On Monday I was in Spartanburg, S.C., for the fourth practice of the Panthers’ 20th season on the campus of Wofford College, the alma mater of owner Jerry Richardson. Minus first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was back in Charlotte getting an MRI on his aching knee, the Panthers took the field for a 9:30 a.m. practice, in pads. (Benjamin’s injury turned out to be a bone bruise; probably not serious, other than the fact that he deeply disappointed me by not being able to show me his wares on the field.) It is broiling on the Bermuda grass fields.
One vivid memory from watching practice
The offensive line worried me greatly. Four offensive linemen have retired since the end of last season—including veteran left guard Travelle Wharton, who was scheduled to call it quits on Tuesday—leaving a massive hole particularly on the left side of the line. With Jordan Gross, a top-three left tackle last year, and Wharton vacating the left side of the line, Carolina has to rebuild with inexperienced players such as Byron Bell at tackle and Amini Silatolu at guard). Duck, Cam, duck.
How this team can go 12–4
Simply by riding Cam Newton’s transcendent skills even more than this team did in 2013. Newton’s line a season ago: an 88.8 rating, 3,379 passing yards and a 24-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But trying to stay upright behind a rebuilt line this season, he’ll likely have to get rid of the ball quicker than he did a year ago, which means he’ll quickly have to find chemistry with his new receiver group and leftover ace tight end Greg Olsen. On defense, so much depends on the status of troubled defensive end Greg Hardy, who is likely to be suspended at some point this year for a gun-and-violence altercation with an ex-girlfriend in the offseason. Hardy, for his contractual and team future, should hope to miss two games at most.
How this team can go 4–12
Three ways: Newton doesn’t have time to throw, and the always-respectable running game can’t get traction behind the neophyte line (excepting Ryan Kalil) … Kony Ealy can’t hold up as a nickel rusher, or as a replacement for Hardy if/when he’s suspended … The patchwork secondary, with the pedestrian-at-best Antoine Cason and Melvin White having to play prominently at corner, doesn’t hold up in a division with four games against 4,000-yard passers.
Now, from Fantasyland …
1. Always be realistic with expectations for rookie receivers, and watch the sore knee of first-round rookie Kelvin Benjamin. But the options for Cam Newton downfield are few. Very few. And before banging his knee here in camp, Benjamin was sure-handed and fearless downfield. “You can’t coach 6-foot-5 and 240,” GM Dave Gettleman told me. Benjamin’s great catch radius could make him late-round gold.
2. The defense; I’d use other options until we find out what the sanctions are going to be for Greg Hardy. The Panthers had a superb pass rush last year (59 sacks), but without Hardy for any length of time, that’s not going to be duplicated.
3. DeAngelo Williams is timeless, healthy, and coach Ron Rivera believes strongly in the run. Because the Panthers fragment their carries among several backs, Williams might only get 210 rushes. But he’s a solid second option in the run game.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
|LT||Byron Bell / Nate Chandler|
|RT||Nate Chandler / Byron Bell|
|WR||Jason Avant / Jerricho Cotchery|
||Jerricho Cotchery / Brenton Bersin|
|CB||Antoine Cason / Josh Norman|
Chandler and Bell will start at the two tackles, most likely. No one’s sure which side each will play, though Bell’s a natural left-hander and makes the most sense on that side … The wideout position is totally in flux. But the Panthers keep saying watch out for the hometown free-agent, Bersin, a wideout out of Wofford who was on the practice squad last year. He has tremendous hands … The corners, too, are up for grabs. Norman’s a coaching-staff favorite and will challenge for a starting job or significant playing time.
Best new player in camp
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. “In this offense,’’ tight end Greg Olsen told me, “it’s such an advantage to have a guy who can go 17, 20 yards downfield and Cam can throw it up there and the guy can use his catch radius to go up and get the ball. Kelvin was made for that role.” It’ll be interesting to see how quickly he adjusts to a prominent role in an NFL offense, because he’s certainly slated for one from Day 1 with the Panthers.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
I can easily see Carolina falling to third in the division. The NFC South is going to be far better this year, and Carolina’s offensive line could be a sinkhole.
Something I’ve never seen before
Former offensive tackle, Jordan Gross, dropped 70 pounds in seven months and looked like a triathlete.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
I can’t see them going 12-4 again, for a couple of reasons. Atlanta is going to be better. Tampa Bay is going to be better. The Saints could go to the Super Bowl. So I don’t see Carolina going 5-1 in the NFC South again. And other than the rock-solid Ryan Kalil, the line could torment Newton. Though I think Newton’s going to at least equal his 2013 production, those numbers might not be good enough for the Panthers to make the playoffs again.