The Panthers held their final training camp practice at Wofford and the Panthers look to be on track for a strong season. The defense, led by the league’s best linebacker corps, looks dominant. One of the league’s better defensive lines over the past few seasons looks to only have gotten better with the addition of Julius Peppers and the continued ascension of Kawann Short in the middle. A secondary of rookie corners last season has looked in camp to be quickly maturing into a formidable tandem led by budding star James Bradberry.
Carolina’s offense may be better than expected as well. The twin towers, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, continue to make plays every day. Their physical dominance looks to be manifesting into the vision that Dave Gettleman had when drafting these two giants to play the outside. While the big guys stand tall, Damiere Byrd continues to fly towards securing a roster spot. He had an impressive camp last season and he continued that this season highlighted by an impressive preseason debut where he reigned in 2 touchdowns on 4 catches for 98 yards. Byrd who remarked he believed he could fill the role left open by Ted Ginn Jr’s departure early in the week, may have shown he can be better reigning in a 50 yd TD pass where he dusted a Texans corner. Shortly later, he pulled in a red zone grab while laterally running the back of the end zone. His speed and playmaking ability has been much welcomed by a team who hasn’t seen their 2nd Round pick Curtis Samuel practice all training camp because of a hamstring injury he reaggravated on the first day of camp.
Cam Newton continues to rehab his shoulder, showing early signs that he was making good progress when he started the first week of camp throwing almost unhindered. Cam may have pressed too hard because he didn't throw for the next week and has been heavily limited in the final week of camp. He’s been active in many team and individual drills. As sports medicine specialist, Dr. Chao observed, “No word of Newton having undergone another MRI is a good sign of no worry regarding structural damage. He likely saw his surgeon and had a cortisone or PRP injection to calm down inflammation, which mandates several days of rest.”
"Another good sign is Newton is still practicing, just not throwing. He has been at every practice and participated in running plays. If there was worry, it likely would have warranted a complete shutdown.”
While it isn’t ideal, Carolina is being cautious with their 100 million dollar man. Christian McCaffrey hasn’t disappointed and has been a good looking addition to the Panthers offense. He juked and jived every day, put in extra work, impressed the vets, and showed he can get it down between the tackles in the Panthers preseason.
Special Teams continues to be an area of interest. With Ted Ginn Jr gone, people are wondering who will emerge as the punt returner. Rookie Christian McCaffrey is currently listed as the return man on the unofficial depth chart, but Damiere Byrd and Kaelin Clay both showed they were ready for the job.
Oddly, one of the more embittered camp battles is at field goal kicker, where rookie Harrison Butker is trying to challenge veteran Graham Gano. It appeared that Gano had a firm footing on the roster as he was the more consistent kicker in practice, but the kicking competition got a little more complicated when Graham Gano went 1-2, missing a 51 yarder and barely making a 45 yard kick that hooked inside the left upright in the Panthers first preseason game. Harrison Butker made his only attempt that was 51 yds, leaving Gano winning the camp battle and Harrison kicking Butker on the field.
Aside from Curtis Samuel, all the offseason additions made a strong showing in camp. Christian McCaffrey dazzled, Matt Kalil played well against Jadeveon Clowney and a nasty Texan pass-rush, and Moton has been a mean and physical presence on the offensive line. Mike Adams has been a solid veteran presence at strong safety and Russell Shepherd has been remarkably good as a wideout.
Injuries are a part of football and Carolina hasn’t been immune. Curtis Samuel missed all of training camp with a hamstring injury, Captain Munnerlyn missed the first half of camp with a similar injury, Ryan Kalil and Star Lotulelei are both rehabbing shoulders that were surgically repaired in the offseason, Charles Johnson, who couldn’t walk in February because of his injured back has been limited, Matt Kalil had a minor groin injury to start camp, and Cam is nursing that shoulder back to health. Fortunately, the Panthers have avoided major injury. All of these injuries are ones that the Panthers are cautiously monitoring, but nothing that should be debilitating. The one concern is Vernon Butler who sprained his knee in the Panthers first preseason game. The team is optimistic he will be ready for the start of the season.
Camp concluded today, but there are many questions still left to be answered throughout the preseason. Who will secure that 5th and 6th wide receiver position? Behind the starters in the secondary, do the Panthers have the depth to weather the season? Will Newton be rusty going into the season because of the limitations he’s had so far because of that shoulder?
While we wait for answers to these questions, we know a lot more about this team than we did three weeks ago. The Panthers offensive line looks to be pretty sound, and there are some backups like Amini Souloutli and Tyler Larsen who look ready provide some needed depth. Christian McCaffrey is was advertised plus some, and will add an it factor to the offense that was desperately needed. Carolina’s defense is the real deal and could be one of the best we have ever seen. The pass-rush will be relentless, the linebackers are just nasty, and their are some ball hawks in the backfield. There is a core of talent on both sides of the ball that will make the Panthers contenders every Sunday.