The Carolina Panthers spent the offseason brushing aside outside concerns about their offensive makeover. They said everything would start working itself out once training camp began. But the early days of camp have been filled with a number of setbacks.
The first bit of bad news hit when players reported last Thursday. After finally appearing healthy during offseason workouts, running back Jonathan Stewart was ruled a couple weeks with a hamstring injury.
The next day, sixth-round back Tyler Gaffney tore the interior meniscus in his left knee. Saturday he was ruled out for the season. Sunday he was waived-injured. Monday he was stolen off waivers by the New England Patriots. More on that later.
Earlier that day, Kelvin Benjamin woke up with a sore knee. Instead of practicing, Benjamin was sent back to Charlotte for an MRI.
"(During Sunday's practice) I went for a catch and just came down with all my body weight on my knee. We 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," Benjamin said.
Monday afternoon, the Panthers announced their best receiving hope had a bruised knee. He would be back in a matter of days, not weeks, but the fact that was the best news of the week speaks to the sputtering start the Panthers have had.
Quarterback Cam Newton is returning from offseason ankle surgery, and his timing with the rebuilt receiving corps is not there yet. The one guy he appeared to have a connection with was Benjamin, a still-raw wideout who will now miss a handful of practices."
At least the Panthers went into Wednesday's off day with some positive momentum. They had more energy and looked sharper Tuesday during a practice head coach Ron Rivera called the team's best yet.
"After the first period I got them back together and said, 'Hey guys, I get on you when it's not what we want, so I want to let you know that's exactly what we want.'"
The Panthers get back to work Thursday morning, and they have to be hoping the second quarter of their camp schedule will be a lot smoother than the first.
--With Jonathan Stewart sidelined with a hamstring injury, the Panthers quickly became thin at running back when Tyler Gaffney tore his lateral meniscus on his first play of Friday night's first practice.
Left with only five guys who carry the ball - DeAngelo Williams, Kenjon Barner, Darrin Reaves, Mike Tolbert, Michael Zordich - they needed to add a back to help share camp carries.
Instead of releasing one of their long-shot offensive lineman or defensive backs, the Panthers waived-injured Gaffney and signed free agent running back Fozzy Whittaker Sunday.
If a team wants to put a player on injured reserve before the first round of cuts, that player has to go through waivers. Usually the 31 other teams keep their hands off such guys, allowing them to go through unclaimed.
Well, the Patriots are sometimes not like all the others. For the third time since 2010, they disregarded the unwritten rule. Head coach Bill Belichick snagged Gaffney off waivers, foiling the Panthers' plans to put Gaffney on injured reserve.
So just over two months after the draft, Carolina's sixth-round pick is on another roster, and the Panthers are left biting their tongue.
"This is business," Panthers' general manager Dave Gettleman said. "We're in a competitive business. We're all looking to improve. (The Patriots) made a business decision."
--WR Marcus Lucas has been one of the surprise performers at camp. The undrafted wideout from Missouri may not be ready for a spot on the 53-man roster, but he could be guaranteeing himself at least a spot on the practice squad.
"Watching him when they're yelling for someone on the show team, he's one of the first ones to jump up. Those catch your eye as a coach. And then you see him do something well, it catches your eye even more."
--Offensive lineman Travelle Wharton officially retired Tuesday. A quiet yet important member of the Panthers' 2005, 2008 and 2013 playoff teams, Wharton played each game of his 10-year career for the "home" team.
"It doesn't seem that long ago I was in Fountain Inn, S.C., and we hear that we have a professional football team. The whole region went crazy that we had one," Wharton said during his retirement press conference. "10 years later, I am part of that team. I was able to represent home. Not only was I able to represent my family with my name on the back of my jersey, but I was able to represent where I'm from across the front."
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Left tackle: Byron Bell vs Nate Chandler. Chandler came into camp with a recently signed contract extension, but Bell is arguably off to a better start. After the normally reserved Bell gave an inspired speech Tuesday morning, the team had its best practice of camp, and so did Bell. The Panthers hope to decide on a winner after the second preseason game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Cam Newton took a kick to the shin midway through practice Thursday and returned wearing a shin guard. A rainy practice, plus Newton's current struggle to get his timing down with the new receiving corps, equaled a sloppy day for the offense.
--WR Kelvin Benjamin, who is nursing a knee bruise, spent most of his day Thursday under the tent and on a bike. He had the sleeve he had on his leg Tuesday and was walking fine.
--S Thomas DeCoud missed a second straight practice Thursday with a sore knee. Head coach Ron Rivera called it a "hot spot," a knee bruise similar to the one receiver Kelvin Benjamin suffered.
--S Tre Boston sat out Thursday after tweaking his groin in his first practice back from offseason hernia surgery Tuesday.
--DE Kony Ealy is struggling a bit with his transition to the pro game. He received a few reps on the interior of the defensive line Tuesday, which may be where he finds his most work as a rookie.
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