As the Carolina Panthers wrapped spring workouts this week and set off on their six-week break before training camp, one thing bears keeping in mind:
We have a much clearer picture of this football team’s makeup than we did four weeks ago.
Now, there’s the obvious stipulation that this has all come in shorts and without contact. But the point remains. We saw our first glances of highly touted rookies and new acquisitions. We learned about schematic changes. And, oh yeah, that quarterback guy threw again.
The team won’t reconvene until training camp in Spartanburg on July 24. So in the meantime, here are five of the biggest things we learned during the Panthers’ s spring practices.
1. Cam Newton’s return from offseason shoulder surgery is right on schedule.
All together now, let’s take a deep breath. Much of this has already been reported by the Observer, but considering Newton’s overall impact on the team, it bears repeating.
Newton had arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder in January, which was characterized by multiple sources to the Observer as a “cleanout procedure” rather than a repair. That came after Newton began experiencing soreness and tightness in his throwing shoulder over the final weeks of the 2018 season, and ultimately culminated with Newton sitting the last two games.
Panthers team surgeon Dr. Pat Connor told Newton after the surgery, according to a video blog produced by Newton’s production company Iconic Saga, that, “cartilage damage (was) much less severe than they originally thought.”
Since then, the team has not detailed any specific timetable for Newton’s rehab, other than that the quarterback is expected to make a full recovery by training camp in July. And if the past week is any indication, he’s right on schedule.
Newton began minicamp this week throwing in front of the media for the first time, primarily on short-to-intermediate routes to stationary targets. As the week moved on, those targets progressively got deeper and deeper, and by Thursday’s final practice, he was throwing deep targets to receivers running routes. However, he still did not participate in full team drills.
This team goes as far as Newton takes them, and his health will be a central focus all season. Before Newton began experiencing shoulder soreness and tightness midway through last season, the team was 6-2 and Newton had posted the best numbers of his career to begin a season. Continuing the progress he’s already shown this offseason, including reinforcing minor tweaks to his throwing motion that began last season, will be critical as the team moves into training camp in six weeks.
2. Skill players flashed their... well, skills, which is a good sign.
When the Panthers hired Norv Turner as its offensive coordinator before the 2018 season, it signaled a change in the team’s passing attack. Rather than emphasizing Newton’s ability to throw deep, which put further stress on his shoulder, Turner built an offense designed to get the ball to Carolina’s young playmakers in space.
That meant heavy usage for running back Christian McCaffrey, both as a runner and a receiver. DJ Moore, the team’s 2018 first-round pick, and Curtis Samuel, a 2017 second-rounder, showcased their speed and elusiveness after the catch. Jarius Wright complemented that duo as a valuable third-down target. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Ian Thomas rounded out the stable of pass-catchers.
Other than Thomas, who worked on the side most of this spring to rehab a leg injury, those skill position players excelled throughout spring workouts. Samuel especially made strides, continually breaking free for explosive plays and long touchdowns. McCaffrey showed up to workouts even more toned and physically imposing than last year. Olsen, who appears to be mostly recovered from rupturing his plantar fascia last year, ran some routes for Newton, too.
As Newton continues rehabbing his shoulder, building that chemistry with his pass-catchers — arguably the most complete group of his NFL career — will be crucial. With the talent Newton has to work with on offense, it’ll be a matter of feeding all those mouths with just one football.
3. There are still crucial positional battles to be decided during camp.
Coach Ron Rivera said after Thursday’s practice that there are still key position battles to be resolved at training camp.
Chief among them: the offensive line and secondary. The Panthers signed ex-Broncos center Matt Paradis this spring to fill the void left by recently retired center Ryan Kalil, and then re-signed tackle/guard Daryl Williams to a one-year contract. The team then traded up in the second round of the NFL Draft to select athletic tackle Greg Little, who is expected to contribute right away. All are talented, but how they mesh with tackle Taylor Moton and guard Trai Turner remains to be seen.
Same for the secondary, where the team is looking for Eric Reid’s running mate at safety. Rashaan Gaulden, a 2018 third-round pick, has been given every opportunity to win the job and flashed in practice, but training camp will help make that determination.
Also, although Rivera didn’t specifically mention it, the team still has to settle on a backup quarterback. Returners Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, as well as third-round rookie Will Grier, all showed flashes this spring, but until training camp and the preseason, they should continue to split reps. Rivera has said many times that the team values developmental young quarterbacks.
4. Defense has added speed, but there’s more to learn.
Defensively, the Panthers took a step back from their normal standard in 2018. The pass-rush failed to pressure the opposing quarterback, leaving teams to exploit Carolina’s secondary.
This offseason, the team has worked at becoming more versatile defensively, mainly by incorporating more 3-4 defensive fronts rather than their typical 4-3. Three down linemen, in theory, should allow the Panthers’ new list of pass-rushers — the team signed veteran defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin in March and drafted EDGE rushers Brian Burns and Christian Miller — more freedom to get to the passer.
So far so good during spring workouts. That trio of new additions, along with the returning Mario Addison, Efe Obada and Marquis Haynes, have all shown their speed working from the outside linebacker position in that new 3-4 front. The team will use one defensive front more often than the other on a game-by-game basis, as well as a heavy dose of nickel coverage, but injecting more speed to the lineup has been a welcome sight for Rivera and his defensive coaches.
5. Health aside, this team is a contender.
After all the other additions Carolina made in the spring, there’s one late add who has to be mentioned.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was released in mid-May, opted to sign a one-year contract with the Panthers instead of the Baltimore Ravens or Cleveland Browns. McCoy said during his introductory press conference and after practice that one of the main reasons he chose Carolina was because it felt like a “true contender.”
While McCoy’s addition along the defensive line means the Panthers’ 3-4 front will now feature three former Pro Bowlers — Kawaan Short and Dontari Poe both return — his signing sends a larger message.
After collapsing down the stretch last season, the Panthers show no signs of being a rebuilding team. Instead, McCoy’s signing should be a signal that Carolina considers itself a contender. Now, the team obviously only goes as far as Newton carries them, as has been the case throughout his career. But the quarterback’s health aside, Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney have made significant moves to put this team in the best position to win now.
Now we wait to see if those moves pay off.