NFC South: Wofford College

The Carolina Panthers wrapped up training camp Tuesday, but not in the manner coach Ron Rivera wanted.

"We slowed down at the end, and unfortunately I think the guys were thinking about (Interstate 85)," Rivera said. "But the beginning of practice was really good, real smooth, a lot of good things happened. Then you could kind of tell they were a little bit wandering. I think they were thinking about going home. I wish they could have finished practice and focused all the way through.’’

That’s a natural phenomenon. The Panthers are the only NFC South team that trains away from its regular-season facility. Although Wofford College has great facilities, players always are anxious to get out of there and get home.

Panthers battling weather issues

August, 7, 2012
8/07/12
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- It’s only training camp, but Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera already is taking some chances and shaking things up.

After having Monday night’s outdoor practice last only a little over 20 minutes due to a nasty storm, Rivera has called an audible. At least at this moment, the Panthers are scheduled to practice at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and they’re scheduled to practice outdoors. The original schedule had the Panthers practicing Tuesday evening.

But Rivera is playing the percentages and trying to squeeze in a full outdoor session. It rained early Tuesday morning in Spartanburg. Right now, the rain has stopped and, although there are lots of clouds, there have been a few glimpses of the sun in the last few minutes. The forecast is calling for the chance of showers off and on all day. But team officials said the chance of thunder and lightning appears greater this evening and that’s why Rivera elected to switch practice times.

It might not seem like a big deal, but the league rules that were put in last summer limit the number of padded practices a team can have in training camp. That makes each padded practice precious. Rivera basically lost one of those practices Monday night. The Panthers did go into the Wofford College gymnasium after they were forced off the practice field, but they were very limited in what they could accomplish.

It looks like things could be wet out there for the next few hours, but all indications are Rivera is going to try to get his team through a full outdoor session, as long as lightning and thunder stay out of the picture. I’m heading out to the practice field and will be back with more later.

Around the NFC South

August, 6, 2012
8/06/12
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- I’m getting ready to head out to watch the Carolina Panthers go through their morning walk-through session, and then I'll do some interviews. But first, let’s take a run through the headlines from around the NFC South.

ATLANTA FALCONS

There has been a lot of talk about how the Falcons plan to reduce the number of carries for running back Michael Turner. That’s fine with Turner, as long as the reduction isn’t too substantial. I don’t think it will be. I don’t see Turner getting chopped to 10 carries a game. I just don’t see him averaging more than 20 carries a game as he has in past seasons. I think the Falcons are serious about getting Jacquizz Rodgers more playing time, but I think Turner still will get at least 15 carries per game. The whole reason behind this plan is to keep Turner fresh late in the season and into the postseason.

The Falcons will hold a joint workout with the Tennessee Titans on Monday. The last time these teams worked out together was 2004, and that session spawned a series of fights that led to several injuries, including a strained hamstring for former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. I wouldn’t look for things to be as heated. Atlanta coach Mike Smith runs a calm, but firm ship, and nobody ever said that about Jim Mora Jr., who was coaching the Falcons in 2004.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Ron Green Jr. has an in-depth profile of Carolina rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly. It includes a great anecdote about Kuechly having dinner with quarterback Cam Newton and NBA legend Michael Jordan on his first night in Charlotte after being drafted by the Panthers.

The only current Carolina player that was at the franchise’s inaugural game in 1995 is undrafted rookie receiver Brenton Bersin. He was 5 at the time and was sitting in the stands. Bersin also grew up as a neighbor of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, and played at Richardson’s alma mater. That’s Wofford College, where the Panthers hold training camp.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Jeff Duncan writes that you shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the Saints’ victory against Arizona in the Hall of Fame Game, but the important thing is the team got back to playing football after a turbulent offseason. He’s right. Preseason games mean very little, but just getting back on the field was a major step as the Saints try to move forward.

New Orleans wide receiver Adrian Arrington has a knee injury and will visit a specialist. It’s not yet clear if Arrington will require surgery. If it does, that could increase the chances of a young receiver, such as Joseph Morgan or Andy Tanner, claiming a roster spot.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Stephen Holder has a list of guys that have surprised so far in training camp. This isn’t the typical list of long shots that are making a bid for a roster spot, because it starts off with veteran tight end Dallas Clark. But Clark’s performance so far has been a surprise. After a lot of injury problems in Indianapolis in recent years, Clark appears to be totally healthy, and has yet to miss a practice.

Roy Cummings has a feature story on safety Cody Grimm, a former starter who could be on the roster bubble. Ronde Barber and rookie Mark Barron have been getting the first-team work, and Ahmad Black and Larry Asante have been running with the second team. But Grimm was held back in the offseason program as he recovered from injury and just now is getting back to full health. Grimm might need a strong showing in the preseason to land a roster spot. But I wouldn’t count this guy out, because he’s been surprising people since the moment he entered the league.
The Weather Channel has its list of the “worst weather NFL training camps’’ and the NFC South dominates the top 10.

No surprise. It’s the South and it’s summer. It’s going to be hot and you know that going in.

Each of the four cities where NFC South teams train is ranked in the top 10. Tampa is No. 3 (behind only Miami and No. 1 Houston). Metairie, La., camp home for the Saints, is No. 4. Flowery Branch, Ga., home to the Falcons, is No. 7 and the Carolina Panthers’ camp in Spartanburg, S.C. ranks No. 9.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonCam Newton and the Panthers will try to beat the heat with night workouts during training camp.
My only problem with this list is I think it’s out of order. I’m about to set out on my fifth tour of all the NFC South training camps and I spent more than a little camp time in Spartanburg and Tampa before that. I may not be a meteorologist, but my weather instincts and the hats I’ve ruined with sweat tell me that this list needs some flipping.

There is no cool, humidity-free spot in the NFC South, but I’d say Flowery Branch is easily the most tolerable location. You’re on the shores of Lake Lanier and there's a little elevation, so there’s at least the hope of a breeze. Believe it or not, I’d put Tampa as the second most tolerable of the four.

I think people freak out because it’s Florida and the assumption is that the heat is brutal. Yes, it is hot – for six months straight. But I live in Tampa and was more bothered by the heat in Pennsylvania when I visited there earlier this summer. Tampa’s got a little protection because it often rains in the summer and there’s frequently a breeze. It may get up to about 93 or 94 degrees, but it doesn’t usually go much higher and there’s always the hope of a quick storm to cool things off. Plus, the Bucs have cover over most of the seating area for their fans and that helps.

There is no cover in Metairie or Spartanburg. But I’ll go with Metairie as the third most tolerable NFC South destination because, like Tampa, the Gulf of Mexico isn’t far off and cooling storms often come to the rescue.

Spartanburg, at least the Wofford College training complex, is far off from everything – mountains, elevation, shade trees, water, etc. I’ve been out on the Panthers’ practice field on many days where there wasn’t even the hint of a breeze and the humidity was brutal. The air just seems to sit still.

I distinctly remember a day back in the mid-2000s. Spartanburg seemed hotter than ever. Panthers trainer Ryan Vermillion was in charge of watching the heat index and alerting former coach John Fox if it approached a dangerous level. On that particular day, Fox stopped practice less than halfway through for safety reasons. I remember walking off the field with Vermillion and asking him how high the heat index got. He pulled out a gadget that had the numbers “117’’ on it.

That’s why I’m glad Carolina coach Ron Rivera has decided to have almost all evening practices this year.

Around the NFC South

July, 22, 2012
7/22/12
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As we begin the week in which all four NFC South teams start training camp, let's take a look at the top Sunday headlines from around the division.
  • New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees filed an affidavit in support of linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s effort to have his one-year suspension revoked. I’m not sure how much weight such affidavits carry, but Brees’ strong praise of Vilma can’t hurt the cause.
  • Although the Carolina Panthers don’t report to training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. until Friday, rookies and selected veterans will get a jump on the rest with a three-day camp at the team’s Charlotte facility, starting on Monday. Quarterback Cam Newton is one of those veterans expected to participate.
  • Speaking of Spartanburg, Tom Sorensen has a column previewing camp. One of the items he touches on is how the Panthers continue to go away for camp. The other three NFC South teams train at their regular-season facilities, but the Panthers still go to Wofford College. In most cases, I think it makes sense to stay home. But I think the Carolina situation is an exception. Wofford has ideal facilities and there are virtually no distractions for the players in Spartanburg. The location is only a quick ride from Charlotte and the overall camp experience for fans in Spartanburg is one of the better ones I’ve seen.
  • The Times-Picayune has a list of the top 25 sports power players in New Orleans and Saints owner Tom Benson is No. 1 on the list. It’s the fourth consecutive year that Benson has topped the list. But I think it’s fair to say Benson’s grip on the top spot is even stronger with his purchase of the NBA’s Hornets.
  • Speaking of top-25 lists, the Times-Picayune continues its rankings of the top Saints’ players with Darren Sproles at No. 4. This is a pretty good indication of how much offensive talent the Saints have. On a lot of teams, a guy coming off a season in which he set an NFL record for all-purpose yards would be ranked No. 1.
  • This column by Jeff Schultz sums up the state of the Falcons as they enter training camp. Despite four straight winning seasons, they’re not going to be judged a true success until they start winning some games in the postseason.
  • Rick Stroud has a list of five Buccaneers that need to turn things around in 2012. He tops the list with running back LeGarrette Blount, whose attention to detail was a sore spot with the former staff. If Blount couldn’t meet Raheem Morris’ expectations, he really is going to have to change to impress new coach Greg Schiano to have any chance to hold off rookie Doug Martin and keep his starting job.
  • Roy Cummings has a list of five key Tampa Bay players and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is one of them. Again, no argument. McCoy has gotten hurt in each of his first two seasons. McCoy has some obvious talent, but needs to stay healthy to truly have an impact.

Around the NFC South

May, 1, 2012
5/01/12
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Let's take a look at the Tuesday morning headlines from around the NFC South.

The Atlanta Falcons reportedly got a salary-cap credit of around $3 million for money former quarterback Michael Vick owed the franchise before filing bankruptcy following a conviction on dogfighting charges. After signing with the Philadelphia Eagles, Vick and the Falcons reached a settlement in which he would repay some of the $130 million contract he signed with Atlanta. The Falcons now are about $4 million under the salary cap.

John DeShazier writes that it’s time for the NFL to announce whatever player penalties are coming for the Saints’ bounty program. I couldn’t agree more. This thing has dragged on way too long. Wednesday will be two months since the NFL announced its first report on the bounty program. Penalties for the organization, coaches and general manager Mickey Loomis were announced more than a month ago. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that the investigation was in its final stages and I understand if the league didn’t want to make an announcement that would overshadow all the good publicity that comes with its college draft. But the draft is over. It’s time to let the Saints -- and potentially other teams -- know if they need to prepare to play without suspended players this season.

The Falcons announced Monday that tight end Ryan Winterswyk, who spent part of last season on the practice squad, has been placed on the reserve/retired list. If Winterswyk decides to return to football, the Falcons still hold his rights.

Undrafted free-agent receiver Brenton Bersin might have had a little advantage when he was signed by the Carolina Panthers. Bersin grew up two doors away from Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. Bersin also attended Wofford College. That’s where the Panthers have held training camp since coming into the league in 1995. Wofford also is Richardson’s alma mater and where team president Danny Morrison once worked as athletic director. But don’t accuse the Panthers of showing favoritism for a neighborhood kid. Bersin earned the right for a shot at the NFL. He had a great career at Wofford and also drew interest from several other NFL teams.

The arrival of rookies Mark Barron and Lavonte David could mean possible position switches for cornerback Ronde Barber and middle linebacker Mason Foster aren’t coming. There had been some talk of Barber moving to safety and Foster to outside linebacker. Barron should start immediately at strong safety and the Bucs have Cody Grimm at free safety. That could allow Barber to stay at cornerback. David projects as an instant starter at outside linebacker and the Bucs should be able to keep Foster at middle linebacker.

Around the NFC South

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
4:34
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Time for an afternoon run through the headlines around the NFC South.

The Carolina Panthers wrapped up their first training camp under coach Ron Rivera on Wednesday. The team will return to its facility at Bank of America Stadium for the rest of the preseason after Friday night’s exhibition in Miami. Rivera said he’s pleased with what coaches and players were able to accomplish during a hectic few weeks at Wofford College. The Panthers have remained the only NFC South team to hold training camp away from their regular-season facility.

The Bucs also have wrapped up the camp portion of their preseason. They’re off Wednesday as they prepare for Thursday night’s home game with New England. Coach Raheem Morris pointed to the preseason opener against Kansas City to say he thinks camp was a success.

Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson, who signed a $76 million contract soon after the lockout was lifted, expects to play in Friday’s preseason game at Miami. Johnson missed the opener with a minor shoulder injury.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he’s yet to hear from the NFL on whether or not defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season.

Tampa Bay’s Kregg Lumpkin is trying to make the most of his opportunity to be the top backup running back behind LeGarrette Blount.

Jay Adams takes a look at the storylines as the Falcons get ready for Wednesday night’s practice with the Jaguars. He points to the competition at nickel back among Christopher Owens, Dominique Franks and Rafael Bush. I agree that this one is key and I think the coaching staff will give each of those three guys plenty of reps to see them in a setting that’s almost like a game.

Countdown to Cam Newton

August, 1, 2011
8/01/11
5:45
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. – There already is a pretty substantial crowd on the hill overlooking the practice fields at Wofford College.

That’s understandable because, very shortly, rookie quarterback Cam Newton will begin his first padded practice as a member of the Carolina Panthers. It’s the first padded practice of training camp for the team.

I’m going to head out and join the crowd. I’ll keep an eye on Newton’s every move and get back to you later tonight with a post-practice report.

Hitting the NFC South links

July, 22, 2011
7/22/11
12:19
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Time for a quick trip through the NFC South headlines.

Charlie Campbell reports the Buccaneers are doing their due diligence on Terrelle Pryor in anticipation of the supplemental draft. I’m sure teams around the league have done the same. Does Pryor make some sense in Tampa Bay? Perhaps. He’s got talent and could be viewed as a developmental project. Backup Josh Johnson can become a free agent next year. But I think you’d only see the Bucs take a shot on Pryor if he lasts into the sixth or seventh round.

Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, who suddenly is becoming very chatty, said the proposed rookie wage scale could keep Cam Newton's contract to about half of what top quarterbacks have received in recent years. Richardson also said receiver Steve Smith, who might or might not want a trade, is not at the “forefront’’ of his mind right now. I’m sure that admission sits real well with Smith.

New Orleans rookie running back Mark Ingram reportedly was in a car accident in Alabama early Friday morning. Relax, Saints fans. The report says Ingram walked away uninjured.

Carolina linebacker Nic Harris says his goal is a starting job. That could be a little difficult if the Panthers are able to re-sign James Anderson and Thomas Davis.

Wofford College officials are continuing to plan as if the Panthers will arrive for training camp next week.

Stephen Holder has a projected depth chart for the Buccaneers.

Don’t get your hopes too high for a labor settlement to be done today. NFLPA president Kevin Mawae issued a statement that the players are continuing to review the proposal from the owners. But Mawae also said no other statements will come today out of respect for the Kraft family. Robert Kraft owns the New England Patriots and the funeral for his wife, Myra, is today.
New Carolina tight end Jeremy Shockey said in an interview that if the labor deal is finished Thursday, the Panthers will begin a three-day minicamp on Friday.

There’s one small problem with this: Shockey seems to be the only one aware of such plans. I talked to two team officials Monday night and both said no plans were in place for a minicamp. Both officials said the team is waiting for league guidance on how to proceed coming out of the lockout.

Steve Reed talked to Jordan Gross and several other veteran Carolina players and they also said they were not aware of any plans for a minicamp.

While the idea of a quick minicamp may sound nice, it’s not very realistic. First off, the NFL remains in a lockout. That means, even if the Panthers wanted to have a minicamp, they would not be able to notify their players of any such plans until the lockout is lifted.

The team officials said they’re not sure if the league will even allow minicamps and were skeptical that they’d be able to pull off all of the logistics necessary so quickly. Both officials said the team is continuing with plans to begin training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., on either July 28 or 29.

Hitting the NFC South links

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
10:02
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Time for a morning run through the headlines around the NFC South.

With the lockout still dragging on, the Saints and Texans have called off three days of planned practices before a scheduled Aug. 20 preseason game. The two teams had practiced together before preseason games the last three summers. I’m hearing there’s still a chance the Falcons and Jaguars will work out together for several days before their Aug. 19 preseason game in Jacksonville.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes that the lockout could stunt the growth of rookie running back Jacquizz Rodgers. I think you could make that argument about any rookie this year. But Rodgers didn’t even attend the Falcons’ players-only workouts because he was still in school at Oregon State. I wouldn’t expect an immediate impact out of Rodgers this season. Then again, I wouldn’t expect him to be an instant factor in a normal year. He was a fifth-round pick for a reason.

Tight end Dante Rosario, who is likely to be an unrestricted free agent, said there’s a good chance he’ll stay with the Carolina Panthers.

Although several teams around the league have announced they’ll switch training camps to their regular-season practice facilities, plans continue to move forward for the Carolina Panthers to train at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Unless the start of camp is pushed back to a time when Wofford’s students will be returning to campus, I’d expect the Panthers will stay at the place that’s been their training camp home since 1995. It’s the alma mater of owner Jerry Richardson and he likes to keep a presence in South Carolina because he believes the Panthers represent both Carolinas.

Around the NFC South

July, 11, 2011
7/11/11
12:14
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Time for a run through the headlines around the NFC South.

Atlanta receiver Kerry Meier, who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury, said he’s nearly back to full health. I think the Falcons have plans for this young receiver, who is big and versatile, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they bring him along slowly. Look what they did with receiver Harry Douglas and defensive tackle Peria Jerry as they came back from injuries in recent years.

During his recent workout at IMG Academies in Florida, Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton was dropping back on virtually every snap. In college, he operated almost entirely out of the shotgun formation.

Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen said he’s not ready to hand over the starting job to Newton without a fight.

D. Orlando Ledbetter’s been running a series on if the Falcons should re-sign a long list of players not currently under contract for 2011. The latest is return man/receiver Eric Weems. I cast my vote and said the Falcons need to keep him. The reason is simple: The guy had a very nice year as a returner last season and also has potential as a wide receiver.

A spokesman for Wofford College’s athletic department said the Carolina Panthers are expected to inform officials at some point this week if they’ll be coming to Spartanburg for training camp. The lockout already has forced several teams to decide to hold training camp at their regular-season facilities. It would be a shame if the Panthers don’t train in Spartanburg for the first time since the team came into the league. Wofford is one of the nicest training-camp venues in the league and it also helps the team’s presence in South Carolina. Remember, when owner Jerry Richardson got his expansion team he named it the Carolina Panthers because he wanted to represent North and South Carolina.

Jerious Norwood doesn’t think the Falcons are interested in re-signing him. Gee, wonder how he figured that one out? The guy’s been a non-factor due to injuries the past few years and Jason Snelling has emerged as Michael Turner’s backup. The Falcons also used a fifth-round draft pick on running back Jacquizz Rodgers.

Charlie Campbell predicts the Bucs won’t re-sign free-agent running back Cadillac Williams. I think he might be right. Some effort might be made to keep Williams, but I think he’ll test the market and might get a better offer elsewhere. If he leaves, Tampa Bay will have to go out and get someone who can be a backup to LeGarrette Blount and handle some third-down situations.

ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said the New Orleans Saints are one of the top four or five teams in the NFL.

Although Tiki Barber has been throwing out the Bucs as a possible landing spot as he attempts an NFL comeback, his brother Ronde, who plays for Tampa Bay isn’t so sure it’s realistic that his twin will be joining him. Ronde Barber’s right on this one. The Bucs are committed to their youth movement and a 36-year-old running back doesn’t fit their profile.

Best of NFL: NFC South teams

June, 30, 2011
6/30/11
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» Best of NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

As part of Best of the NFL Week on ESPN.com, here are five bests for the NFC South:

Best training camp venue, Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.,: That’s where the Carolina Panthers train, and they’re the only division team right now that goes away for training camp. There’s been a league-wide trend of moving camps back to regular-season facilities. But if you’re going to go away, this might be the best setup in the NFL. Spartanburg isn’t all that picturesque or glamorous. But the Wofford campus is gorgeous, particularly the football facilities. In case you’ve forgotten, team owner Jerry Richardson played football for Wofford -- and later, the Baltimore Colts, before starting to make his fortune with his first Hardee’s restaurant in Spartanburg -- and he paid for those facilities.

[+] EnlargeKenny Chesney and Drew Brees
AP Photo/Tony TribbleKenny Chesney, pictured here with Drew Brees, has been known to show up at Saints practice.
Best coaching staff, Falcons: Coach Mike Smith’s going to be challenged a bit this year because the Falcons lost quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave to a coordinator job in Minnesota, but they’ve replaced him with Bob Bratkowski. The rest of the staff is a group of all-stars, highlighted by coordinators Mike Mularkey (offense) and Brian VanGorder (defense). Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau isn’t a household name, but he’s one of the best in the business. For the past three years, the Falcons have given Matt Ryan great protection without having a lot of big names up front.

Best celebrity fan, Kenny Chesney: He’s not just a fan of the New Orleans Saints, he played for them. Well, sort of. A few years back the Saints held a press conference to announce they were signing the country singer/wide receiver to a contract. They never really did, but it was coach Sean Payton’s way of having fun with one of his best friends. It’s not unusual to see Chesney around the Saints. Heck, he’s even gone out on the practice field and attempted to catch punts.

Best team facility, One Buccaneer Place: It’s referred to as “One Buccaneer Palace’’ by some, and it is a palace on the inside. Also, despite popular belief, it was not paid for with taxpayer money. The Glazer family paid for the facility. The lobby and team meeting room are awesome and the locker room is the nicest in the NFC South. Heck, even the media room is, by far, the nicest in the division. The Falcons’ facility gets a strong honorable mention. In some ways, it’s just as nice as Tampa Bay’s facility, but the media room doesn’t even come close.

Best meddling owner, Arthur Blank: He’s not the Cowboys' Jerry Jones or the Redskins' Daniel Snyder, but I think it’s accurate to say Blank is hands-on in a healthy way. You’ll see him on the sidelines at the end of games, and he sits in on Smith’s postgame press conferences, which is pretty unusual for an owner. But I see Blank as more of a guy who cares passionately about his team and likes to keep a close eye on everything. He lets his people do their own thing, but he observes everything. Nothing wrong with that. After all, he owns the team.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 22

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In the kindest of terms, fans and media are referring to the Carolina Panthers as a team in a youth movement.

There’s some basis for that as they opened camp with the league’s third-youngest roster after saying farewell to popular veterans such as Julius Peppers, Jake Delhomme and Brad Hoover.

In the harshest of terms, fans and media have referred to those departures as a “bloodletting’’ and are talking about the Panthers as a team without an identity, a team that’s not going to be very good.

Now, let’s turn to two guys who beg to differ.

“How do you say we’re going through a youth movement, when we beat those teams late in the season using the same key components?’’ running back DeAngelo Williams said. “People can say what they want to say. But we know what it takes to win and we have what it takes to win.’’

“The way I look at it is, I like our core guys,’’ linebacker Jon Beason said. “I think we have a great nucleus. Now we’re looking for a few good men, a few young guys who are talented. For those young guys, it’s an opportunity to come in and do great things.’’

Maybe Beason and Williams have valid points. They’re two team leaders with a pretty good feel for the pulse of the locker room. They also have impressive résumés. Williams was one of two Carolina running backs (Jonathan Stewart was the other) to run for 1,100 yards last season. Scouts, coaches and players everywhere will tell you Beason is one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

Can you really call the Panthers a team without a face?

That’s kind of a difficult statement to make when you look at Carolina’s roster and see Beason and Williams. Then, keep looking and you see Stewart, left tackle Jordan Gross, center Ryan Kalil, right tackle Jeff Otah, receiver Steve Smith and cornerbacks Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. Those are all guys the Panthers view as core players. Look around the league and see how many teams have that many core players in place.

“There are question marks, sure,’’ coach John Fox said. “Anytime you have question marks, the expectations on the outside might not be that high. But on the inside, we know we’ve got some very good core players and those core players are going to have to have big seasons.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMatt Moore
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireThe Panthers' confidence in quarterback Matt Moore appears to be growing.
1. Can this team win with Matt Moore as the quarterback? Let’s cut to the chase. This team already has won with Moore as the quarterback. Moore started the final five games of last season after Delhomme was injured. The Panthers won four of those games and Moore looked sharp the entire time.

Sure, that’s not the longest of track records and the Panthers did draft Jimmy Clausen in the second round. But this isn’t the Carolina camp of 2001, where the Panthers were kind of expecting Jeff Lewis to fail and to hand the job to rookie Chris Weinke.

Williams’ point about the youth movement taking place last year might be right. Moore won this job with his play down the stretch and, so far in camp, the team’s confidence in him is only growing.

“Matt Moore is a gamer,’’ Williams said. “When he mentally locks in, the game comes easy for him. All quarterbacks in the league are pretty much the same. They can all throw the ball or they wouldn’t be here. The thing that separates the good ones from the bad ones is decision making. Matt Moore can make decisions. Matt’s going to be fine.’’

Let’s keep one other thing in mind. With an excellent offensive line, two very good running backs and Smith at wide receiver, Moore has a pretty strong supporting cast. He doesn’t need to be Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. He just needs to keep mistakes to a minimum and the job can be his as long as he wants.

2. Can the defensive line be any good? For much of Fox’s tenure, the defensive line has been the foundation of the team. But Peppers was the last in a line of supernovas that used to include Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. There are no current stars on this defensive front.

But Fox and the Panthers don’t appear to view that as a bad thing. They’re not expecting any single guy to come in and replace Peppers. They believe they can get quality out of quantity and are hoping the defensive front can attack in waves. They’ve got high hopes for Charles Johnson and Everette Brown, and rookies Eric Norwood and Greg Hardy have been very impressive in camp. They brought back Tyler Brayton for a bit of continuity, but they feel they’ve got some pass-rushers who can emerge.

They also have a better feeling about defensive tackles Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler and Ed Johnson than a lot of people realize. This might not be the traditional Fox defensive front with a huge run-stuffer in the middle and a big name on the outside. But, keep in mind, the Panthers brought in Ron Meeks as defensive coordinator last year and his system is based more on speed than power up front.

“We were eighth in the league in defense a year ago with a new scheme,’’ Fox said. “It’s kind of early to tell, but we should be better with our scheme the second time around.’’

[+] EnlargeJohn Fox
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJohn Fox owns a 71-57 record in eight seasons with the Panthers.
3. Does all this talk about Fox being in the last year of his contract really make a difference? Not at all. Fox is a creature of habit and he’s going to coach the way he always has coached.

He’s a confident guy with a pretty solid résumé. He’s not losing sleep because he knows he can get another job if it comes to that. But he wants to make it work in Carolina, a place where his family has set down roots. Keep in mind, Fox never has had a truly bad season. There have been some disappointing years, but the record’s always been close to or above .500. He’s sometimes stumbled a bit when expectations were high, but he always has done his best job when people weren’t counting on much out of the Panthers.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Greg Hardy. The defensive end was a sixth-round draft pick because his college career didn’t end all that well. But the Panthers took a shot because they thought there was uncommon physical talent sitting out there late in the draft. So far, they feel as if they might have hit a home run. Hardy has looked great in camp. Coaches are noticing him and so are other players. There were some questions about Hardy’s ability to focus on football at the pro level. But so far, so good on that end. Brayton, Johnson and Brown are competing for the starting jobs, but Hardy appears to be carving out some playing time.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Dwayne Jarrett. As they’ve been doing for his entire career, the Panthers are hoping the light suddenly comes on for this wide receiver. He’s still running with the first team, but all indications are it’s just not happening for Jarrett. There’s still some work to be done and polish to be added, but the Panthers are starting to think rookie Brandon LaFell is their best option at the starting position opposite Smith. Jarrett basically is fighting for a roster spot at this point. The fact he’s still making mental mistakes this far into his career means there’s a good chance he’s gone before the preseason is over.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireCarolina has been pleased with how Jimmy Clausen has looked in the early part of camp.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • As mentioned above, the Panthers are singing Moore’s praises and that’s all very legitimate. But behind the scenes, the Panthers also are thrilled with what they’ve seen from Clausen. His physical skills and mechanics are as solid as expected and Clausen’s doing everything right on and off the field. There’s not a sense of urgency to play him because Moore has looked so solid. But the Panthers believe they got a steal when they took Clausen in the second round.
  • There’s been a lot of hype about third-round draft pick Armanti Edwards. Understandable because he was a college quarterback and came from Appalachian State, which automatically makes him popular in the Carolinas. The Panthers aren’t disappointed with Edwards by any means, but the reality is he’s just feeling his way as a receiver and a return man. Don’t look for him to be a huge contributor instantly. There’s big upside here because Edwards is so dynamic and he might be in a few packages early on. But it’s going to take some time for him to become a staple in this offense.
  • The Panthers let go of Keydrick Vincent, who played every snap at right guard last season, for a reason. He was older and they had Duke Robinson waiting in the wings. Coaches, players and the front office believe Robinson can be a punishing run-blocker. Put him on the right side with Otah and the Panthers believe that side of the line can be just as good as the left, where Gross and Travelle Wharton are outstanding.
  • If you’re looking for a long shot to make the roster, I’ll throw out Trent Guy’s name. This is a tiny wide receiver, but every time I looked up during my visit to Wofford College, Guy seemed to be making a play. He’s got rare speed and good hands, and also could be a factor in the return game.
  • Thomas Davis, who had major knee surgery in June, has been hanging around at camp and working hard at his rehab. The Panthers haven’t ruled out a possible return for him later this season, but I don't see that happening for a guy who has torn his ACL twice in less than a year. The Panthers wouldn’t have moved Beason from the middle to the weak side unless they thought he’d stay there for the long haul. At the moment, they’re happy with what they’ve seen from Dan Connor in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. That better stay that way because, aside from Jamar Williams, there’s no real depth at linebacker.
  • A lot of people have questioned why the Panthers would take Beason out of the middle where he’s been such a dominant player. The answer is simple. Under Meeks, the Panthers run the “Tampa 2’’ defense. In that scheme, everything goes through the Will linebacker. Think Derrick Brooks.
I spent much of Thursday morning writing our Camp Confidential segment on the Carolina Panthers. It will pop up on the NFC South blog a bit later this afternoon.

This feature will involve a mention of rookie defensive end Greg Hardy. But he deserves more than a quick mention because he was creating quite a buzz around camp when I visited Wofford College earlier this week.

A sixth-round pick out of Mississippi, Hardy isn’t playing like a sixth-round pick. Coaches, players and the front office are noticing. In fact, when I sat down with linebacker Jon Beason for an interview for Camp Confidential and some other stuff for down the road, he brought up Hardy without any prompting at all.

Beason was talking in general terms about how he’s seeing some promise from young players on Carolina’s defensive line. All of the sudden, Beason paused and got very specific.

“Hardy, for instance,’’ Beason said. “He’s a guy who can do everything. He’s strong at the point of attack. Great against the run and great against the pass. He’s got a motor and he’s very fast. I’ve talked to him and said, “Look, I don’t care what happened at Ole Miss or anything in the past. Forget about it, because you can write your own ticket right now’’ and I’m challenging him to get out there and get better because he’s got a chance to be a special player.’’

All right, let’s put some context on this. Beason is a guy I know fairly well and he’s the clear leader of Carolina’s defense, maybe even of the entire franchise. I respect his football knowledge tremendously. But I should tell you Beason is an optimist and I tried to keep his thoughts on Hardy in perspective until I talked to someone else.

That’s when I turned to John Fox. Anyone that’s followed the Panthers for most of the last decade knows that Fox, although almost always cordial, isn’t the greatest quote in the world. It’s rare for him to really heap praise on players, he’s never going to publicly criticize them and, actually, it isn’t all that often that Fox says much of anything.

That’s why his answer surprised me so much when I asked him about Hardy.

“I’ve liked everything I’ve seen,’’ Fox said. “He’s got the size. He’s got first-round ability. It’s still early, but everything I’ve seen has been impressive from his work ethic to his effort to his skill set.’’

It didn’t stop there. Without any further prompting, Fox went on and mentioned Hardy in a comparison, of sorts, to former Carolina end Julius Peppers.

“I don’t like over-praising people, but I really like what I’ve seen,’’ Fox said. “He’s probably more Pep-like than anybody else we’ve got. Time will tell.’’

Now, before Fox reads this, starts thinking he gave the rest of the league a competitive edge with his early report on Hardy and never again utters a decent quote, let’s add a little more context. By no means was Fox saying Hardy is ready to be the second coming of Peppers. He simply was saying Hardy has the most pure athletic ability of any of Carolina’s defensive ends. It remains to be seen if that will translate into success on the field.

Also, I thought Fox had another strong quote when he was talking about how the Panthers will have to use a collection of players to make up for the loss of Peppers.

“Julius Peppers, love him or hate him, you ain’t replacing him,’’ Fox said. “He was the second player taken in the draft and he signed a huge contract to go to the Bears. That doesn’t happen to bad football players. We’re not going to replace him as an individual talent.’’

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