NFL Nation: Nate Chandler

Cam Newton and Gerald McCoyDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's sore ribs would prefer not to have any close encounters with Gerald McCoy.
If there's anything certain about the NFC South, it's uncertainty.

Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has claimed the championship in back-to-back years. Worst-to-first finishes have been common, and no team has been able to consistently dominate.

That's why Sunday's season opener between the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is so significant. The Panthers won the division last year, and the Bucs finished last at 4-12. But this is a new year, and history has shown that anything is possible in the NFC South.

Panthers reporter David Newton and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take a look at the matchup.

Yasinskas: David, much has been made of the release of wide receiver Steve Smith, who I think was the best player in franchise history. I know Smith's age was a concern. But can any of the new wide receivers step up and match his production?

Newton: You think Smith was the best player in franchise history? I truly believe he is, although he probably would have a hard time believing me after what I'm about to say: The Panthers are better at wide receiver today than they were this time a year ago.

It's nothing against Smith, but he's 35 and admittedly not a true No. 1 receiver anymore. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin is. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he is the big target quarterback Cam Newton hasn't had. Benjamin is deceptively fast, too. But the biggest thing is he makes plays, whether it's over the middle in traffic or on the outside. If teams double-cover him, that will open things up for tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson in the middle. It also will open coverage on Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, a pair of veterans I believe to be more dependable than Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. were last year. If the Bucs choose to single-cover Benjamin, Newton will look for him often. I know rookie receivers tend to struggle, but this one has a special feel.

The bigger worry for Carolina is its rebuilt offensive line. The Bucs added some talent around defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. How big of a problem will that be for the Panthers?

Yasinskas: That should be a big concern for the Panthers. McCoy might be the best defensive tackle in the game, and the Bucs have worked hard to improve his supporting cast. They went out and signed tackle Clinton McDonald and end Michael Johnson to surround McCoy with some other players who can get after the quarterback. The guy who isn't getting a lot of attention but is worth keeping an eye on is Adrian Clayborn. He's a 2011 first-round draft pick who hasn't shown a lot so far, but the Bucs believe the new scheme will help them get more out of Clayborn.

Jordan Gross' retirement had to hurt Carolina. How good is this offensive line without him?

Newton: Athletically, it might be better. And in time, it might be better in terms of productivity. What it lacks is time together -- and Gross' leadership.

Byron Bell was considered average to perhaps slightly better than average at right tackle, but the Panthers believe because he is naturally left-handed he's better off on the left side. He's still susceptible to the bull rush from what I saw in the preseason, but he's every bit as strong and athletic as Gross. Amini Silatolu began last season as the starting left guard before suffering a season-ending knee injury. So he's solid.

It's the right side the Bucs -- particularly McCoy -- might be able to take advantage of. As good as rookie Trai Turner has looked at right guard, he just turned 21 and he missed the last two preseason games with a groin injury. The good news is he has Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil next to him. Nate Chandler, a former defensive lineman who wound up the starter at right guard last season, has moved out to right tackle after losing the left tackle battle. Again, he has great athleticism. He just needs time at the position.

How much different will the Bucs look under Lovie Smith than they did a year ago?

Yasinskas: The Bucs will look dramatically different -- and that's a good thing from their perspective. Many players were miserable under former coach Greg Schiano, and they tired of his rigid ways. Smith brings a fresh start, and the players are delighted with him and his schemes. The Bucs are going back to the Tampa 2 defense that was famous in the Tony Dungy years, and their offense will have a faster tempo. More importantly, Smith has brought a new culture to the Bucs. Players are having fun again.

Everyone in Tampa is curious about Newton's rib injury. Is he healthy enough to be the athletic quarterback we've all come to know?

Newton: The ribs are sore, and that isn't likely to change by Sunday. But Newton has thrown the ball well in practice, and his range of motion is good. He's tougher than most give him credit for being. To never have missed a start despite being hit twice as many times as any other quarterback over the past three seasons really is remarkable.

Coach Ron Rivera says he doesn't plan to change the game plan because of the injury, and that includes the read-option. But do I expect Newton to run 11 times, as he did at Tampa last season? I'd be stunned. The Panthers don't need Newton taking unnecessary hits. Having said that, if there is a play to be made, Newton won't hesitate to use his legs. He insists that he'll continue to dive headfirst instead of sliding, too. But I expect Newton to stay in the pocket as much as possible and throw the ball to Benjamin as often as he's open. Those two have quickly developed a bond.

What about Josh McCown, who spent two years on the Carolina bench? Is he really the answer at quarterback to make the Bucs a playoff contender?

Yasinskas: McCown is a great story. He has spent most of his career as a backup, but the Bucs are giving him the chance to be a starter. McCown played extremely well last season when Bears starter Jay Cutler was hurt, and he has history with Smith from their time together in Chicago. But is McCown capable of leading a team to the playoffs? I honestly don't know. I think he needs a lot of help from the defense and the running game. If he gets that, McCown could be effective as a passer.

W2W4: Carolina Panthers

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
12:00
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The Carolina Panthers (1-2) face the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.

Here are three things to watch for:

1. Consistency: The Panthers have been consistent on offense or defense through the first three preseason games. They've started slowly on both sides. They've been unable to sustain a running game, gaining only 55 yards on 16 carries from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Not what you want when you're a ball-control team. They've struggled at times to stop the run. Not what you'd expect from the league's second-best defense in 2013. They've allowed 10 sacks and collected only five. Not what you expect from the team that led the league in sacks last season with 60. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh, has one catch for 8 yards. Not what you want when you're replacing the veteran leadership of Steve Smith. It might be asking too much for a significant change with the starters likely not playing more than a quarter, and with quarterback Cam Newton being held out with a fractured rib. But a little bit of consistency would be a good place to end the preseason.

2. Communication: Roman Harper is getting his first start at strong safety after missing the first three preseason games with turf toe. He was signed as a free agent from New Orleans to be a leader in this rebuilt secondary and provide an attitude this group has been lacking. There have been breakdowns in communication during the first three games, resulting in big plays for the opposition that have contributed to the slow starts. With starting defensive ends Greg Hardy (shoulder) and Charles Johnson (hamstring) out, the secondary needs to set the tone for a change.

3. Blocking: The offensive line has allowed too many sacks and opened up too few holes. Injuries to the right side of the line have played a small role. Rookie right guard Trai Turner (groin) is expected to be out for the second straight game, but right tackle Nate Chandler (knee) is back. Chandler lost the left tackle battle to Byron Bell, who still has issues with the bull rush. If he doesn't pick up the pace he may lose the right tackle job to Garry Williams. The Panthers believe in winning from the inside out. The defensive front is solid. The offensive front needs to start setting the tone on the other side before it faces a tough Tampa Bay defense in the Sept. 7 opener. As I've said throughout the offseason, the success of the rebuilt line is the key to the success of this team.

Observation Deck: Carolina Panthers

August, 17, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers for most of the first quarter of Sunday night's 28-16 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs looked like the team many predict will take a big fall in 2014.

And then they didn't.

With quarterback Cam Newton finally getting into a rhythm in his first preseason game since undergoing left ankle surgery in March, the Panthers went into halftime with a 14-6 lead after both teams played their first string.

Newton didn't do anything spectacular and missed rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin wide open early down the left sideline. But the ankle held up as he scrambled three times, and he completed three of his final four pass attempts for 60 yards.

Overall, it was a positive first step. Here are some other thoughts on the Panthers’ second preseason game of the year:
  • A few more thoughts on Newton, who finished 4-of-9 for 65 yards. It had to be a confidence-builder for him and the coaching staff that he spun out of trouble under a heavy rush before going down. If this was a regular-season game, he might have turned one or two into positive yards. The ankle looks good to go.
  • As much as Newton's return was anticipated, the return of running back Jonathan Stewart also spoke volumes. Stewart has been hampered by ankle injuries the past two seasons, and he entered training camp with a hamstring injury. But he looked stronger and more fluid than ever in rushing for touchdowns of 2 and 3 yards, his first time in the end zone since late in the 2012 season. His presence as an inside threat brings back visions of 2009, when he and DeAngelo Williams became known as "Double Trouble.''
  • Benjamin made two tough catches over the middle, one from Newton and one from backup Derek Anderson, to further he is a legitimate No. 1 receiver. He also made a rookie mistake, head-butting the defender late in the first half after making a spectacular catch out of bounds. That earned him a good talking to from coach Ron Rivera.
  • The defense started off slow for the second straight week, with the secondary looking shaky at best. But the Chiefs were held to two field goals, and the Panthers tightened things up in the second quarter. Cornerbacks Antoine Cason, Melvin White and Josh Norman made big plays.
  • The offensive line still has some question marks. Newton was sacked twice and Anderson once in the first half. Right tackle Nate Chandler struggled some early and was replaced by veteran Garry Williams for a series. Williams gave up a sack. Left tackle Byron Bell, however, held his own.
  • Kenjon Barner looked good on a 32-yard kickoff return, which might seal the fate of wide receiver Keahola Pilares, who did not play. Barner still is scary in pass blocking, allowing the defender to get past him almost untouched to sack Anderson.
  • Brenton Bersin's touchdown catch in the third quarter and an earlier catch in which he went low against good coverage might have solidified his spot as the fourth or fifth receiver.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A goal-line stand by the first-team defense. An amazing touchdown catch by first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin. No sacks given up by left tackle candidate Byron Bell. A recovered onside kick.

Short of quarterback Cam Newton suiting up and a victory, the Carolina Panthers got about all they could out of Friday night's 20-18 loss to the Buffalo Bills

Here are some other thoughts on the Panthers' first preseason game of the year:
  • Carolina made the right decision sitting Newton, who is still not 100 percent from offseason left ankle surgery. While he was cleared to practice when training camp began, Newton hasn't been cleared to scramble or run the read option. Coach Ron Rivera said that will come in a matter of days. Meanwhile, it wasn't worth risking a setback with a new offensive line against a Buffalo defense that sacked Newton six times last season in Week 2.
  • Much was made during the offseason of the Panthers releasing the franchise's all-time leading receiver, Steve Smith. If Benjamin (6-5, 240) keeps making plays like his 29-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter he will silence the critics fast. The 28th pick of the draft has impressed throughout camp with his ability to make the high, acrobatic catch. On this play he stumbled at the goal line, gathered himself as he was going to the ground and made a diving catch for the score. Guess he can go high and low.
  • Bell started and allowed no sacks, but it would be premature to say he won the job to replace the retired Jordan Gross. He was pushed into the quarterback a couple of times and didn't exactly open up running room. Nate Chandler, also in the mix for the job, allowed a sack that turned into a fumble in the second quarter playing right tackle. It wouldn't surprise if he got the start on the left side next weekend against Kansas City. The biggest concern on the line is depth. The backups were so pitiful in the second quarter that the starters -- minus Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil -- returned.
  • In his first game after moving from safety to nickel corner, Charles Godfrey was beaten early for a 32-yard catch. He wasn't in the same time zone. But for the most part this unit, playing without starting free safety Roman Harper (toe), looked adequate as the Panthers attempt to replace three of four starters. Backup cornerback Josh Norman, the king of Carolina's preseasons when it comes to picks, had an interception in the end zone. This is a make-or-break year for him.
  • With placekicker Graham Gano (lower back) out, backup punter Jordan Gay missed the 33-yard PAT after Benjamin's touchdown.
  • At one point in the third quarter, Tavarres King made three straight catches, albeit one was called back for holding. His stock is rising.

W2W4: Carolina Panthers

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
12:00
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The Carolina Panthers open their preseason against the Buffalo Bills on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium.

1. Quarterback watch: Starter Cam Newton officially hasn't been ruled out, but all signs indicate he won't play. Newton didn't take snaps during team drills on Thursday and was limited on Wednesday as the team continues to evaluate his left ankle that underwent surgery in March. It's not a setback if Newton doesn't play. But Newton hasn't been turned loose to scramble or ad-lib with his running during camp and the team doesn't want to put him in a position to reinjure the ankle against a defense that sacked him six times in Week 2 last season. That the Panthers are breaking in a restructured line adds to the chance the quarterback could be vulnerable. Backup Derek Anderson took all the snaps with the first team in the final tune-up, another hint Newton will sit.

2. Battle at left tackle: One of the biggest questions facing the Panthers during the offseason has been the battle to replace retired left tackle Jordan Gross. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler both have worked there, but Bell will get the start. It appears it's his job to lose. Coach Ron Rivera says he wants to have a decision by the end of the second preseason game, so this is Bell's big moment. That the test comes against Buffalo is ironic in that Bell gave up 3.5 sacks to Bills defensive end Mario Williams last season. He's playing with a chip.

3. Starting over: This will be the first test under fire for a team that lost its top four receivers from last season. First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a true No. 1 against his own defense. Now the 6-foot-5, 240-pound phenom must prove it against an opponent. The second and third receiver spots are set with Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, but there are a handful of receivers fighting for the final two or three positions. Brenton Bersin and Tavarres King appear to have an edge for the next two spots, and Kealoha Pilares might have the edge for a spot as the leader to return kickoffs. Toney Clemmons, Philly Brown and Marcus Lucas have had moments in practice where they have impressed, but they need to do it in game situations.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 10

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
7:30
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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:
  • You've read this before, but I keep repeating it because it keeps happening. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had another big day, catching two touchdown passes on the left side. Both were high, and both required the 6-foot-5 receiver to adjust his body in midair. I haven't seen Benjamin drop a pass in team drills, and nobody else I've spoken with has, either. He wasn't perfect on Tuesday, though. On what was supposed to be an alley-oop pass near the goal line he apparently didn't run the route correctly, forcing Cam Newton to look for another receiver. It resulted in an incompletion. Newton and wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl immediately spoke to Benjamin about it, demonstrating the kind of communication and chemistry that has been strong.
  • Speaking of Newton, long-time NFL talent evaluator Gil Brandt said Newton threw the ball Tuesday "as well as I've ever seen him." So for all those that predicted the three-plus months Newton missed while rehabilitating left ankle surgery would impact his timing in training camp, forget it. Newton has had moments where he's been off, but every quarterback does. For the most part he's been sharp.
  • Byron Bell literally got a leg up on the competition for the left tackle job because his primary competition, Nate Chandler, was out with a minor knee issue. Coach Ron Rivera said Chandler should be back on Wednesday, but it's starting to look like Bell will win the job. With Chandler out, Garry Williams stepped in at right tackle and did a nice job. Other key players among the 12 who missed practice with injuries were defensive end Charles Johnson (hamstring), running backs Jonathan Stewart (hamstring) and Kenjon Barner (back), and free safety Roman Harper (toe). Stewart hasn't practiced since camp started and will be evaluated again on Wednesday, but Rivera said he ran well on Tuesday. The team is being cautious with Harper so he doesn't develop turf toe. Defensive end Greg Hardy (shoulder) returned to practice after missing the last two.
  • Charles Godfrey opened as the starting nickel back over rookie Bene' Benwikere and was immediately beaten on a corner route by Benjamin. He later came back and made a good read on a pass over the middle, but dropped what should have been an interception. It appears if Godfrey is to help this team it will be at the nickel and not as an every down corner.
  • I asked Rivera to name a few players who have practiced well but not gotten the recognition that some of the high-profile players have. He started with undrafted wide receiver Marcus Lucas out of Missouri. He also mentioned backup center Brian Folkerts, referring to his nickname of "Caveman Center" with a story I'll share at a later date. He also likes what backup defensive end Mario Addison and backup safety Colin Jones have done.
  • The Panthers practice Wednesday at 9:25 a.m.

Panthers Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
7:15
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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:
  • If you were looking for something definitive at the left tackle position after the first practice in pads, sorry. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler both got opportunities there and both did well in giving quarterback Cam Newton time to throw. Bell started off on the left side during 7-on-7 drills and Chandler began team drills there. In one-on-one drills Chandler did a nice job of taking defensive end Charles Johnson to the ground once. The Panthers will continue to use both players there for the next few weeks as they look to replace retired Jordan Gross, who has lost so much weight he could play tight end or wide receiver. Coach Ron Rivera wants to make a decision on the starter after the second preseason game. The Panthers will face some good pass-rushers in Buffalo end Mario Williams and Kansas City linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford from a 3-4 set. Williams had 4.5 sacks in Week 2 against Carolina last season with most coming against Bell playing right tackle. Stay tuned. Too close to call, but both are showing potential.
  • Tight end Greg Olsen was wide open on a touchdown catch down the left sideline. Tight end Ed Dickson made a diving catch on a slant pattern. Tight end Brandon Williams made a nice over-the-shoulder catch deep in traffic. Tight end Mike McNeill made a tough catch in traffic over the middle. Tight end D.C. Jefferson made a solid catch in stride about 25 yards deep. Notice a theme here? The Panthers have more than enough choices to complement Olsen as they go to a two-tight end set. It's a luxury they haven't had since Jeremy Shockey was here in 2011. And I haven't mentioned Richie Brockel, who is listed as a TE/FB. The team kept four tight ends last season, and Rivera says there is a scenario where it could keep five this year. This definitely softens the blow of losing the top four wide receivers from last season.
  • Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin made an acrobatic, twisting catch on a high pass from Cam Newton on the first play of 7-on-7 drills. He snagged a somewhat high bullet over the middle on the first play of team drills. He caught a nice out pattern on the first series of another team session. In other words, the 28th pick of the draft is becoming quite comfortable with Newton in a hurry. A lot of this may have to do with the two staying in Charlotte, North Carolina, to work out together while the team was off from June 19 through last Thursday. If they continue to develop this chemistry people may forget Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was cut during the offseason.
  • Philly Brown went to the ground and did what appeared to be 20 pushups after having a punt bounce off his chest early in practice. There were drops by a few other returners as the Panthers attempt to replace Ted Ginn Jr., who signed with Arizona in free agency. Don't think Rivera didn't notice it. "The thing we have to understand is first and foremost we have to catch the ball. I could care less if we fair catch it every time, but we've got to catch it.'' The leader in the clubhouse for the job might be Antoine Cason, who returned punts at San Diego while Rivera was there. It's interesting that speedster Tiquan Underwood hasn't been given a chance there yet, but Rivera said others could be added to the mix that so far includes Cason, Kenjon Barner and Brown. Bottom line, the Panthers will miss Ginn much more here more than they will at receiver.
  • Carolina holds its first morning practice on Monday after two night practices and a 3:10 p.m. session. Sunday's workout was somewhat sloppy, and Rivera reminded players of that afterwards, telling them he "expected a better practice tomorrow.''

Camp preview: Carolina Panthers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
10:00
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» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

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

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

Or a bust.

If he's the former, the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers have a chance to follow one feel-good season with another.

Let me explain. Left tackle is one of the most important positions on an NFL roster because that player protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side. Elite left tackles earn around $10 million a year. They are top targets in the draft and free agency.

Teams don't typically take chances there.

Carolina did.

Meet Chandler.

An undrafted defensive lineman out of UCLA in 2012, he's trying to defy the odds. Once considered a dark horse to replace retired left tackle Jordan Gross, Chandler is at least even money to win the job based on offseason workouts.

Chandler, 25, isn't lacking for confidence. "My goal is to be a starting offensive tackle and win the Super Bowl and go down fighting and prove everybody wrong," he said.

If he loses his left tackle competition with Byron Bell, Chandler almost assuredly will start on the right side.

Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater has a strong opinion on where Chandler should play.

"There's no doubt in my mind he's a top left tackle," said Slater, who spent time working with Chandler over the past two summers.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder first sought out Slater last year, after Carolina moved Chandler to the offensive line in an effort to keep him on the roster. Chandler -- a former UCLA teammate of Slater's son Matthew, who is now with the New England Patriots -- had heard the elder Slater trained NFL prospects in the Los Angeles area.

So he spent a week with Slater, making an immediate impression with his work ethic and determination. He made a bigger impression after returning this summer, following a season in which he started six games at right guard and two at right tackle.

[+] EnlargeNate Chandler
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelOnce a defensive lineman, Nate Chandler (far right), covets his role on the Panthers' O-line.
"The thing that many underestimate is the tenacity of this individual," said Slater, the offensive line coach at Azusa Pacific University.

Slater, if you're too young to remember, spent 20 years playing tackle for the Rams (1976–95). He was named to seven Pro Bowls and blocked for seven different 1,000-yard rushers. So he knows a thing or two about the offensive line -- and he is impressed with Chandler's ability to learn the nuances of the position.

"He superseded things that were meat and potatoes and went straight to some of the cutting-edge things it takes to be a dominant football player," Slater said.

The Panthers like what they've seen as well. Coach Ron Rivera reiterated throughout offseason workouts that the left tackle job remains up for grabs between Bell and Chandler.

At the end of a June minicamp, Carolina signed Chandler to a three-year extension worth $5.12 million. That will be a bargain if he starts at either tackle spot.

"The kid wants it," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "He's completely bought in [to playing offensive line] and he's talented enough to get it done."

The Panthers saw the need to move Chandler after selecting defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft. Too many people and not enough vacant spots.

So with a little prodding from offensive line coach John Matsko, who'd already noticed something in Chandler that he liked, Rivera made the switch.

"I'm telling you right now, it's hard for me to imagine there is anybody out there more physically gifted to play -- you name the position [on the line] -- than this young man," said Slater, who raved about Chandler's quickness.

Chandler, because of his athletic ability, is more like Gross than Bell. That he has some of that nasty streak that comes from being a former defensive lineman doesn't hurt either.

"If you're going to replace a guy like Jordan Gross, you've got to replace him with a guy who at the very least is on par with him athletically," Slater said. "He's got to have that comfortable athleticism to deal with the animals that are playing [opposite him]."

Chandler won't face many opponents better than teammates Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the defensive ends he'll square off against in practice.

He can benefit the way Slater did practicing against Rams teammates Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer and Kevin Greene.

"I told Nate to relish and cherish the relationship with those guys and learn from them as they compete, because they will make him better," Slater said.

Slater has no doubt Chandler will continue to improve.

"He's mentally equipped to solve problems, and that's what you have to do to play offensive tackle in this league," Slater said. "He's going to be a good offensive lineman in the National Football League for a very long time."

The only thing better than a feel-good story is a long-term one.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers begin a three-day minicamp on Tuesday, their final tune-up before reporting for training camp on July 24.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

  • Cam Newton -- The fourth-year quarterback and coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility last week that Newton will be cleared medically to fully participate. Don't count on it. There is no real reason for Newton to risk a setback with the left ankle that required surgery in March for just three days of practice. Experts say it typically takes four months for the ankle to be completely recovered, which would end the rehabilitation in mid-July. Newton may be feeling good enough to throw and dance -- as we've seen him at some off-the-field functions -- but as he reminded, he'll step on a rock walking to the stadium and be reminded there's still healing to be done. My guess is you'll see him out there throwing some with his new receivers, but not in full team drills. It's not worth it at this point.
  • [+] EnlargeNate Chandler and Byron Bell
    Bob Leverone/AP PhotoCarolina Panthers offensive tackle Nate Chandler (left) holds a blocking pad as teammate Byron Bell extends his arms during drills on June 11.
    Left tackle -- I easily could have said the entire offensive line here since there is a complete overhaul other than center, where Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil is set. But finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross is the most critical since that player is responsible for protecting Newton's blind side. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler split the role during organized team activities, and this will be a rehash of what they've learned. The real battle won't start until training camp when they put the pads on. Most believe Bell, moving from starting right tackle, has the inside track on the position. He was the first to work at left tackle during OTAs. But Chandler was working out at tackle before injuries last season forced him to move to right guard, where he started the final eight regular-season games. A former defensive tackle, he has solid footwork and the size (6-4, 310) to play the position. He just doesn't have experience. Working against defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks last season with 15, will tell a lot. If you can hold your own against Hardy, then you can hold your own against most in the NFL. It's the same trial by fire Gross got with former Panther Julius Peppers across from him.
  • Wide receiver pairings -- Free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin were paired a lot in OTAs when the Panthers went to three-receiver sets. The next grouping I noticed a lot included Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin. Trimming the wide receivers corps to six will be the toughest of any position. Outside the top combination, the rest are trying to earn a spot and prove worthy. You'll see a lot of King, Marvin McNutt, Toney Clemons, Kealoha Pilares and Philly Brown as the Panthers try to replace their top four receivers from last season. Cotchery and Avant provide experience, and Benjamin provides a big target (6-5, 240) that will be tough to keep off the field. Underwood is the most likely to round out the top four. But one of the reasons the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go was to give the young receivers a chance to prove themselves that they otherwise wouldn't have with Smith taking most of the repetitions. This is their chance.
  • Rookies -- Four rookies have a legitimate shot to make major contributions this season, with two possibly starting. As mentioned above, you can pencil Benjamin into the top three at wide receiver. He'll especially be a big target inside the red zone. Second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, won't get to show how his pass-rushing abilities translate into the NFL for real until he gets in pads. He won't start, but the Panthers hope he's a regular in the rotation at end, as well as tackle. Third-round pick Trai Turner spent much of OTAs as the starting right guard with veteran Chris Scott dealing with conditioning and -- as Rivera said last week -- health issues. If he can hold his own against Carolina's big tackles, he has a chance to be a steal. The fourth rookie to make a big impression thus far is fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere, a cornerback out of San Jose State. He already may be the front-runner for the nickel spot, but his real competition won't be there until training camp when Charles Godfrey is expected to return fully from an Achilles injury that ended his season in the second game last season. Godfrey is making the transition from safety back to corner, where he started most of his college year.
  • Secondary -- You could just say cornerback here. The safeties appear to be set with veteran free-agent acquisitions Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Finding a replacement for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota, and possibly upgrade on the other side where undrafted rookie Melvin White started most of last season, will be key. Free agent Antoine Cason has experience in this system from his days at San Diego, where the defensive coordinator was Rivera. But Cason couldn't make the starting lineup at Arizona last season, so he still has a lot to prove. Josh Norman has made some spectacular plays in practice, just as he did the past two seasons in practice and preseason games, but he's yet to translate that into games on a regular basis. Rookie Benwikere has impressed in OTAs at the nickel spot, so don't rule him out. But like the offensive line and other areas in question, this won't be completely ironed out until training camp when Godfrey (as mentioned above) gets into the mix. Regardless, the Panthers are ahead of last season at this point at least in terms of experience.
  • Bonus watch: The heat. With temperatures expected in the mid-90s and high humidity, Rivera moved practices from midday-early afternoon to 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET. It was a smart move to avoid heat-related injuries in June. It'll be plenty hot at camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You hardly would recognize former Carolina Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, who has lost more than 60 pounds since retiring and leaving the job to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side in question.

The players trying to replace Gross have trimmed down as well.

Not that drastically, mind you.

[+] EnlargeByron Bell, Cam Newton and Nate Chandler.
AP Photo/Mike McCarnByron Bell, left, has slimmed down this offseason and believes he can play left tackle, protecting the blind side of quarterback Cam Newton, center.
Byron Bell has dropped from the 345 pounds he was as the starting right tackle a year ago to 321. He hopes continuing to cut out fried foods -- including his favorite, catfish -- will help get him to 315 by the time training camp starts on July 24.

Nate Chandler, the starting right guard for much of 2013, has trimmed about 10 pounds to 310.

Both did it to improve their agility, a necessity when handling the top pass-rushers in the NFL. It's probably not bad for their long-term health, either, as Bell mentioned in relation to Gross.

"He just added 10 more years to his life," Bell said as the Panthers continued organized offseason workouts. "You don't need to carry around that kind of weight."

Bell doesn't believe in carrying around extra stress, either. When critics question his ability to make the move to left side, he smiles and reminds that he has a mother and three brothers -- including a twin who died in a fire at the family's Texas home in 2007 -- that "loves me."

"I believe I can [play left tackle] in my heart," said Bell, who was a left tackle at the University of Mexico and in high school before the Panthers moved him to the right side. "I believe I can. That's my dominant side hand, anyway.

"I feel comfortable over there. But if it's right tackle, left tackle, coach needs me to come off the bench, whatever I need to do to help this team win, that's what I'm here for."

The critics are out there, though.

Many refer to the 4.5 sacks -- most on Bell's side -- that Buffalo's Mario Williams had in the second game last season against Carolina.

Some are armed with the rating of minus-2.8 Bell was given by Pro Football Focus last season. To put that in perspective, Gross had a rating of 33.5.

"I don't read none of that," Bell said. "I get people who tell me things and I listen to it, but for the most part I'm, 'All right, that's cool.' There's nothing easy about pro football. If anybody could do it, they would come out and do it."

The Panthers believe he can do the job, at least to the point they didn't see anybody better worth taking with the 28th pick of the draft or anybody worth spending big bucks on in free agency outside of Cincinnati's Anthony Collins.

Gross believes Bell can do the job as well, saying during his retirement news conference that criticism against his former teammate was unfair.

But most importantly, Bell believes in Bell. He reminds that he didn't give up a sack during his senior year at New Mexico "against some top guys ... believe it or not, that's in the pros."

"I'm just going to come out and do my job and help this team get to 10 wins plus," Bell said.

Shedding the weight -- as well as the criticism -- can only be a plus.
The Carolina Panthers secured two of their own free agents Monday in an attempt to shore up the running game.

Offensive lineman Garry Williams, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, signed a one-year deal. Tight end/fullback Richie Brockel, a restricted free agent, got a two-year deal.

Williams could figure into Carolina's plans at guard and tackle. He was the starter at right guard entering last season but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Seattle.

He has 21 starts since signing as an undrafted free agent from Kentucky in 2009. His presence at right guard gives Carolina more flexibility if it chooses to give Nate Chandler, who was working at tackle before becoming the regular at right guard due to injuries, a shot at replacing left tackle Jordan Gross.

Williams also has started 13 games at right tackle, so he could figure into the mix there if the Panthers choose to move starter Byron Bell into Gross' spot.

Coach Ron Rivera said at Gross' recent retirement news conference that Bell and Chandler could be in the mix.

Bell also is a restricted free agent, so look for an announcement on him before free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Brockel is a big contributor on special teams as well as a factor in the running game when Carolina brings in a second tight end or fullback for blocking.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was fitting that construction at Bank of America Stadium forced the Carolina Panthers to hold Wednesday's retirement news conference for left tackle Jordan Gross in the visitor's locker room.

As the landscape of Carolina's playground changes, so does the landscape of the team -- particularly the offensive line.

There's a chance in 2014 that center Ryan Kalil is the only starter at the same position he was when last season ended. It's not an enviable position for a team looking to get back to the playoffs, but it easily could happen.

Here's how looking at last year's starters:

Left tackle -- Gross. We know he's gone. Coach Ron Rivera said his replacement could come from one of three players on the existing roster in right tackle Byron Bell, fifth-year player Bruce Campbell or Nate Chandler, a backup tackle before injuries forced him into the lineup at right guard. If it's not one of those, then it'll be a free agent or draft pick. Regardless, a new starter.

Left guard -- Travelle Wharton. He started the final 14 games there, including the playoffs. But he was signed after starter Amini Silatolu was injured in training camp. There's a good chance the 32-year-old Wharton, a free agent, won't be re-signed. And even if he is it's likely a healthy Silatolu will get first dibs on the starting job. Or maybe it'll be Chris Scott, who started there in the opener before moving to the right side to replace the injured Gary Williams (ACL). Don't count out Williams, either.

Center -- Kalil. Four Pro Bowls since 2008. He's not going anywhere.

Right guard -- Nate Chandler. He played well, starting most of the final nine games after Scott suffered a knee injury in the first Atlanta game. He kept the job even after Scott was healthy. But suppose Scott beats him out in camp? Or Chandler gets the left tackle job. Or Edmund Kugbila, last year's fourth-round pick that spent the season on injured reserve, could take the job. Don't forget as I said above Williams, who started there the first game before the season-ending knee injury. Don't count on Geoff Hangartner. He plans on riding into the sunset with Gross unless something dramatically changes last minute.

Right tackle -- Bell. He took a lot of heat last season for allowing sacks, and according to Gross much of it was undeserved. Gross, like Rivera, said Bell should have a shot at left tackle. If he gets that job, there's an opening on the right side. There could be anyway if the coaching staff feels that heat was deserved and an adequate replacement can be found.

And don't forget, the Panthers certainly will sign a free agent offensive lineman or two and draft at least one. General manager Dave Gettleman likes to build from the inside out with what he called "hog mollies'' after taking a pair of defensive tackles with Carolina's first two picks in the 2013 draft.

I often am wary of teams with a new front line. But like Bank of America Stadium, it could be better when the renovations are completed.

Let Gross explain.

"I always said I don't want to leave until I felt like things were in good order, and they are,'' he said on Wednesday. "They should be for a long time, and that's going to be regardless of whether I am here or not.

"And that's a beautiful thing.''
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has to be the most nervous that left tackle Jordan Gross has retired.

For three years he's had a Pro Bowl player protecting his blind side -- the reason left tackles are such a high-priced commodity. Now he blindly awaits who that player will be.

[+] EnlargeJordan Gross
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers must find a way to replace Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.
Unless somebody unexpectedly steps up, the Panthers don't have that player on their roster. That means Newton will be relying on somebody acquired in free agency or through the draft.

Here's a breakdown of the possibilities:

Existing players: Not a lot of great options when you consider this player has to protect the franchise quarterback. Right tackle Byron Bell possibly could switch sides, but he's shaky at best. Maybe this will help explain: Pro Football Focus gave Gross a rating of 33.5 this past season; Bell got a minus-2.8. It wouldn't surprise if Bell is replaced on the right side. Free agent Bruce Campbell spent some time at left tackle, but that didn't really work out. Nate Chandler moved from the defensive line to tackle a few years ago, and finished this past season as the starting right guard due to a rash of injuries. He played well, too. It might be asking too much for him to move to tackle, although Carolina once turned tight end Matt Campbell into a pretty good left tackle during the 1990s after a lot of trips to Krispy Kreme to bulk up.

Free agency: The big question here is how much the Panthers want to spend. A top-flight left tackle is expensive, and they have a lot of other needs to fill with 21 unrestricted free agents. In all likelihood, they'll look for an up-and-comer they can get for a reasonable price regardless of what they do in the draft. It's really a pretty good year with quite a few good tackles about to hit the market in Baltimore's Michael Oher and Eugene Monroe, Kansas City's Branden Albert, St. Louis' Austin Howard, Cincinnati's Anthony Collins and Oakland's Jared Veldheer. Albert you can probably forget about based on his last contract.

The draft: The good news is this is one of the deepest drafts at tackle in years. Some might argue you can get help in the middle rounds. The bad news is you probably can't get a potentially sure-fire starter outside the first round, and the top three -- Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews -- should be gone when Carolina drafts at No. 28. They are by far the cream of the crop. That leaves candidates such as Virginia's Morgan Moses, Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, North Carolina's James Hurst, Tennessee's Ja'Wuan James and Ohio State's Jack Mewhort as possibilities.

The dilemma: There are two. First, losing Gross means the Panthers almost have to find a way financially to keep defensive end Greg Hardy, whether it's with a long-term deal or the franchise tag. I believe they will. They can't afford to start over without cornerstones on the offensive and defensive line and hope to improve. Second, they still have a big need at wide receiver, particularly with Steve Smith's future somewhat up in the air. The good news is the wide receiver draft crop is just as deep if not deeper than the offensive line, so a potential starter could be had in the second round.

Why Rivera's right to keep Shula

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a gasp from some of you when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said earlier in the week he was keeping his staff intact for next season.

[+] EnlargeShula/Newton
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonYou don't change offensive coordinators such as the Panthers' Mike Shula based on one bad game.
The gasp was aimed primarily -- maybe completely -- at offensive coordinator Mike Shula returning.

Perhaps it was an overreaction to the dismal showing in Carolina's 23-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game. Perhaps it was an overreaction to the offense's inability to score a touchdown on eight plays inside the 10-yard line.

Whatever it was, it was an overreaction.

Rivera doesn't need to run Shula off. Here's why:

Continuity: One of the reasons Rivera moved Shula from quarterbacks coach to coordinator when Rob Chudzinski left to become the head coach at Cleveland was to maintain the momentum the team established at the end of the 2012 season. He also knew Shula and quarterback Cam Newton had a solid relationship, which led to a lot of maturity and much more consistent play this season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. To change would destroy all that.

Chudzinski: If you remember, wide receiver Steve Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams took shots at their former coordinator this season. They felt he was all about putting on a show to get a head coaching position, which he got -- for one season before being fired. They couldn't say enough good things about Shula and how he helped the offense develop an identity.

Injuries: Three players were used at left guard because of injuries before Travelle Wharton became the regular in the fourth game. Four players were used at right guard due to injuries before former defensive lineman Nate Chandler became the regular after midseason. Running back Jonathan Stewart missed all but six games, first with an ankle injury and then with a knee injury. There were others, but when you lose players you were counting on in the line that makes any coordinator's life tough.

Talent: Outside of Smith, Newton didn't have a consistent go-to wide receiver. No doubt finding more firepower there will be a priority during the offseason, likely the draft but perhaps in free agency as well. As solid as running back DeAngelo Williams was with 843 yards, he's still on the wrong side of 30 for backs. If you can argue Newton needs more weapons to take Carolina to the next level, then you can argue Shula does.

Production: The Panthers averaged 22.9 points a game this season, which is slightly more than the 22.3 average in 2012. They were third in the NFL in third-down efficiency, 11th in rushing and fifth in time of possession (31:54 minutes per game), areas that win you a lot of games when you have the league's second-best defense. You can argue Newton's 585 yards was a big reason for the rushing rank, but his legs are one reason the Panthers drafted him.

Just because: You just don't shake things up because the last game left a sour taste in your mouth. You remember this is an offense that was good enough to help the team win 12 games and the division title.

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