The Carolina Panthers open their NFL Preseason Friday night against the Buffalo Bills at Bank of America Stadium, and with it comes much optimism, although some of that optimism might have to wait until the second preseason game or later, most notably with franchise quarterback Cam Newton.
“We don’t know the plan yet for Cam [Newton] on Friday,” Rivera said after practice Tuesday. “It’s all based on what [head athletic trainer] Ryan Vermillion and the doctors think and how [Cam's ankle] feels once we get [closer to Friday].”
Newton, arguably the most important player on the Carolina Panthers, had off-season surgery to repair an injured ankle, but has been progressing nicely. The Panthers had planned on Newton’s injury; one can never predict which player will suffer an injury in training camp.
With 6th round draft pick running back Tyler Gaffney and second-year guard Edward Kugbila already out for the season, the Carolina Panthers are also dealing with yet another injury to running back Jonathan Stewart, who has yet to practice this training camp due to a hamstring injury, in addition to several other key injuries; most of those had been cleared by Thursday, however.
In addition Gaffney, Kugbila and Stewart, the Panthers have temporarily lost the services of tackles Garry Williams and Nate Chandler, both vying for a starting tackle position, defensive ends Greg Hardy and Wes Horton, defensive backs Josh Norman, Roman Harper and Charles Godfrey, the latter two dealing with their own major changes, and wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Tavarres King.
The injury bug bites every team, especially during training camp, and the positives out of camp far outweigh the negative news surrounding the injuries. Highlighting the positive aspects of training camp would certainly be the play of the wide receivers corps, a cause for concern entering training camp, and the continued great play from one of the best defenses in the NFL.
In fact, the receivers, specifically Benjamin, have played so well through camp that Newton has even felt comfortable to start talking trash to the vaunted defense, something that didn’t go unnoticed. The trash talk and competitive nature on both sides of the ball made for spirited practices.
One such practice occurred Saturday, when, after several successful short-yardage goal line stands, linebacker Luke Kuechly downed Pro-Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert in the backfield with a thunderous hit, igniting the crowd. “Very spirited practice,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Very, very spirited. It was a lot of fun to watch.”
“I think that was the most fun we’ve had at practice all camp,” Kuechly said after the fiery practice. “It starts when guys start getting competitive and talking. It raises the level of practice and makes it that much more fun.”
The Carolina Panthers were one of the most feared defenses in the NFL in 2013 after leading the league with 60 sacks; the team has set lofty goals for 2014, which include breaking the NFL record of 72 sacks set by the Chicago Bears in 1984. Hardy plans on sacking 50 quarterbacks himself.
Whether or not the team achieves such impressive goals this upcoming season is yet to be determined, but if 2014 training camp is any indication this Panthers defense is ready to improve on 2013. Aside from a few nagging minor injuries the defense has been the strong point of Carolina Panthers camp, with great play from from veterans like defensive linemen Charles Johnson and Star Lotulelei and defensive backs Thomas DeCoud and Norman, to rookie defensive end Kony Ealy and cornerback Bene Benwikere.
Despite all the attention paid to the defense so far, the individual player that has stood out more than most other Panthers this training camp doesn’t play for the defense at all. Rookie guard Trai Turner has been turning heads, pun intended, since the beginning of organized team activities, when the youngest offensive linemen in the NFL turned 21 years old.
Turner, drafted in the third round (92nd overall pick) of this year’s draft, had made such an impact through rookie and mini-camp that coaches had already penciled him into the starting right guard before training camp began. Those high praises were corroborated as camp continued, even impressing Pro-Bowl center and offensive line leader Ryan Kalil.
“Our playbook isn’t an easy playbook. You would think you’d start off like you’re teaching him the alphabet, but he’s getting a lot of advanced looks early on and really putting the whole thing together,” Kalil said of Turner. “He still has a ways to go – it’s still a learning process for him – but for the most part we really like what we’re seeing out of Trai [Turner].”
Considering Turner has played most of the first team repetitions against the vaunted Carolina Panthers defense such praise is even more impressive. Few rookies are able to make the strides Turner has to date, and accomplishing this opposite the second-ranked defense in the NFL certainly validates the third round draft choice thus far.
According to Turner he has his coaches to thank as well as the stingy defense. “We have two good coaches in Ray Brown and John Matsko that take a lot of time to work with us, and with any of the veterans I can go to them with questions and get the feedback I need to move forward on the field,” Turner said. “And it’s tough against our defense. When it’s a six- or seven-play drive and Star (Lotulelei) comes out and somebody like Dwan (Edwards) comes in or K.K. (Short) comes in, it’s like, ‘Man, I don’t get a break.’
Turner and some of the members of this celebrated defense look to showcase their progress tonight night versus the Buffalo Bills in front of the home crowd as the 2014 Preseason get underway. Whether of not the fans get their first glimpse of Newton in 2014 remains to be seen.
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