While a lot of noise was made in the offseason about the loss of mighty-mite receiver Steve Smith and surgery on quarterback Cam Newton's ankle, the Carolina Panthers could be better than expected when they begin training camp practice July 25 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.
Reports indicate Newton's ankle is well ahead of schedule and he should be ready for action. And while the 5-foot-9, 185 pound Smith is now toiling for the Baltimore Ravens, Newton may think it is even easier to find his new target -- 6-foot-5, 240 pound Kelvin Benjamin, the team's first-round draft choice out of Florida State who literally grabbed attention with numerous great catches during OTAs and minicamp.
Still, wide receiver is considered the team's weakest position until the Panthers prove otherwise. Despite Newton' optimistic pronouncements, the Panthers really do not have a proven No. 1 or No. 2 receiver.
Benjamin clearly has the most talent, but he will likely have growing pains throughout his rookie season. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood provide a solid presence, but it is hard to see them as more than a trio of No. 3 receivers. More names include Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin, but no one knows if any will emerge as legit options.
So, while the Newton-to-Benjamin, et al, tries to get in synch, here are a few other issues the Panthers will be watching in camp:
KEY POSITION BATTLE
Left tackle: Nate Chandler vs. Byron Bell. Chandler, a converted defensive tackle who started eight games at guard last season, and Bell, who started the last three seasons at right tackle, alternated between left and right tackle throughout OTA practices.
Despite the importance, this is not considered a high-level combat. Bell admitted he has heard the doubts, but he claimed not to be bothered.
"We're going to be one of the top duo, undrafted tackles in the league," he insisted. "People are going to underestimate us. I don't care. As long as my mother loves me and God loves me, I'm good."
PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE
--Byron Bell, T: Carolina's staff has been trying to sell Bell's potential move to left tackle to the fan base all offseason. They still have not bought it. After Bell struggled at right tackle for three years, most think a shift to an even more important role equals impending doom.
But the coaches argue the lefty is a more natural fit on the left side, and Bell, who went undrafted out of New Mexico, has been proving doubters wrong for a while.
BEST LONGSHOT ROOKIE
--Corey "Philly" Brown, WR, Ohio State, undrafted rookie: This OSU criminology major may be the evidence in a theft by the Panthers. He impressed throughout the spring, especially with his quickness. For a team needing more targets for quarterback Cam Newton, Brown seems to be a good candidate to help out.
Brown's size is his most obvious disadvantage, at 5-foot-11 3/8, 182 pounds. His best 40-yard time was 4.46 seconds at the combine (announced time was 4.51), but his dazzling footwork makes him appear to play quicker than his clock time. (NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Brugler said he has "electric feet.") Brown was OSU's top receiver the last three seasons as he also matured into a team leader. He caught 63 passes for 771 yards, with 10 touchdowns in 2013.
--Second-round defensive end Kony Ealy has not had the quickest transition from college to the pros. He has not been able to crack the starting rotation, but the coaches are starting to move him around as they had hoped.
"In all honesty, in the first couple days he looked lost," coach Ron Riviera said. "The last few days, he's looked like he fits in and belongs. He's played everything from the six to the seven, the nine, the five and the three techniques for us and he's done a great job."
--Wide receiver De'Andre Presley is dealing with a bad case of shin splints. The converted defensive back has impressed coaches in his time at slot receiver, but he will need a big training camp to snag a roster spot.
--Panthers tackle Andrew McDonald revealed Wednesday that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer May 19. He had surgery the next day, which McDonald said removed the cancer. McDonald mentioned "a little bump" to Panthers' doctors during a physical in the spring, and an ultrasound found the cancer. Fortunately, the cancer was found before it had time to spread.
"Right now it's out. It's been four weeks now, the incision's recovered well and I'm feeling good," McDonald said.
When Carolina signed the 25 year old to its practice squad in October, few noticed. But in February, his name popped up in national headlines. He confirmed he was a victim described in an investigation of the Dolphins' harassment scandal, a past McDonald understandably didn't want to get into Wednesday.
McDonald will return to the field in training camp to once again fight for a job. And considering the battles he has already gone through, he should not be counted out just yet.
"They scheduled surgery the next day and it kind of hits you at once," McDonald said, when asked what he thought when he learned the diagnosis. "I just made up my mind not to get down and not to let it affect me. Just stay positive and obviously it's worked out, thank God for that."
--The Panthers signed tackle Nate Chandler to a three-year contract extension and defensive end Mario Addison and safety Colin Jones to two-year extensions, the team announced Wednesday.
All three were heading into the final year of their contracts. Chandler would have become a restricted free agent, and Addison and Jones would have been unrestricted free agents.
Chandler started the final eight regular-season games and one postseason game for the Panthers in 2013, his first season on the offensive line after playing as a defensive lineman as a rookie in 2012.
Addison, a veteran of three NFL seasons, had the best season of his career in 2013. He played in 16 games with two starts and posted 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 15 quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery -- all career highs.
Jones has been a special teams regular for the Panthers since joining the team in 2012 after being acquired from the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a seventh-round draft choice. Last season, Jones tied for the team lead with 10 special teams tackles.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
A closer look at the Panthers' picks:
Round 1/28 -- Kelvin Benjamin, WR, 6-5, 240, Florida State
--The Panthers appeased many fans and likely quarterback Cam Newton by adding an offensive weapon. Benjamin comes with plenty of concerns, including work ethic and route running, but Carolina had him near the top of their board the last few weeks.
Round 2/60 -- Kony Ealy, DE, 6-4, 273, Missouri
--General manager Dave Gettleman said he was "shocked" Ealy was still on the board when the Panthers were on the clock at No. 60. Many considered Ealy a first-round pick, and Carolina was more than happy to stop his curious fall even though it wasn't for a position of need.
Round 3/92 -- Trai Turner, G, 6-3, 310, Louisiana State
--Turner is young and raw, but the 20-year-old has a good chance to start come September. Before adding Turner, all the Panthers really had at guard were a few guys coming off injuries.
Round 4/128 -- Tre Boston, SS, 6-0, 204, North Carolina
--Boston struggled at times with the Tar Heels, but the Panthers are confident their staff can help him improve. With former starting safety Charles Godfrey moving to cornerback, Boston could be in line for a healthy number of snaps as a rookie.
Round 5/148 -- Bene' Benwikere, CB, 5-11, 195, San Jose State
--The Panthers are hoping Godfrey, who's coming off a torn Achilles, can compete with Benwikere for the No. 1 nickel back role. Carolina liked Benwikere so much, they gave up their seventh-round pick and switched fifth-round selections with Minnesota to move up 20 spots.
Round 6/204 -- Tyler Gaffney, RB, 5-11, 220, Stanford
--Many think one of the last things the Panthers need is another running back, but they're rightfully concerned about wear and tear on veterans DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Gaffney tried pursuing a professional baseball career for a year before returning to Stanford's football team in 2013.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: DE Greg Hardy (tendered at $13.116M; signed tender March 4).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--OT Bruce Campbell (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Dan Connor (not tendered as UFA).
--CB Drayton Florence (not tendered as UFA).
--TE Ben Hartsock (not tendered as UFA).
--S Quintin Mikell (not tendered as UFA).
--G Travelle Wharton (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--G Chris Scott (tendered at $570,000) made eight starts at guard last season. The Panthers would rather have someone else start in 2014.
SIGNED DRAFT CHOICES
--WR Kelvin Benjamin (1/28): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--DE Kony Ealy (2/60): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--G Trai Turner (3/92): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Tre Boston (4/128): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Bene' Benwikere (5/148): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--RB Tyler Gaffney (6/204): 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--QB Derek Anderson: UFA; terms unknown.
--T Byron Bell: RFA tendered at $2.187M with second-round pick as compensation); $2.187M/1 yr.
--TE/FB Richie Brockel: Potential RFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--DT Colin Cole: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB James Dockery: Not tendered as RFA; terms unknown.
--K Graham Gano: Potential UFA; $12.4M/4 yrs, $3M SB/$3.95M guaranteed.
--DE Greg Hardy: Franchise FA; $13.116M/1 yr.
--T/G Garry Williams: Potential UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Jason Williams: UFA; terms unknown.
--WR Jason Avant: FA Eagles; $1.05M/1 yr, $150,000 SB.
--CB Antoine Cason: UFA Cardinals; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Jerricho Cotchery: UFA Steelers; 2 yrs, $2.25M SB.
--S Thomas DeCoud: FA Falcons; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--TE Ed Dickson: UFA Ravens; $795,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.
--S Roman Harper: FA Saints; $4.5M/2 yrs, $1.5M SB.
--TE Mike McNeill: Not tendered as RFA by Rams; $1.52M/2 yr, $100,000 SB.
--DT Drake Nevis (waivers Jaguars).
--WR Tiquan Underwood: UFA Buccaneers; terms unknown.
--QB Joe Webb: UFA Panthers; terms unknown.
--C Jeff Byers (ERFA/retired).
--QB Jimmy Clausen: Not tendered as UFA/Bears; terms unknown.
--WR Ted Ginn: UFA Cardinals; $9.75M/3 yrs.
--T Jordan Gross (UFA/retired).
--G Geoff Hangartner (UFA/retired).
--WR Domenik Hixon: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Brandon LaFell: UFA Patriots; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--S Mike Mitchell: UFA Steelers; terms unknown.
--CB Captain Munnerlyn: UFA Vikings; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Jordan Senn: UFA Bears; $795,000/1 yr.
--WR Steve Smith (released).
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