NFL Nation: Luke Kuechly

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ryan Kalil couldn't help but crack a joke when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton arrived for Monday's practice wearing a new oversized flak jacket.

"I told him in the event of a water landing it could be used as a flotation device," the Pro Bowl center and team's resident comedian said. "He didn't think that was funny, though."

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Stephan SavoiaCarolina QB Cam Newton has earned admiration from his teammates for his toughness.
All jokes aside, Newton showed no obvious limitations from the fractured ribs suffered in an August 22 exhibition at New England.

He threw, according to head coach Ron Rivera and teammates, well enough that there are few if any concerns for how effective he will be in Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay. He actually threw more than anybody expected.

There seemingly are few concerns about anything surrounding Newton these days as his teammates made him a team captain for the second straight year.

It made headlines a year ago when Newton was bestowed that honor for the first time in his three seasons. After consecutive losing seasons -- 6-10 and 7-9 -- there had been questions about his ability to lead.

Those ended after the first pick of the 2011 draft led Carolina to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title. Newton continued to show his leadership during the offseason the way he stayed around the team while recovering from surgery on his left ankle.

That he's playing through whatever soreness remains from the rib injury without complaint is no more surprising than him being named captain.

"Cam's a tough guy," said tight end Greg Olsen, named a captain along with Newton, Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. "He's a big, strong dude. If there's one thing the team knows, if there is any way for him to be out there and play at a high level he will.

"So there's not a lot of concern for that guy for the rest of the team. He'll be out there. He'll be fine."

Newton returned to practice Monday for the first time since New England linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on his back at the end of a 7-yard scramble. He reassured his teammates he was there for them, slapping the hands of every player in the huddle before taking his first snap.

"Cam, he's a fighter, he's a leader," left tackle Byron Bell said. "Ain't nothing going to hold that guy back. He looked good out there throwing the ball, calling the plays like he never lost a step. We've just got to keep him upright and we should be fine."

That will be key. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton has been sacked, hit while throwing or hit while carrying the ball 467 times during his first three seasons. That's more than double the total for any other quarterback, with Houston's Ryan Fitzpatrick next closest at 230.

That Newton takes those hits and doesn't complain, that he doesn't plan to change his style and slide instead of diving head first for every yard he can get, is another reason he's a captain.

"For me, a leader is somebody who leads by example," Kalil said. "Since the day he's gotten here he's done a good job in his preparation and how important it is. We give him a hard time about his pouting from time to time, but that's a reflection of how important it is to him.

"And even then he's the best self critic of himself. His self evaluation is one of the best I've been around.

"Obviously, the success came last year. But for me, he's been that guy since Day 1 and he's proven it in how he's played and how he's grown as a player and a leader."

He gets no argument from Rivera. Asked if his quarterback is more convincing as a leader now than a year ago, he deadpanned, "He's convincing, period."
A closer look at the 53-man roster for the Carolina Panthers as they prepare for Sunday's opener at Tampa Bay:

Offense

Quarterbacks (3) -- Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb
  • Newton's offseason ankle surgery opened the door for Webb to join the team and Newton's fractured rib two weeks ago made it a necessity to keep Webb on the roster. Don't get me wrong, Webb played well enough in the preseason to earn a spot. But if Newton were perfectly healthy, the former UAB quarterback wouldn't be here.
Running backs (4) -- DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker
  • Whittaker is the biggest surprise in that he wasn't on the roster when training camp opened. But he led the team in rushing during the preseason and gives the team another punishing runner who sets the tone for this ball-control offense.
Wide Receivers (5) --Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Brenton Bersin, Philly Jones
  • There were major questions about who Newton would throw to after Steve Smith was released in March and Carolina's next three wide receivers signed with other teams. Benjamin, the team's first-round draft pick out of Florida State, answered many of those questions with a strong preseason. Bersin wasn't a player many expect to be here in March over Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt, but he's proven to be a solid route runner and receiver. Jones made the team primarily because of his kick-return skills. Don't be surprised to see Carolina add another player here.
Tight ends (4) -- Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Brandon Williams, Richie Brockel
  • The second-deepest position on the team behind the defensive line. The decision to reach an injury settlement with Mike McNeil had to be tough because he was signed to a two-year deal in free agency to be the blocking tight end. The emergence of Williams made him expendable.
Offensive linemen (10) -- Ryan Kalil, Byron Bell, Nate Chandler, Amini Silatolu, Trai Turner, Garry Williams, Fernando Velasco, Brian Folkerts, Andrew Norwell, David Foucault
  • The decision to cut guard Chris Scott, who had eight starts last season, was the most intriguing. But it says a lot about what the Panthers think of Norwell and the flexibility of Velasco, who can play center and guard. Keeping Foucault on the 53-man roster was probably more out of fear he wouldn't clear waivers so the team could put him on the practice squad.
Defense

Ends (5) -- Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, Wes Horton
  • Plenty of talent to go around here. That second-round draft pick Ealy is third on the depth chart says all you need to know. And when Frank Alexander returns from a four-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy, this position will get stronger.
Tackles (4) -- Star Lotulelei, Colin Cole, Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards
  • The same foursome that helped establish Carolina as the league's second-ranked defense a year ago. That ends Hardy and Ealy can move over and play tackle as well once again gives the Panthers one of the league's best rotations up front.
Linebackers (6) -- Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn, A.J. Klein, Jason Williams, Ben Jacobs
  • No real surprises here. The decision to release D.J. Smith wasn't easy, but he was re-signed to the practice squad.
Cornerbacks (5) -- Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Charles Godfrey, Josh Norman, Bene' Benwikere
  • There simply wasn't room for Josh Thomas, who began last season as one of the top four corners. The starters are set with Cason and White, and Godfrey and Benwikere sharing the nickel spot that Captain Munnerlyn had last season.
Safeties (4) -- Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud, Colin Jones, Tre Boston
  • The Panthers showed what they thought of Boston, their fourth-round pick, by leaving him on the roster ahead of Robert Lester, even though Boston missed most of the preseason recovering from sports hernia surgery. Fortunately, a new rule allowed Carolina to put Lester on the practice squad.
Specialists (3) -- Place-kicker Graham Gano, punter Brad Nortman, deep snapper J.J. Jansen
  • There never was a doubt these three would be here.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New England Patriots are on a run of 13 consecutive winning seasons and 11 straight in which they've won at least 10 games. They have finished first in the AFC East the past five seasons and in 10 of the last 11.

They have won three Super Bowls and been to six between 2001 and the present.

The Carolina Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995.

[+] EnlargeRon Rivera
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"We're on the cusp, and this year will tell a lot for the direction we are headed," coach Ron Rivera.
And yet fourth-year coach Ron Rivera believes they are on the doorstep of becoming what the Patriots are.

"We could be a year away," Rivera said as the Panthers prepared for Friday's preseason game at New England. "If we can come back, have a good year, do some things that haven't been done before, we can set ourselves up as we continue to move forward with a group of young men.

"We're on the cusp, and this year will tell a lot for the direction we are headed."

He's right in that this season will say a lot in regards to where the Panthers are heading. Quarterback Cam Newton isn't Tom Brady, but he is a player a team can build around as New England has with the nine-time Pro Bowl selection.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, gives Carolina a strong nucleus on the other side of the ball.

There is a foundation.

But the Panthers are far from being in New England's stratosphere. So is every other team in the NFL, for that matter.

That's why the Patriots are the measuring stick for most of the league. They certainly are for Rivera.

"You think about coach [Bill] Belichick and Tom Brady and their consistency," Rivera said. "I've always used them as a measuring stick and I've always compared to what we want to do to defensively to what they do offensively.

"Now as a team, you want to compare the whole team."

The Patriots were a big measuring stick for the Panthers last season. A 24-20 victory over New England on "Monday Night Football" following a win at San Francisco showed Carolina was a playoff contender.

It showed that Newton was a bona fide rising star after he successfully directed the game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes against a Super Bowl-caliber team.

"It sent a great message to the rest of the team, we are most certainly relevant because we beat one of the elite teams,'' Rivera said.

New England also was a measuring stick for Carolina in the 2003 season when they met in the Super Bowl. The Patriots won 32-29 on a last-second field goal, giving the Carolina organization hope it was close to championship form.

It didn't happen. The Panthers went 7-9 the following season while New England went on to a second straight Super Bowl victory.

Tonight's third exhibition game won't have the ramifications of a Super Bowl, but it again will be a measuring stick. The Patriots are among the favorites to win another title. The Panthers are predicted to take a hard fall from last season's 12-4 record.

So while it is starters versus starters for the first half, despite little game-planning by either side, it will give Rivera a hint of where the Panthers are in terms of sustaining success.

It will be another opportunity for Newton to prove he can win with a new group of wide receivers just as Brady has. It will be another opportunity for the defense, ranked second in the league a year ago, to prove it remains championship caliber.

It may just be an exhibition game, but because it's New England it will hold a little more significance than others.

"What I mean by a year away, this year will tell,'' Rivera said as he continued to explain why he believes the Panthers are close to becoming a New England-type team. "If we go out and do the things we're capable of, play to our abilities and do some things that haven't been done before in this division and for this team, then I think we're where we want to be.''
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It wasn't a long message, but it spoke volumes about where the Carolina Panthers are mentally.

"Don't sleep on the Panthers," Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert said.

The Panthers nationally have been dubbed the NFL team most likely to take a big fall. After Carolina lost its top four wide receivers, its starting left tackle and three-fourths of its secondary, many predict four to five fewer wins than its 12-4 2013 season.

Throw in offseason ankle surgery for quarterback Cam Newton and legal issues involving Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and one easily could argue that the Panthers have had the worst offseason of any team in the league.

That they've never put together consecutive winning seasons since coming into the league 20 years ago doesn't help.

Coach Ron Rivera uses this as motivation. His players use it as a lack of respect.

They're playing the underdog role to the hilt.

"We put a lot of work in last year and a lot of people didn't give us a chance," Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said. "So this offseason [there have been] a lot of questions about what we're doing next and it's sort of the same thing. We're just starting over refocusing. That's something that is going to be incredible for us."

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Even Rivera admitted he was concerned when Carolina failed to sign wide receivers Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon after releasing all-time leading receiver Steve Smith. He went as far as to say the team didn't need a true No. 1. That seems like a distant memory. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a legitimate No. 1. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant have brought in the leadership and consistency. This group is closer than last year's that averaged slightly less than 10 catches a game. With more talent at tight end, it will open up the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin has the makings of being a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
2. General manager Dave Gettleman likes what he calls "hog mollies" -- big players on both sides of the line. He has put together a group on the defensive front that is deeper than some of the best units he had while with the New York Giants. Carolina has eight or nine players who could play for most teams. Having the luxury to rotate big, fast bodies in without suffering a significant drop-off should help the league's No. 2 defense -- No. 1 in sacks -- in 2013 maintain its elite status.

3. Led by Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Carolina has a solid core on both sides of the ball. Newton is more confident and poised than ever as he enters his fourth season. The left ankle that was surgically repaired in March should be stronger, making him more dangerous as a runner. Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has been compared to some of the all-time greats, such as Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis. He is a tackling machine who lives and breathes football. He makes everybody around him better. So does Newton.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Kalil laughed when I asked him about all the questions surrounding the restructured offensive line, saying the line has been a question mark since he arrived eight years ago. The difference is Carolina had Jordan Gross at left tackle all those years. The Panthers don't now. Regardless of how the battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler shakes out to replace Gross, Carolina will have two undrafted players starting at the tackle positions because the other will start on the right side. No other team probably can -- or wants to -- say that.

2. The Panthers haven't had consecutive winning seasons since they began playing in 1995. Their average win total the season after their previous four winning seasons is 7.5. That there's never been a repeat winner in the NFC South doesn't bode well, either. That Atlanta and Tampa Bay should be stronger, and New Orleans should be solid once again, will make repeating last year's 5-1 division record tough. The overall schedule should be tougher, as well, particularly an Oct. 12-30 stretch of at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
AP Photo/Mike McCarnReplacing retired Jordan Gross remains a priority for the Panthers.
3. Back to the offensive line: It's a fragile situation. Although the starters could surprise, the depth outside of Garry Williams (T/G) and Chris Scott (G) is suspect. This team can't afford to lose three guards, as it did early last season, and still succeed. It especially can't afford a loss at tackle. Plus, it is depending on rookie Trai Turner out of LSU as the starting right guard. As consistent as he has looked in camp, he's still a rookie.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Benjamin and Newton have formed a bond off the field that obviously has helped their chemistry on it. It's a relationship Newton never had with Smith.
  • Benjamin has made more spectacular catches in his first few weeks of camp than arguably any receiver in Carolina history.
  • Despite being found guilty on domestic violence charges, which he is appealing, Hardy has remained popular among fans seeking autographs.
  • The addition of free agent Ed Dickson and the emergence of Brandon Williams to go opposite Greg Olsen makes the Panthers deep at tight end. They'll go with a lot of two-TE sets that will force teams to put eight in the box and open up the entire offense.
  • Replacing Ginn (Arizona) as a kick returner remains a challenge.
  • The Panthers love the leadership of Charles Godfrey, but if he doesn't show improvement in his transition from safety to the nickel corner, they'll love somebody else. Maybe rookie Bené Benwikere.
  • Running back Jonathan Stewart has spent so much time on the stationary bike rehabbing injuries the past three training camps that some are wondering whether he's training for the Tour de France.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of the Carolina Panthers training camp from Wofford College:
  • It sounded like a car crash. Only instead of crumpled sheet metal, fullback Mike Tolbert crumpled to the ground. On easily the biggest hit of training camp in the most physical practice, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly ran into Tolbert on fourth-and-goal inside the 1-yard line so hard that you could hear it at The Beacon (Spartanburg's famous greasy spoon) a few miles away. OK, maybe it wasn't that loud. But it did turn heads. And it started the eruption of a defensive celebration that didn't go unnoticed by Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "Panthers won today," Rivera said with a smile as though the play came on the final second of the Super Bowl to secure the victory. Kuechly said it was "payback" for Tolbert running over him on third-and-1 at the 15-yard line in the Pro Bowl. "I had to get him back," Kuechly said. For the Panthers it was a nice reminder that the league's second-ranked defense in 2013 will be a force again. It also was a reminder that Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is deserving of all the accolades he gets. "It was a very big statement," Rivera said. "To be quite honest the offense was getting after the defense and they needed to make something happen -- and they did."
  • Saturday marked the return of the Joshes -- cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Josh Norman. For Thomas, it was his first appearance in camp after being placed on the non-football injury list with a back injury. Neither did anything to stand out, and it's going to be tough for both to make the final 53-man roster again. Much depends on how many cornerbacks the Panthers keep. Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Bene' Benwikere (had yet another interception on Saturday) and Charles Godfrey (sat out of practice with soreness in Achilles) appear to be locks. If the Panthers keep five cornerbacks, then one of the Joshes is out.
  • Rivera recently said Cason eventually might get into the punt return business. Eventually has arrived. Cason led off the group on Saturday. Benwikere also got into the mix. Cason last returned a punt in 2012 -- one for nine yards. The last time he had more than one in a season was 2014, when he had 14 for a 16.5 average. This remains a spot the Panthers could look to fill with the waiver wire late in camp. Yes, they miss Ted Ginn Jr.
  • With starting defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder contusion) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) out, second-round pick Kony Ealy got more opportunities. He still struggled, to the point quarterback Cam Newton began taunting him, but did more good things than he has in any other practice.
  • The Panthers practice again on Sunday at 9:25 a.m. before getting an off day on Monday. Rivera indicated prior to practice that the team would go without pads after going five straight days in them. That Saturday's practice was so physical as the team focused on short-yardage situations and goal-line plays makes that more likely.
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' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
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Three words. Salary cap management.

Gettleman
The Carolina Panthers were $16 million over the cap when general manager Dave Gettleman was hired in February 2013. They had little wiggle room to improve a team that had not made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2008. Between tough cuts, renegotiations and finding bargain players who have performed, he put the team more than $15 million under the cap.

Carolina still is not completely cap healthy. Huge contracts given to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as defensive end Charles Johnson, by former management will force Gettleman to remain somewhat frugal through 2015. But he's at least put the team in position to sign key players such as quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Greg Hardy to long-term deals.

The key to maintaining the success started with a 12-4 2013 season is keeping the star players under contract and being smart about signing the role-players around them. It's the same formula Seattle used to win the Super Bowl this past season.

With Newton and Kuechly in particular, the Panthers have anchors -- and leaders -- on both sides of the ball that should help them remain competitive for years to come. They'll make it easier to sign bargain free agents because players will want to come to Carolina to play with them. The closer Gettleman gets the Panthers to a cap-healthy state, the more flexibility he will have in bringing in those players. But the priority will be to continue to draft young stars, as Carolina has the past three years, and have the money to keep them after their rookie contracts expire.

The key will be to not overspend as past management did, making it tougher to keep the solid nucleus that Gettleman has solidified.
Few if any teams have been more successful with their first pick in the NFL draft over the past three seasons than the Carolina Panthers.

In 2011, they took Auburn quarterback Cam Newton with the top pick. He went on to become the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first of two times in his three seasons.

In 2012, they took Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth pick. He went on to become the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in his first season and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his second.

In 2013, they took Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick. He went on to be named to several all-rookie teams and anchored a defensive front line on the league's second-ranked defense.

On Thursday, the Panthers will have the 28th pick. While it's easier to hit on top-10 and top-15 players, there's no reason to think Carolina won't walk away with a player who can have an immediate impact.

The best example over the past 10 years is offensive tackle Joe Staley, taken by San Francisco with the 28th pick in 2007. He started all 16 games as a rookie and has made the Pro Bowl the past three seasons.

The next best example may be cornerback Chris Gamble, taken 28th by Carolina in 2004. Gamble started all 16 games as a rookie and finished tied for the NFC lead -- third in the NFL -- in interceptions with six. He retired after the 2012 season as the team's all-time leader in interceptions with 27.

Here's a few facts about the 28th pick over the past 10 drafts to give you an indication of what Carolina can expect:
  • Players averaged 8.8 starts in their rookie season.
  • Five players started 10 or more games; two started all 16 games.
  • More defensive tackles (three) have been taken than any other position. After that there are one each at linebacker, running back, center, defensive end, offensive tackle, tight end and cornerback.
  • Two players, offensive tackle Joe Staley (2011, 2012, 2013) and tight end Marcedes Lewis (2010), have gone on to make the Pro Bowl at least once.

  • Now let's take a detailed look at the players selected with the 28th pick over the past 10 drafts:
  • 2013 -- Sylvester Williams, DT, North Carolina to Denver: Started four games as a rookie. Had 19 tackles and two sacks.
  • 2012 -- Nick Perry, LB, Southern California to Green Bay: Started five games as a rookie and 11 in his first two seasons. Had two sacks and 13 tackles as a rookie; four sacks and 24 tackles in his second season.
  • 2011 -- Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama to New Orleans: Started four games and rushed for 474 yards as a rookie. Has 12 starts and 1,462 yards rushing in three seasons.
  • 2010 -- Jared Odrick, DT, Penn State to Miami: Had one start and one tackle as a rookie. Has 25 starts, 15.5 sacks and 81 tackles in four years.
  • 2009 -- Eric Wood, C, Louisville to Buffalo (from Carolina via Philadelphia): Had 10 starts as a rookie and 63 starts in five seasons.
  • 2008 -- Lawrence Jackson, DE, Southern California to Seattle: Had 14 starts with 21 tackles and two sacks as a rookie. Has 24 starts with 141 tackles and 19.5 sacks in five seasons. He did not play last season and remains a free agent.
  • 2007 -- Joe Staley, OT, Central Michigan to San Francisco: Started 16 games as a rookie and has 98 in seven seasons, most at left tackle. A three-time Pro Bowl selection.
  • 2006 -- Marcedes Lewis, TE, UCLA to Jacksonville: Started three games as a rookie and has 106 in eight seasons. Has 297 career catches for 3,583 yards and 25 touchdowns. Selected to the 2010 Pro Bowl.
  • 2005 -- Luis Castillo, DT, Northwestern to San Diego: Started 15 games as a rookie, collecting 3.5 sacks and 37 tackles. Has 79 starts from 2005-11 with 19 sacks and 153 tackles. Has not played the past two seasons.
  • 2004 -- Chris Gamble, CB, Ohio State to Carolina: Started 16 games as a rookie and finished tied for the NFC lead in interceptions with six. Had 69 tackles. From 2004 until he retired after the 2012 season, he had 117 starts with 27 interceptions and 440 tackles.

  • What will the 28th pick do this year? Carolina is banking on somebody who can help immediately. Stay tuned.
Every now and then during offseason workouts, Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil will get a text from recently retired left tackle Jordan Gross. The message usually is accompanied with a picture from the golf course, the lake or some other fun activity.

"Typical Gross,"Kalil said last week.

What's not typical for Kalil is being in offseason workouts without Gross, wide receiver Steve Smith and others that no longer are a part of the Carolina roster. They have either retired, like Gross, were released, like Smith, or were not re-signed.

[+] EnlargeKalil
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsRyan Kalil said he likes the competition that is occurring in OTAs.
As Kalil said, it's strange. It's also accepted.

Parents often go through a period of mourning, otherwise known as empty nest syndrome, when children leave home. Sports fans go through a similar grieving period when star players leave for other teams or retire.

Players don't have that luxury. To spend time debating or agonizing over the loss of a teammate, even if that teammate is a good friend like Gross and Kalil were, is time not spent getting better.

"That's just how it is,"Kalil said. "A lot of players, we joke that if you can cut Peyton Manning you can cut any of us. And it's true. It's part of the business and I don't envy those decisions that they have to make upstairs."

But while it feels strange for Kalil and others to see a room full of new faces during organized team activities, they are focused on moving forward. They are trying to do what it takes to assure the group is in position to become the first to record consecutive winning seasons in team history.

A big part of that is competition. The changes, for better or worse, have created more competition than Kalil can remember in any of his seven seasons at Carolina.

It's something Kalil has embraced and believes will be "really healthy for this team.''

Instead of the complacency that sometimes comes from having veterans back in key positions, the release of a 13-year player like Smith sends the message that no player's future is safe.

"Everybody's trying to make a good impression with coaches, with some of the established guys, and that's something I haven't felt around here in a while that I think is real exciting for this team,"Kalil said.

Kalil saw this initially in the weight room with players "sizing themselves up with other guys and established guys.''

There's not a sense of panic like many fans have expressed since Smith was cut and the team's next three wide receivers were allowed to sign elsewhere.

There's a sense of opportunity for others to step forward. The left tackle position, for example, has created an opportunity for right tackle Byron Bell and right guard Nate Chandler to compete for one of the more high profile jobs on the team.

"He's been busting his butt this offseason," Kalil said of Chandler. "You can tell he's put on some weight just to prepare for that.''

Kalil is excited about the prospects along the line, including the possibility of drafting a tackle with the 28th pick. He also made a plea for the team to re-sign left guard Travelle Wharton, who is contemplating retirement if Carolina's doesn't make an offer.

"I'd be more excited if we had Travelle coming back," Kalil admitted. "I'd feel good about having a young guy next to an older guy like that.

"So if you can write, 'Travelle, Ryan wants to know.' I text him, 'One more year,' and he won't respond back to me. So if you can let him know that I'm waiting for him to return my calls.''

But even Wharton's situation isn't something Kalil wastes a lot of time focusing on. He understands the sense of urgency to begin moving forward with the players on the roster instead of worrying about those that aren't.

So do other veterans such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who like Kalil realizes the unfortunate part of the business is you lose friends who are teammates.

"But everyone realizes it's a business and that's how it works,"he said.

Gross understood that when he was a player. But that doesn't keep him from giving Kalil and others a hard time when they're in OTAs and he's having a good time.

Typical Gross.

Panthers still have key leaders

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
2:45
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton's movement might be hampered by a walking boot to protect his left ankle, but his signature smile is as smooth as ever.

The quarterback for the Carolina Panthers said all the right things on Tuesday about offseason moves that left him without his top four wide receivers from last season.

He downplayed any role management's desire for him to become more of a leader had in the controversial release of Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers are confident Cam Newton, Ryan Kalil and Luke Kuechly can fill the leadership void created when veteran receiver Steve Smith was released.
He talked about how scary good he could be playing without pain in the surgically repaired ankle for the first time since he left Auburn as the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft.

And he said it all with that infectious smile that makes you believe all will be good in Pantherland.

"We are all trying to accomplish one goal and one goal only -- to raise the Lombardi Trophy," Newton said on Tuesday, the team's second day of offseason workouts.

The Panthers are a long way from being a Super Bowl contender. They are a long way from being a playoff contender, particularly offensively with a new wide receiver corps, and new players at left and possibly right tackle if Byron Bell is able to successfully switch sides.

But at least they have Newton, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL. If he can progress as much between his third and fourth seasons as he did between his second and third, that should at least keep Carolina competitive on offense.

"No matter who or what the receivers look like, this is a team game," Newton said. "And we all are cautioned about what has been done in this offseason as far as acquisitions and trades and releases. But the fact is, we have our team right now.

"Am I happy about it? Absolutely. Am I ready to take on the challenge? Absolutely. Those guys are hungry, more than ever. And that’s what you want to see, not only in the receiver group, but in the tight end group and running back group, the offensive line group and quarterback group and defensively."

They are only words, but Newton has proven to be more than a big talker throughout his career. That is why when he says things will be all right in the post-Smith era, teammates believe him.

And what teammates believe really is more significant than the fan base that has been more than critical of the moves made by general manager Dave Gettleman after last season's 12-4 season.

You win with strong leaders, and in Newton the Panthers apparently have one. The smile magnifies it.

"The thing that you like is it's sincere," center Ryan Kalil said. "It's not something he puts on for show."

Newton was one of three players ushered in for interviews on Tuesday. The other two were Kalil and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Coincidence? Hardly.

Newton is the player coach Ron Rivera and Gettleman want to be more assertive as a leader. Kalil is the veteran expected to replace the locker room presence of retired left tackle Jordan Gross, although Kalil admits replacing Gross' pre-game speeches is a tall order.

And Kuechly is the defensive leader, not so much by what he says, but by what he does.

Those three are a big reason management believes the Panthers can put together consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history.

"I feel great about the guys that are stepping into those roles," Kalil said. "They're really good people. To me those are the best kinds of leaders.

"Even though Cam is someone who likes to get in front of the mic and thinks he's a lot more entertaining than he really is, he does a great job. I mean, the guy works hard day in and day out, in the classroom and on the field. Luke's the epitome of that. If those are going to be our leaders, then those are good leaders."

There remain big questions. Can Bell replace Gross? Can wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood equal or improve on the production of Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon? Can the defense remain a force for the second straight season with a makeshift secondary?

But there is no questioning the leadership. There is no questioning Newton's leadership after two-plus seasons of nothing but questions about it.

As Kuechly said, leading is about doing what's natural. Newton's smile and ability to elevate those around him is as natural as they come.

When he recovers from surgery to repair stretched tendons, Newton's natural ability to be a threat with his legs as well as his arm will play a big role as well.

"When I saw him yesterday, same old Cam, happy, running around, cracking jokes," Kuechly said of Newton, albeit there was no running around. "The biggest thing is he's excited to go out and play a football game.

"He's very confident this year in what he's doing, and it's going to show."

Newton, along with the core of the league's second-ranked defense, is why Gettleman had the confidence to make the offseason moves that made him a target for criticism.

It's way too early to tell if he's right, but Newton has the charisma to make it feel possible.

"We have a lot of guys that are hungry and ready to prove something in this league," Newton said. "And that’s what I want to do as well."
Ron RiveraMichael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty ImagesRon Rivera has an open mind on accepting advice -- even if it comes from a NASCAR crew chief.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera began the offseason by spending several hours picking the brain of the most successful coach in professional team sports over the past 10 years.

Not Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.

Not Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Not Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chad Knaus.

Yes, the crew chief for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Don't laugh. It's Rivera's willingness to learn from the best, even one from a world as different as NASCAR is to the NFL, that gives the Panthers a chance in 2014 despite many concerns over their offseason moves.

Knaus actually reached out to the Panthers first, cold-calling the NFC South champions to see if he could spend time with Rivera and his staff.

Rivera, the NFL's reigning coach of the year, was just as interested in learning how Knaus kept his team on top with six titles and 10 straight trips to the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs.

"One of the things we're trying to figure out is, how do we sustain the success?" Rivera said. "Listening to him talk about the way they review each year and how they try to find these next-level things, that was pretty impressive."

One of the things that was most impressive about Rivera last season was his willingness to adapt. He went from being one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL on fourth-and-1 to one of the most aggressive, earning the nickname "Riverboat Ron" because he gambled so often on short-yardage plays.

The confidence that instilled in players played a big role in the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to a 12-4 record.

Rivera also wasn't afraid to take chances with his lineup. If a player wasn't performing, he'd go to the next man regardless of seniority. There were times in key situations when the league's second-ranked defense had six rookies on the field.

It's why Rivera is not so worried about the upheaval at wide receiver that has many questioning the organization's sanity.

Rivera also found a way to get individual players with egos to become teammates.

"It's the same stuff we always try to push with the 48 car," Knaus said, referring to Johnson's Chevrolet.

Listening to the two talk about how their worlds are more alike than different helped me better understand what some might call the madness behind Carolina's free-agency plan.

It made me better understand that sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.

Knaus did it in 2010. Late in the eighth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoff, tired of seeing costly mistakes on pit road, he swapped out his entire seven-man pit crew in favor of the one used by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus has impressed Ron Rivera by sharing with the Panthers coach some of the successes and pitfalls of managing a championship team.
It was unprecedented.

Johnson went from a 33-point deficit in the standings to his fifth straight title.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman took a similar gamble this offseason when they released Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver, and let their next three most productive wide receivers go to other teams in free agency.

The Panthers took the approach that status quo was not good enough. When you consider Carolina averaged 12.7 points in its seven games against teams with winning records in 2013, and that its wide receivers contributed slightly less than 10 catches a game all season, there was room for improvement.

Whether it will work out as well for Rivera as it did for Knaus remains to be seen.

The Panthers, who debuted in 1995, have had only five winning seasons and none back-to-back, so they have that working against them. That it's difficult to maintain consistency in the NFL in general makes it even tougher.

Half of the 32 teams have failed to post consecutive winning seasons over the past five seasons. Six others have done it only once during that span.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the 20 teams that went 12-4 over the past 10 years averaged 9.95 wins the following season. So repeating last year's accomplishment would have been hard, even without any change.

"The one thing he said was don't expect to start up here [Rivera points high]. You go down here and get better here and go to the top," Rivera says of Knaus' advice. "That was probably one of the more helpful parts of our conversation."

Talking about how people fit onto a roster also was helpful in a way Rivera never imagined.

"This guy may jack the car up a 10th of a second faster, but he doesn't work as well together with others," Rivera said, "while this guy may be a 10th of a second slower, yet he works well with everybody. We're the same way. It's about, 'How does this guy fit in the locker room?'"

Smith's name didn't come up but you can connect the dots, with all the rumblings about concerns the 34-year-old could be a distraction in the locker room.

A key to Knaus' success is fear. He always operates under the fear of not winning races and not being a champion.

He also operates under the theory that nobody is above learning from others. Rivera is the same way. He sought out former NFL coaches John Madden and Mike Ditka for advice last year. He taped those conversations and then transcribed them into notes, just like he did his talk with Knaus.

Then he acted on them.

Rivera said he can learn from Knaus' ability to put blinders on and block out distractions. Knaus admitted he can learn from Rivera's ability to "manage guys on a personal level." He has even adopted Rivera's standard comment that "you can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate the standard."

Both strive for the same thing -- winning consistently. And they both have the key parts in place to make that happen.

For the 48 team, it's a core of Knaus, Johnson and car chief Ron Malec. For the Carolina team, it's a core of quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a coaching staff that remains unchanged.

The rest is a matter of filling in the pieces. Knaus has done that with NFL combine-like tryouts to get the best pit crew members available. He even adopted a depth chart, unheard of in NASCAR until three years ago.

Rivera has a quarterback on the verge of becoming one of the league's elite and the core of the league's second-ranked defense that should keep Carolina in most games.

So for all the woe-is-me over the losses at wide receiver, the key parts remain in place.

And then there's the core philosophy.

"The more I talk to people in the military, in other sports, people who are successful in other fields, the formula isn't that different for any environment," Knaus said. "It's all about teamwork, communication. It's how you approach the day.

"Ron has that."

If he can build on it, the Panthers have a chance to maintain a success level that Knaus already has attained.
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is well on his way to a career that will earn him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But his jersey and pants already are there.

Kuechly
The Panthers recently sent those items from the uniform Kuechly wore on Dec. 22, 2013, when he tied an NFL single-game record with 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints.

They will be an exhibit in the Hall's Pro Football Today Gallery.

If Kuechly continues on his current path, he'll have a bust of his likeness in the Hall when his career is over.

The former Boston College star was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl this past season after helping Carolina to the league's second-ranked defense with 156 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions.

In two NFL seasons, Kuechly has an amazing 320 tackles.

ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden compared Kuechly to future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher of the Bears and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis of the Ravens last season.

"I said it in our preseason game: Luke Kuechly is the best linebacker in football. Exclamation point! Period!" Gruden said. "The guy is unbelievable."

One day that guy may end up in the Hall of Fame, but for now he'll have to settle for his jersey and pants.
Former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney will appear on ESPN's "NFL Insiders" on Thursday and Friday. It will be the first time he has spoken publicly since he was fired on Oct. 22, 2012, after a 1-5 start.

Hurney, in my opinion, was the fall guy that day.

It wasn't his fault the Panthers were losing. They had many of the key players -- quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross -- that helped them to a 12-4 record and NFC South title this past season.

He was the one who hired Ron Rivera, who was the NFL coach of the year this past season.

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMarty Hurney was fired after a 1-5 start to the 2012 season.
His philosophy to build through the draft and not overspend in free agency is sound.

Hurney's biggest fault was signing running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson to ridiculously high contracts that has current general manager Dave Gettleman in what he might call salary cap hell.

Oh, and there was the five-year, $42.5 million deal he gave to 34-year-old Jake Delhomme after the quarterback had six turnovers in the 2008 playoff loss to Arizona.

Aside from those things, Hurney is the same person who helped build the Panthers into a team that made it to the Super Bowl in 2003, the NFC Championship Game in 2005 and back to the playoffs in 2008.

What he said the day he was fired was more truth than anybody probably was willing to admit at the time.

"I think we need somebody to step up in the locker room and take hold," Hurney told reporters at Bank of America Stadium. "I think there are people capable of that. I think we need some players to step up and say enough is enough."

That finally happened last season when Gross, with the team 1-3 heading into Minnesota, gave a speech that many of his teammates credit for the ensuing eight-game winning streak.

That Hurney, a former sportswriter, has decided to resurface now is a good thing. That he's resurfacing at a time Gettleman is under siege for releasing Smith and letting Carolina's No. 2, 3 and 4 receivers get away in free agency -- not to mention failing to sign a veteran from another team -- is merely coincidence.

Hurney likes Gettleman and believes he'll do a good job.

So do I, even though I still disagree with the release of Smith.

I'm not sure what Hurney will be asked on "Insiders" (ESPN, 3:30 p.m.). I'm not sure how much he will talk about the past because he's a high-road guy. It's why players such as Johnson came to his defense when he was fired.

"Marty wasn't the reason we are losing! ... Unbelievable!" Johnson wrote on Twitter at the time.

But there will be questions, maybe a few that are uncomfortable. I'm sure you have a few. Here are five of mine:

  • When you said somebody needed to step up and say "enough is enough,'' did you believe the locker-room environment lacked the leadership to win? Who were the bad eggs?
  • Did you think at the time you signed Williams, Stewart and Johnson to big deals that it would strap the team financially this far into the future?
  • If you had to do it all over again with the exact same scenario, would you have given Delhomme such a big deal?
  • What do you think of Gettleman's decision to fire Smith?
  • Were you really fired, or did you just refuse to let others in the organization go and basically quit?

Some of these things surely will come up on the broadcast. How Hurney addresses them isn't as important as he's finally comfortable enough to talk football publicly again.

Hurney did a lot of good things for Carolina. Even Gettleman acknowledged that in his postseason wrap-up.

It's time to move on.

Robert Mathis finishes 2nd in DPOY

February, 1, 2014
Feb 1
9:15
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What could have been an incredible day for the Indianapolis Colts didn't end the way they hoped.

Mathis
Shortly after receiver Marvin Harrison and coach Tony Dungy found out they will not be heading to the Hall of Fame this year, linebacker Robert Mathis learned he wasn’t this season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Mathis finished second behind Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly for the award.

Kuechly led the NFC in tackles with 156, including 24 against New Orleans in Week 16.

Mathis didn’t win Defensive Player of the Year, but he still had a successful season.

He also proved the naysayers wrong who doubted that he could dominate without Dwight Freeney on the other side.

The best part about Mathis playing with the chip on his shoulder?

He had no problem saying the doubters motivated him.

Mathis led the league in sacks with 19.5 and forced fumbles with eight. He had 46.4 percent of the Colts’ sacks this season, because they only had 42 as a team. The eight forced fumbles led to 35 Colts points.
The Carolina Panthers didn't reach the Super Bowl this season, but a big part of a foundation that could get them there in the future was honored on Saturday night at "NFL Honors."

Coach Ron Rivera was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the AP Defensive Player of the Year during the awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Ron Rivera
AP Photo/Brian BlancoAfter getting off to a 1-3 start, Ron Rivera coached the Panthers to wins in 11 of their final 12 regular-season games.
For Rivera it completed a clean sweep of the major coach of the year awards. He received 21 1/2 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 voters after leading a Carolina team that hadn't made the playoffs since 2008 to a 12-4 record and the NFC South title.

He beat Kansas City's Andy Reid (13 1/2 votes), who took the Chiefs from an NFL-worst 2-14 record in 2012 to 11-5 and second in the AFC West, for the award.

What Reid did was remarkable, but what Rivera did was more impressive. After consecutive 6-10 and 7-9 seasons to start his career as a first-time head coach, the Panthers began this season 0-2 and then 1-3.

Without a winning reputation to fall back on, Rivera led the team to eight straight wins and 11 in their final 12 to finish the regular season 12-4 with a first-round bye in the playoffs.

"You look at the way the season started, Rivera preached the same message all the way through," Kuechly told me by phone from New York City. "He told us we will be all right, to trust in the coach, trust in the game plan."

Having stars such as Kuechly, last season's NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, didn't hurt. Kuechly led Carolina with 156 tackles, including 24 in a late-season victory over New Orleans that propelled the team to the division title.

His award, too, was much deserved.

"This is great," Kuechly said of the awards he and Rivera received. "Look at our team and what we accomplished, it's a really good representation of where we came from."

When Rivera was announced as the league's top coach, NFL great Michael Irvin referred to him as "Riverboat Ron."

That was fitting.

Rivera earned the nickname early in the season after putting aside his conservative approach -- one of the most conservative in the league the past two seasons -- and began taking chances on fourth down.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly #59 of the Carolina Panthers
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesA year after winning NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year, Luke Kuechly took home the AP Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday.
He successfully showed his new riverboat gambler mentality twice successfully on fourth-and-1 on the first drive of a 35-10 victory at Minnesota that began the eight-game winning streak.

"I think that he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him," quarterback Cam Newton said at the time.

Rivera made the decision to be more aggressive and show more confidence in his players on the bus ride to the airport after a 24-23 loss at Buffalo left Carolina 0-2.

Rivera was criticized for kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 21 with less than two minutes to play and a three-point lead -- not to mention a banged up secondary.

The Bills then went the distance to win on touchdown pass with two seconds left.

"Sometimes you play by the book and you miss opportunities," Rivera said during the season. "The thing I really like is the guys have said to me they appreciate me showing faith in who we are as a football team."

A change in philosophy turned into a changed team and a boatload of postseason honors for Rivera and players such as Kuechly.

The next goal is the Super Bowl.

"We did some really big things and took a couple of big steps," Rivera told me last week when discussing the possibility of winning this award. "[Coach of the year] would be a great tribute to the organization and what we accomplished this season.

"But we still have a long way to go to fulfill our vision."

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