Carolina Panthers: Early impressions from training camp

Carolina Panthers training camp got underway Saturday and the injury bug wasted no time nipping at the Panthers. Within days of camp opening the Panthers had suffered injuries to running backs Jon Stewart and rookie Tyler Gaffney, wide receivers De’Andre Presley and rookie Kelvin Benjamin, guard Edward Kugbila, and rookie safety Tre Boston.

Stewart injured his hamstring before training camp even began, but was able to avoid the dreaded PUP list (Physically Unable to Perform); unfortunately, the same could not be said about Boston (hernia) and Presley (stress fracture). Perhaps more alarming were the losses of Kugbila and Gaffney for the season. Both Kugbila and Gaffney were slated to fill much needed reserve roles for the upcoming season, in addition to providing necessary competition in training camp.

Kugbila, drafted in the fourth round (108th overall pick) of last year’s draft, would have been counted on for offensive line depth, specifically at guard. He suffered a season-ending knee injury last August, but had made a full recovery and was ready to compete at guard in training camp this year. “I feel awful for the kid,” Gettleman said in a statement before training camp started. “This kid has done absolutely everything we’ve asked him to do. He just can’t catch a break. He’s having the surgery up in New York on August 8. He’ll be done for the year.”

Gaffney’s situation is just as tragic. After being drafted with the 6th and final selection in the draft last May, Gaffney was slated to lighten the load for running backs Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and DeAngelo Williams, the latter two counting for 62% of the teams rush attempts last season (301 of 483 attempts); the Panthers were seventh in the NFL in rush attempts in 2013. Gaffney suffered a season-ending knee injury on his first carry of training camp; in fact, he suffered the injury at FanFest, a day before training camp officially began.

Rookie wide receiver Benjamin also gave Carolina Panthers fans a scare, injuring his leg within 48 hours of camp opening. Benjamin was taken in for examination, but an MRI revealed only a bone bruise.

Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin suffered a bone bruise Sunday in practice.

“I went for a catch and just came down with all my body weight on my knee,” Benjamin explained after the injury. “[The staff] looked at it and iced it, and the doctors checked it. Once I woke up the next morning, it was stiff, so [head athletic trainer] Ryan [Vermillion] just wanted to make sure it was OK.”

The news isn’t completely negative out of Carolina Panthers training camp. In fact, others recovering from injury have even exceeded expectations. Quarterback Cam Newton, who had surgery to repair his ankle during the off-season, has excelled so far in camp and even developed early chemistry with the wide receiving corps.

Flashes of brilliance have been seen in connections between Newton and Benjamin before he was injured Sunday, between Newton and the team’s various tight ends, and even between Newton and wide receiver Kealoha Pilares. Pilares suffered season-ending injuries in 2012 and 2013, and hadn’t played in two full seasons before hooking up with Newton on a beautiful pass in front of 17,000 Carolina Panthers training camp fans. Pilares is the leading candidate to return kicks and punts after the departure of Ted Ginn Jr. to the Arizona Cardinals this off-season.

Among the other players shining early in training camp are rookies Kony Ealy, Trai Turner and Bene Benwikere, many of the veteran defensive players, specifically linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson, veteran tight end Greg Olsen, and tackle Byron Bell, who is battling for the starting left tackle spot left open by the retirement of longtime stalwart and rapidly disappearing Jordan Gross; stalwart offensive guard Travelle Wharton also recently retired.

Bell has not only assumed the role of starting left tackle so far in training camp, he’s also taken on the role of the voice of inspiration.

Carolina Panthers

Byron Bell (left) hopes to win the starting left tackle position in training camp and protect franchise quarterback Cam Newton (center).

“I went to Byron, and he was ready to roll,” Rivera said in a statement following practice. “…this part of his career, it’s time for him to step up.” Rivera wasn’t the only one pumped on Bell’s speech. “He got me real pumped,” defensive tackle Star Lotuleleisaid. “I’m not a guy that gets excited about too much stuff, but Byron got the whole team going. I think that’s what led to us coming out and going strong.”

Bell hopes to channel that enthusiasm into a starting role for the Carolina Panthers, as left tackle remains one of the key open positions heading into 2014. In addition to left tackle the team is also looking to fill their starting right guard and starting right tackle spots. The team has done a great job resigning veteran reserves from last season and drafting Turner, and are fully confident they can fill the necessary roles before the end of training camp.

With nearly two weeks and one preseason game left to go before the completion of training camp there is still much time to witness the young and/or new players develop into their roles, while watching the continued development of key veterans as chemistry builds and a new season approaches. The most intriguing story out of camp will undoubtedly be the key positional battles as they continue to escalate.

The injury bug may have nipped the Carolina Panthers early, but those early tests are always welcomed in the NFL. The more important story lines are the rapid development of the rookies, the speedy recovery of the franchise quarterback and the continued strong play of the veterans, especially on defense.

There may have been some questions entering training camp, and the injuries may bother some, but those questions are being answered by the day and this Carolina Panthers team seems to be on track and getting ready for the season, one practice at a time.

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