fullback. Williams is the wild card. He's shown flashes and if he continues to impress in training camp he could be almost like an extra wide receiver.

Offensive linemen (9)

The key here is flexibility. Williams and Chandler can play tackle or guard. Turner can play guard and backup center. While the Panthers may like to keep a 10th player here, using that spot for a fifth tight end makes more sense.

Defensive line (10)

I'd be nervous if I were Alexander. He's been suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the Panthers drafted end Ealy in the second round. Keeping 10 defensive linemen may be a reach, and there is solid depth at end.

Linebackers (5)

Again, flexibility is key and why I went with five linebackers instead of six. Blackburn can step in and replace Kuechly if he ever had to come off the field. If the Panthers decide to go with six here, look for Ben Jacobs or D.J. Smith to figure into the mix.

Cornerbacks (5)

The wild card here is Godfrey as he returns from an Achilles injury and moves from safety to corner. The Panthers restructured his contract to keep him on the roster and really love his leadership. If he is good to go, there will be some tough cuts with Norman and James Dockery. Going back to the defensive line, Carolina could keep one more here and go with nine there.

Safeties (4)

The good thing about having Godfrey at cornerback is he could move back to safety if healthy and an injury occurs here. The decision will come in whether to keep fourth-round pick Tre Boston and go with five safeties over an additional defensive lineman.

Specialists (3)

These positions are set barring an injury.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • If you were looking for something definitive at the left tackle position after the first practice in pads, sorry. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler both got opportunities there and both did well in giving quarterback Cam Newton time to throw. Bell started off on the left side during 7-on-7 drills and Chandler began team drills there. In one-on-one drills Chandler did a nice job of taking defensive end Charles Johnson to the ground once. The Panthers will continue to use both players there for the next few weeks as they look to replace retired Jordan Gross, who has lost so much weight he could play tight end or wide receiver. Coach Ron Rivera wants to make a decision on the starter after the second preseason game. The Panthers will face some good pass-rushers in Buffalo end Mario Williams and Kansas City linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford from a 3-4 set. Williams had 4.5 sacks in Week 2 against Carolina last season with most coming against Bell playing right tackle. Stay tuned. Too close to call, but both are showing potential.
  • Tight end Greg Olsen was wide open on a touchdown catch down the left sideline. Tight end Ed Dickson made a diving catch on a slant pattern. Tight end Brandon Williams made a nice over-the-shoulder catch deep in traffic. Tight end Mike McNeill made a tough catch in traffic over the middle. Tight end D.C. Jefferson made a solid catch in stride about 25 yards deep. Notice a theme here? The Panthers have more than enough choices to complement Olsen as they go to a two-tight end set. It's a luxury they haven't had since Jeremy Shockey was here in 2011. And I haven't mentioned Richie Brockel, who is listed as a TE/FB. The team kept four tight ends last season, and Rivera says there is a scenario where it could keep five this year. This definitely softens the blow of losing the top four wide receivers from last season.
  • Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin made an acrobatic, twisting catch on a high pass from Cam Newton on the first play of 7-on-7 drills. He snagged a somewhat high bullet over the middle on the first play of team drills. He caught a nice out pattern on the first series of another team session. In other words, the 28th pick of the draft is becoming quite comfortable with Newton in a hurry. A lot of this may have to do with the two staying in Charlotte, North Carolina, to work out together while the team was off from June 19 through last Thursday. If they continue to develop this chemistry people may forget Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was cut during the offseason.
  • Philly Brown went to the ground and did what appeared to be 20 pushups after having a punt bounce off his chest early in practice. There were drops by a few other returners as the Panthers attempt to replace Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona in free agency. Don't think Rivera didn't notice it. "The thing we have to understand is first and foremost we have to catch the ball. I could care less if we fair catch it every time, but we've got to catch it.'' The leader in the clubhouse for the job might be Antoine Cason, who returned punts at San Diego while Rivera was there. It's interesting that speedster Tiquan Underwood hasn't been given a chance there yet, but Rivera said others could be added to the mix that so far includes Cason, Kenjon Barner and Brown. Bottom line, the Panthers will miss Ginn much more here more than they will at receiver.
  • Carolina holds its first morning practice on Monday after two night practices and a 3:10 p.m. session. Sunday's workout was somewhat sloppy, and Rivera reminded players of that afterwards, telling them he "expected a better practice tomorrow.''
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Two things were missing Sunday in Greg Hardy's first public statements since being arrested and subsequently found guilty of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.

An apology.


The Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl defensive end did talk about selling hats and toboggans as part of his brand of personal merchandise, which in itself seemed wrong.

He did say at the very end he hates that his legal situation has been a distraction to the team, which really didn't come off as an apology.

But that was it.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Greg Hardy
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsGreg Hardy didn't seem remorseful in his first public statements after he was found guilty of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend.
  I understand he can't talk about his case that is under appeal, and that won't be heard until after the season. I understand he can't discuss whether or not he threw Nicole Holder onto a futon covered in guns, as she claimed, or whether he threatened to kill her, as she also claimed.

I understand he can't say Holder -- and not him -- was the aggressor, as his lawyer claimed in court.

But at the very least he might have opened with something like: "I apologize that my situation has been a distraction to the team."

He is involved in a situation. He wouldn't have been admitting to anything that would impact his appeal, it would have sounded like an apology and he would have come off as remorseful.

Then he could have talked about football and his "Kraken" brand without it sounding so awkward.

I'm sure Hardy was under strict orders by his attorney. But not to comment on what the last few months has been like or how being back on the football field helped seemed beyond the gag order rule.

It left you with a bad taste, particularly when he thanked the media for promoting him and his brand.

He also suggested the media could put in a good word for him with general manager Dave Gettleman regarding a long-team deal after this season, which seems unlikely if he loses his appeal

"You guys do a really good job of putting me out there," when asked if he's getting the respect nationally for being one of the league's elite pass-rushers after leading the team with 15 sacks last season. "I appreciate that. I feel like I'm doing awesome. I always got good quotes. No spoon. Appreciate that, guys."

Hardy was referring to last season, when he said after a 21-20 victory against Atlanta in the season finale he ate his cereal without a spoon in reference to his dominance.

Hardy was entertaining and endearing that day. It called for it. He had four of the team's nine sacks.

Sunday didn't require entertaining. It required a tone that fell in line with that of Gettleman, who sternly said Hardy's situation is "concerning and disappointing."

At least from the outset.

It was an awkward situation to say the least. You expected that. Hardy has been mum since his April 13 arrest.

The good news is Hardy talked. He should have talked before training camp so the questions on this day could be about football and the team's first day in pads.

To blend football and questions about domestic violence was extremely awkward.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Carolina Panthers outside linebacker A.J. Klein made a huge rookie mistake last season.

He forgot to bring a pillow to Wofford College for training camp.

"That was bad,'' the second-year player out of Iowa State said on Saturday. "I rolled up a sweatshirt at night as a pillow. That was better than the one they gave me.''

That was arguably Klein's biggest mistake of 2013 after being selected in the fifth round. He played in 16 and started two when veteran Chase Blackburn was out with a foot injury.

He was so impressive, particularly when he replaced Blackburn at San Francisco, that he is expected to push Blackburn for a starting job this season. He showed some of his athletic ability and speed when he came free on a blitz of quarterback Cam Newton during Saturday night's practice at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.

But Klein is not caught up in starting at this point.

"Mainly right now I am focusing on getting better,'' he said. "I have a lot to improve on from last year. Yesterday, was a good start, but even from yesterday I know I have a long way to go.

"So I’m going to keep on working to become the starter, but I’m not going to hang to my hat on that at the end of the day. I’m just working to make this team better.''

By the way, Klein brought a pillow with him to camp this year, but not much else.

"I have a book,'' he said. "That's about it.''

A book?

"Some people bring gaming systems,'' Klein said. "I have a book. Ghost Ships. The USS Houston gets lost in the Pacific. I’m into War Stories, that sort of stuff.''

There's nothing soft about this player.

Schedule note: The Panthers will hold their first practice in pads today at 3:10 p.m. ET. This will be the first true test for Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, battling to replace the retired Jordan Gross at left tackle.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 2

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp:
  • Cam Newton looked sharper from the get-go during Saturday night's "Back to Football" practice at Gibbs Stadium. He didn't bumble his first handoff =, as he did the night before, and he completed a 70-yard touchdown to Kealoha Pilares on his first pass. Yeah, there were moments when the timing was off and he had a few drops, but for the most part he appeared much more under control -- although he had a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown late. It helped Newton and backup Derek Anderson that the defensive backs had what coach Ron Rivera called "dirty eyes,'' looking inside and getting beaten deep a few times.
  • Carolina's running back position, which was deep during offseason workouts, keeps getting thinner. First, Jonathan Stewart pulled a hamstring a week-and-a-half ago and will miss 2-4 weeks. On the first play of Friday night's workout, rookie Tyler Gaffney suffered a knee injury that ended his season. That leaves DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Kenjon Barner as the healthy backs as the team heads into Sunday's first practice (3:10 p.m.) in pads. The Panthers will replace Gaffney with another back just for depth. They need it. Williams is 31 and the team doesn't need to overload him with carries in camp. It could be good for Barner, who didn't get a lot of looks last season.
  • Marvin McNutt was one of the young wide receivers the Panthers said they wanted to get a good look at after cutting Steve Smith. From what McNutt has shown in training camp and through offseason conditioning, he has to be worried about a roster spot, particularly with the staff raving about Brenton Bersin and Pilares making an impression. McNutt dropped a couple of passes before making a nice grab late in the two-hour workout.
  • Tight end Ed Dickson says he didn't intentionally flatten safety Thomas DeCoud in Friday night's practice. Dickson claimed he was just protecting himself when he sent DeCoud to the ground after a catch. But one thing is clear: Dickson will be a factor in the passing game. He'll be sure to take some catches from Greg Olsen, the only tight end to catch a pass last season and Carolina's leading receiver in 2013.
  • Running back Barner, wide receiver Corey Brown and cornerback Antoine Cason were fielding punts. Barner and Cason are locks to make the team, Cason as a starter and Barner a backup. For Brown, this could be a passage to the 53-man roster, as he's not likely to be among the top five wide receivers.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Jerricho Cotchery grew up an Alabama fan, which means he grew up not liking Auburn.

But the Carolina Panthers wide receiver puts those feelings aside when it comes to his new quarterback, Cam Newton, who led Auburn to the 2010 national championship.

"Great leader. Great leader,'' Cotchery said on Saturday. "Just watching him and the way he led that team to a championship that year, I just knew there was something special about him. When I met him I got to see that.''

This time last year, Newton was being questioned for his lack of leadership after going 6-10 and 7-9. That changed after a 12-4 season and second trip to the Pro Bowl.

Now the question is how far will the Panthers fall after losing their top four receivers from last season.

Cotchery, 31, was signed as a free agent out of Pittsburgh to help make sure there isn't a fall. He won't replace Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was cut, in terms of intensity and making dynamic plays.

But he will replace Smith in terms of veteran leadership.

"I feel comfortable being the old guy,'' said Cotchery, entering his 11th training camp. "It's crazy how it's worked out for me. Even in my third year I was considered the old guy. So I feel comfortable with it and helping the guys in any way I can to get better.''

Still, the national perception is the Panthers will suffer a big drop in terms of wins. The big reason is the loss of Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.

That doesn't sit well with some here. Tight end Greg Olsen tweeted earlier in the week that he was "tired'' of hearing Newton has nobody to throw to.

Cotchery doesn't take the negativity so personal, part of what makes him such a good leader.

"To be understanding, you had four guys leave,'' Cotchery said. "You had the guy that is probably the best player to play in this organization leave. So those questions are going to naturally come up, so I understand it from that viewpoint.

"You don't know much about the guys that are coming in, so I'm understanding from that perspective. I don't take any of those things to heart. I just know we have a good, hard-working group. We'll let everything play out.''

So far Cotchery likes what he's seen. He says the new receivers are extremely close for a group that didn't really know each other until a few months ago. He says that will help not only the passing game, but the entire offense.

But it all starts with Newton -- even if he did go to Auburn.

"There's a confidence he brings to the huddle, that he brings to the team that you know you're going to be OK,'' said Cotchery, a native of Birmingham, Ala. "That's what I've seen in the great ones.''
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Moans of "again?'' were heard throughout social media when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera announced that running back Jonathan Stewart had pulled a hamstring and wouldn't be ready for the start of training camp.

Stewart understands, having played in only 15 games the past two seasons because of foot and ankle injuries.

He's frustrated as well.

He's also optimistic that the hamstring won't sideline him for long and that he'll be ready once the season begins.

"Yeah, it is very frustrating,'' Stewart said on Saturday as the Panthers settled in at Wofford College after two days in Charlotte, N.C. "I had a good OTA, minicamp, a good offseason -- period -- up until two weeks ago when I pulled my hammy.

"It's definitely frustrating, but it's nothing that I'm really too concerned about considering my past and my history with my ankles. If I can overcome that then this is an easy one.''

Stewart spent all of the 2013 training camp rehabbing from offseason ankle surgery. He spent the first seven games on the physically unable to perform list and then suffered a torn MCL against New Orleans that forced him to miss three more games.

He's been told the hamstring injury could keep him out two to four weeks. He's not sure if he'll miss a preseason game, but he's certain he'll be ready for the regular season.

"Going into this year I'm going to be the freshest that I've been in two years,'' said Stewart, who injured the hamstring working out in California.

Asked what his goal was for the season, Stewart deadpanned: "Winning a Super Bowl.''

Asked what his personal goals were, he said: "Contributing to the best of my ability to win a Super Bowl.''

The Panthers don't necessarily need a healthy Stewart to win a Super Bowl. They went 12-4 last season basically without him. But a healthy Stewart would be big for an offense with a new group of wide receivers and rebuilt line.

He offers a burst that backfield mates DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert don't have. As he showed in 2011 when he caught 47 passes in addition to rushing for 761 yard, he can be a dual threat.

He just has to find a way to stay healthy. The past few years, he hasn't been lucky enough to do that.

"I don't really believe in luck,'' Stewart said. "I just believe that you're given a hand of cards and it's up to you to make the best next move. With the last couple of years, battling injuries and whatnot, it's just something I had to go through. It's made me who I am now.

"I love the fact that I can get up in the morning and walk without that much soreness in my ankles. It's the little things in life that you take for granted. You just look at things different a little bit.''

The outlook of the Carolina offense will look better with Stewart in it.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 1

July, 25, 2014
Jul 25
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts and observations from the Carolina Panthers training camp:
  • There were a lot of oohs and aahs from the estimated 36,000 that attended Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium when quarterback Cam Newton threw to his new group of receivers. But to say Newton looked sharp in his first full practice since undergoing offseason ankle surgery would be an overstatement. His first pass during team drills was high and sailed through the hands of Tavarres King. One kid in the press box said Newton had overthrown 14 passes halfway through the two-hour workout. That was a bit of an exaggeration. Newton actually looked sharp on some of his sideline passes and overall didn't look bad, although he admitted he's not 100 percent. During his first team passing drill he went 4-for-5. Then there was (See below on pass to Kelvin Benjamin).
  • Byron Bell took the first snap at left tackle, which means he is the front-runner to replace retired Jordan Gross. But don't rule out Nate Chandler or possibly Garry Williams winning the job. Chandler in particular is one to keep an eye on. Left guard Amini Silatolu mentioned how impressive Chandler was during offseason workouts when asked who he felt most comfortable playing beside. The first time the team went to full team passing drills Chandler lined up at left. But until they put the pads on, it's way too early to predict.
  • Benjamin once again showed why the Panthers selected him with the 28th pick of the draft, catching about a 30-yard pass over the middle in traffic from backup quarterback Derek Anderson. He followed that with a 35-yard catch from Newton in which he was ahead of the defender by at least five yards. Newton, by the way, was spot on with the pass. But when asked what player impressed him the most, coach Ron Rivera said Brenton Bersin, an undrafted player out of Wofford entering his third training camp. I have to agree. The sideline pass Bersin caught in traffic and turned into a touchdown was the most impressive of the night.
  • As I wrote earlier in the day, don't rule out Charles Godfrey as an every down cornerback. The safety-turned-corner worked some with the first team in his first team drill work since suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the second game last season.
  • Next stop, Spartanburg, South Carolina. Since 1995 the team has begun camp at Wofford College, but because an international soccer game is scheduled for Bank of America Stadium on Aug. 2, Fan Fest was moved up a week. Players report to Wofford on Saturday morning and hold the first practice there at 6:30 p.m. ET. The change in schedule really hasn't been a big inconvenience. Coaches and players went through the same routine in Charlotte as they would have in Spartanburg, and because the first two days of camp are without pads most of the equipment was shipped ahead of time.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton dropped back, looked to his left and threw a somewhat wobbly pass that sailed high and through the hands of wide receiver Tavarres King.

I mention this because it was Newton's first pass in team drills since he underwent surgery in March to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.

But don't read too much into that as the Carolina Panthers held their first practice of training camp on Friday night with Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium.

While Newton looked rusty at times, that was to be expected after the long layoff. He also had good moments, like connecting with first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin for a deep pass.

The only potentially scary moment came when Newton walked away with a slight limp after stepping into a throw that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery dropped. Trainer Ryan Vermillion quickly checked him out and gave him clearance to return.

"Just precautionary,'' Newton said. "I can't stress enough that I'm not 100 percent yet. I'm treating it day in and day out.''

Coach Ron Rivera isn't concerned at all that Newton will be 100 percent when the season begins. He's putting no limits on the first pick of the 2011 draft as camp moves to Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. , on Saturday.

"He's working through it,'' Rivera said. "This is all a part of his rehab, to get out and work it now. The doctor feels very confident about his ankle. Now it's just a matter of getting in shape and getting that ankle stronger.

"I'm not concerned at all. Based on what I'm being told and from what I'm seeing, I'm excited about it.''

Newton was excited just to be practicing full after being limited for most of offseason workouts. He fed off the energy of the estimated 36,315 fans.

During special team drills, Newton took time in the opposite end zone getting the fans revved up. He took a bow at the end of the drill and sprinted to midfield, drawing another cheer.

When wide receiver Brenton Bersin caught a deep sideline pass from backup quarterback Derek Anderson, Newton sprinted more than 40 yards to the end zone to congratulate him.

"They hold us accountable and we have to put a product on the field so the whole Carolinas can be happy about it,'' Newton said.

One of the biggest questions leading into camp was whether Newton would be rusty with a new set of receivers after Steve Smith was cut and the next three were lost in free agency. Overall, Rivera was pleased.

"He was a little rusty,'' the fourth-year coach said of Newton. "He struggled in terms of his quarterback-to-running back exchange on one play in particular. But it's the first time he's had to work on those techniques.

"He made some nice throws. I was pleased with the wide receivers. I liked what I saw from that bunch.''

Newton's pass to Benjamin was particularly impressive. It also was somewhat symbolic in that the former Florida State standout is the heir apparent to the No. 1 receiver position left open by Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who is with Baltimore.

Newton and his new receivers have done their best to minimize Smith's absence, working together on their own during the past few weeks before the team reported to make up for time lost while the quarterback rehabbed.

Newton said he thought little about the ankle during the two-hour practice.

"For the most part I was not,'' he said. "But you're reminded after a tweak. It's just timing.''

The good news, Newton has plenty of time to recapture that.