Carolina Panthers: 2014 training camp preview

Carolina Panthers training camp will be held at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC this off-season for the 20th year in a row, every year since the team’s inaugural year in 1995. Training camp begins on July 26th and will run through August 12th, including one preseason game. Training camp kicks off the day after Fan Fest, a day for the fans to soak it all in at Bank of America Stadium before the Panthers get down to work. Don’t forget, you attend every minute of it.

The Carolina Panthers enter 2014 a little differently then in past seasons. For one, the Panthers won their division crown last season, only their fourth in team history, while compiling the best record in the franchise’s history (12-4).

Although the Panthers didn’t necessarily break ground last year, they did turn heads, boasting the NFL’s second-ranked defense while still being anchored by one of the most intriguing figures in the league in quarterback Cam Newton.

The difference in this year’s camp is expectation. Gone are the days of expecting mediocrity or hoping one or two key players can make a difference. Gone are the days of playoff aspirations. These Panthers are expected to do well; they’re expected to win, and win a lot.

Also gone are many of the players that helped the Carolina Panthers achieve that recent success, and ultimately, the high expectations. Long-time captain and left tackle anchor Jordan Gross is gone. Long-time receiving leader, colorful character, and team bouncer Steve Smith is gone. Nearly the entire secondary from 2013 is gone.

Carolina Panthers

For the first time in 14 seasons Steve Smith will not enter training camp a Panther.

So although there are high expectations for the team that lost in the NFC Divisional round to the San Francisco 49ers last January, there is mounting pessimism among some analysts regarding just how the Panthers plan to maintain that success in the absence of those aforementioned players.

That is precisely what training camp is for.

Professional football is not a sport for the weak of heart or body, and even when those bodies seem strong they break. Football is such a violent sport that the expectation that players, especially the so-called trench players (linemen), can last an entire season is almost non-existent.

These types of scenarios easily explain away moves like drafting Kony Ealy in the second round of the draft, despite having two of the best defensive ends in the NFL in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. And even when these players are healthy they run the risk of running afoul of the law, as Hardy painfully reminded us earlier this year.

A team can never have enough reserves, enough “fresh bodies” so to speak. Injuries, matchups, legal issues, and even discipline from within the league can all severely affect a player or team’s status, the latter of which being the case right now with Panther’s defensive end Frank Alexander.

No, training camp isn’t just about making sure the team has sufficient reserves, it’s about initiating the eventual setting of the team’s 53-man roster, which doesn’t occur until two weeks after training camp ends. Training camp is the beginning of the summer-long process of determining who will even be on the team, regardless of who is signed or who started last season.

Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy reminded the Panthers just how useful training camp can be to test reserve players in case of their absence.

It doesn’t happen very often, but even players with the highest salaries and largest bonuses can be cut. This is what makes the NFL so interesting, so competitive. This is what gives the NFL its revered parity: salaries aren’t guaranteed. Teams like the New England Patriots have made training camp a yearly review to determine which players making the least money can contribute the most, essentially “weeding” out the expensive baggage. If a coachable 7.5 level player with potential makes $500,000 there is no need to pay an 8.5 level player $5 million.

It’s that simple.

Training camp not only secures reserve positions and creates special teams, among other things it sets up position battles between rookies and veterans, allows the front office to make economic assessments based on performances, determines the practice squad players, and allows for the team to play one preseason game using myriad players before the first official cuts, which don’t occur until training camp is well finished (August 26th, when rosters are cut to 75 players).

The Carolina Panthers enter 2014 training camp with some of the highest expectations the team has ever generated. There are also many questions.

Will Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery be enough at wide receiver? Does Marcus Lucas make the team? Who will start left tackle? Will it be Byron Bell and his hefty $2.37 million base salary or will the Panthers go with someone else and save the money? Does Greg Hardy escape legal trouble? How will the hyped rookie defensive end Ealy handle the pressure if his number is called early and often? How will the secondary look? Will the front seven continue to dominate now that the secondary is completely different? Who will be the backup quarterback, Derek Anderson or the mobile Joe Webb? How will the running backs fare, especially Jon Stewart coming off multiple injuries in 2013? Do the Panthers add a significant free agent? Do they add two?

Carolina Panthers

Jerricho Cotchery will be counted on to add production and a veteran presence to training camp.

These are many questions for the NFC South champions, and even more questions for a team many expected to compete for the NFC after that January loss. That was before Gross retired, Travelle Wharton fell off the Earth, Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell left town along with entire secondary, and Newton had off-season ankle surgery that will limit him until the season begins.

So yes, there are many questions heading into training camp for the Carolina Panthers, but that’s what training camp is for – to answer questions.

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