Carolina Panthers training camp ended Tuesday and much to the satisfaction of the coaching staff the team was able to leave Wofford College with answers to many of the questions they sought entering training camp. Despite coming off one of their most successful seasons in the franchise’s history, the team faced adversity almost immediately to begin the offseason.
Within six weeks of the end to the NFL season the team was already looking to fill major voids on both the offensive line and at wide receiver after the retirement of longtime stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross and the release of the team’s all-time leading receiver Steve Smith. The Carolina Panthers draft strategy targeted these immediate needs, but history shows that draft selections don’t always correlate to solid play on Sundays.
As the team entered training camp much of the focus was on these draftees, especially in the context of competing for starting positions; they didn’t disappoint. In addition to solid play from several of the rookies, the team also enjoyed progress from an already solid group of key veterans, including the free agent veterans brought in to replace departed starters or to add roster.
There were many winners from 2014 training camp, including the solid play of rookie defensive end Kony Ealy, who entered camp with the pressure of All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy’s prospective absence to begin the season. Other training camp defensive standouts included safety-turned-cornerback Charles Godfrey and cornerback Josh Norman, both coming off season-ending injuries in 2013.
The Carolina Panthers saw dividends pay off for a few players in training camp who, although on the team roster last season, did not contribute at all in 2013. Both wide receiver Tavarres King and tight end Brandon Williams had solid training camps and will add much needed depth to a depleted receiving corps.
Still more training camp winners included free agents like quarterback Joe Webb, brought in to run special offensive sets, tight end Ed Dickson, brought in to add depth to the tight end position, and Roman Harper, who immediately helped to anchor a secondary that was also depleted heading into training camp.
The Carolina Panthers had many winners from training camp, but these three players made the biggest impact:
- Trai Turner, guard. Since being drafted, Turner has played most of the first team reps and has impressed the coaching staff at every opportunity. Turner has shown great strength and speed, has worked well with Pro-Bowl center Ryan Kalil and left guard Amini Silatolu, and has shown an understanding for the playbook beyond his years. The good Panthers running game should only get better, as should quarterback Cam Newton‘s protection.
- Kelvin Benjamin, wide receiver. Benjamin was drafted with the Panthers’ first overall selection for a reason and the rookie sensation hasn’t disappointed. After an injury scare to begin camp, Benjamin has continued to blow fans away with his spectacular catches, while giving the coaching staff and Panthers’ front office the confidence they made the right choice. The Panthers needed a red zone weapon badly; they’ve got one in Benjamin.
- Byron Bell, offensive tackle. One of the biggest questions entering training camp was who was going to replace Gross. Not only did the left tackle Bell slide right into his natural position as training camp got underway, Bell assumed the role of the vocal leader of the team, pumping up the veteran Panthers and sending a message to the newcomers: this is Bell’s time.
Despite the great news coming out of 2014 Carolina Panthers training camp and the many individual winners, the team also had a few losers, all due to the infamous injury bug.
- Edward Kugbila, guard. Coming off a season-ending injury that cost him all of 2013, Kugbila was healthy, had worked himself back into football shape and had planned on competing for a starting guard position. “I feel awful for the kid,” general manager David Gettleman said after the injury. “This kid has done absolutely everything we’ve asked him to do. He just can’t catch a break.” Kugbila would have been counted on the add much-needed depth to the offensive line.
- Tyler Gaffney, running back. Gaffney, drafted with the final pick of this year’s draft, was injured on the first carry of training camp; more specifically Gaffney was injured on the first carry of FanFest, the day before camp officially began. The Second Team All-American (USA Today) rushed for 1,709 yards last year for Stanford, and would have been counted on to add depth to the Panthers’ running game.
- Jonathan Stewart, running back. Stewart missed 17 games the past two seasons, including ten games last season with various injuries, after only missing two games the previous four seasons, his first four in the NFL. Stewart and DeAngelo Williams were becoming one of the most feared running back duos in the league before Stewart succumbed to injury, and with Williams aging, the Carolina Panthers had hoped Stewart’s improved health would propel the running back duo back to their former level in 2014. Unfortunately Stewart was injured before camp even began and missed nearly the entire camp, setting the running game back some.
There are still many questions the Carolina Panthers need to find answers to as the team approaches their second preseason game, but the defense is playing as well as advertised, the rookies are excelling, and the two biggest questions entering training camp are well on their way to being answered.
Carolina Panthers 2014 training camp was a success. Now for the cuts.
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