The Carolina Panthers started organized team activities (OTAs) Tuesday, and like many teams around the league, the day came with many questions regarding the upcoming season. The team hasn’t been on the field since their January loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional playoff game, and quite frankly, they look nothing like that Panther’s team that went 12-4 on their way to their third division championship.
In addition to losing stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement the team lost three of their top four wide receivers from last year’s team to free agency or release, the latter of which being the case for longtime fan favorite Steve Smith, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens after being released by the Panthers. Many fans have still not recovered from that off-season move, and had looked to the draft for answers; debate still rages whether that was accomplished, but with OTAs beginning the team got their first good look at the sum of their parts.
Thankfully no one on the team was injured Tuesday, as was the case with star linebacker Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys, but that doesn’t mean Panther’s OTAs began without controversy. Although declining to comment, the team is dealing with All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy’s recent domestic violence arrest May 13th, not even a week after the NFL draft. Hardy’s next court date is set for June 27th.
In an almost freakish coincidence the Carolina Panthers drafted Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy with the 60th pick of the second round of the draft May 8th, and the All-SEC pass rusher, considered by many draft analysts to be a steal, will be one of the primary focuses of the team as camp moves forward. Ealy is already expected to be a big part of the defensive line rotation, and Hardy’s legal situation could make Ealy much more valuable a lot quicker than anticipated.
Also of interest heading into OTAs is the progression of the wide receiving corps, especially first round draft selection Kelvin Benjamin, and the condition of the offensive line. According to team management the Panthers had enough talent on their roster to anchor the offensive line, but the same could not be said about the wide receivers. Although many would consider Carolina’s pick of LSU guard Trai Turner in the third round significant, the Panthers went big in the first round, literally, and took what some considered a chance selecting Benjamin so high.
Despite being a gifted natural talent and an enormous weapon for quarterback Cam Newton, the 6’5” 240-pound play maker will have to take full advantage of the coaching provided during the preseason to get up to NFL speed. Benjamin could be depended on immediately as a deep threat as the majority of the Panthers wide receiving corps is untested to say the least, consisting of Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant, Tavaress King, Marvin McNutt, Brenton Bersin, and newly signed veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who’ll be asked to play in the slot.
One interesting aspect to OTAs beginning will be the development of back-up quarterback Joe Webb, signed this off season as a potential dual-threat, both at wide receiver and as a mobile quarterback. One would assume Derek Anderson is the team’s first choice as Newton’s back up, but Webb adds versatility and the ability to run play sets beyond Anderson ‘s capabilities.
Newton has been sidelined since having off-season ankle surgery, and will miss all of the team’s preseason activities. The team hopes to have Newton back by their opening game, but the team’s offensive leader will miss any opportunities to build on-field chemistry with his new receivers, which could turn out to be a major issue. Newton’s rehab is progressing nicely, still one would have to wonder how valuable the additional time the back up quarterbacks get with the first-team is less relative to Newton gaining chemistry with new, specifically young, wide receivers.
The last questions heading into OTAs focus on Carolina’s secondary. The Panthers signed free agent safeties Roman Harper from the New Orleans Saints and Thomas DeCoud from the Atlanta Falcons, but the more interesting thing will be how defensive back Charles Godfrey progresses, back for the first time since a season-ending Achilles injury at the beginning of last season. In addition to free agency the Panthers drafted North Carolina safety Tre Boston, and already have reserve safety Rob Lester on the roster.
After losing cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to free agency the Panthers asked Godfrey to play corner. Considering the depth at safety the move was necessary. Godfrey will join Melvin White, the only cornerback on the Carolina Panthers roster that played in that Divisional playoff game against the 49ers, and fifth round draft pick Bene Benwikere, the player the Panthers traded their seventh round draft pick to the Minnesota Vikings to move up for.
There were many questions heading into OTAs and minicamp (coming in June), many of which will not be answered for months, but Tuesday marked the beginning of the search for some of those answers, including who makes the team. Some of those players may very well be the Carolina Panthers various undrafted free agents, signed days after the NFL draft. Stay tuned this weekend as I discuss the undrafted free agent I think could maker the biggest difference.
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