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Team Report - CAROLINA PANTHERS

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INSIDE SLANT

While much of the outside attention on the Carolina Panthers' offseason focused on the release of veteran receiver Steve Smith, the last few months have mostly been about Cam Newton.

From their wideout makeover to their salary-cap maneuvering, Carolina has been building around its talented 25-year-old quarterback. Part of him has been rebuilt as well.

Newton underwent ankle surgery in March to tighten ligaments, forcing him to sit out most offseason practices. He did return to the field earlier than expected, running 7-on-7 drills during the final day of minicamp.

Newton is expected to return in full for the start of training camp, but before that, he will continue rehabbing in Charlotte. He will also get to hang out with his newest friend.

After the Panthers took Kelvin Benjamin with their first pick in May's draft, the receiver and Newton hit it off quickly. Benjamin planned to spend most of his pre-training camp time in Charlotte, learning the playbook, and continuing to bond with his quarterback.

"I wanted get around the older guys that have been under the program and have been here in the limelight. He'll be able to teach me to stay out of trouble, to do the right things and hang out with the right people," Benjamin said.

Receiver is one of the three most intriguing position battles heading into camp, even though by the end of minicamp, Benjamin had risen to the top of the rotation with veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.

Left tackle may be the most important spot to hash out. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler rotated throughout offseason workouts, but neither had a clear lead going into the July break.

The secondary may be settled at safety, with free-agent pickups Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, but Robert Lester could have a chance to steal a spot if one of the older guys slips.

There are more questions at cornerback. Antoine Cason and Melvin White took the bulk of starter snaps this spring. Cason may have a starting spot locked up, but White could face a fight with Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. And at nickel back, former starting safety Charles Godfrey will be pushed by fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere.

With so many questions still unanswered, many have their doubts about another successful season for the defending NFC South champs. But there is no question the Panthers will try to use that as motivation.

"I think they feel (like) they have unfinished business," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "It's been since they walked in the door back in April. They've worked very, very hard and they've been very diligent. They're focused."

CAMP CALENDAR

Players report: July 24

First practice: July 25

Camp ends: August 12

NOTES, QUOTES

--Linebacker Thomas Davis, who in 2012 became the first known player to return from three ACL surgeries, did not wear a knee brace during minicamp.

"I'd rather see him practice with it on," head coach Ron Rivera said.

Trainers told Davis he did not have to wear a brace, and he claimed he can move faster without it. His coach did agree with that one.

"He really does. Don't tell him," the always-honest Rivera said. "He moves around very well, and it's funny because TD missed three seasons basically. I think it's going to add to his career."

--First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin did not disappoint in offseason workouts, at least on the field. By the time minicamp wrapped up, he was working with the starters. And in the final two practices, the 6-foot-5, 240 receiver made a couple jaw-dropping catches.

For the first one, he went up between two defenders in the back of the end zone, and fell down inbounds, before crashing into the goal post padding.

When Benjamin doubled-down the next day, reaching over cornerback Melvin White to score a touchdown, general manager Dave Gettleman was just a few feet away.

"What goes through your mind are the possibilities. If you can't do it in practice, you're not going to do it in a game," Gettleman said. "It's a confirmation of your college scouting and your evaluation process."

--The Panthers not only made over their receiving staff this offseason, but their stadium looks a lot different as well.

According to the team, the first phase of Bank of America Stadium's three-year, $125 million renovation project is on schedule and within budget.

Two new high-definition video scoreboards are the biggest improvements. Stretching 63-feet high, and 212-feet long, they are 2 1/2 times bigger than the boards they replaced.

Two ribbon boards encircling the middle of the stadium have been switched out with bigger boards and better technology. There are also four new escalators, and an improved sound system.

"The goal of this project was to improve the fan experience. We want them to feel like most everything they can get at home, they can get at the stadium," director of stadium operations Scott Paul said.

--Team strength: Linebacker Luke Kuechly.

If the Panthers are going to make another playoff run, they will do it on the back of their defense, and Kuechly is the backbone of that defense. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year has taken on a bigger leadership role heading into his third season, which some around the team believe could be his best yet.

--Breakout player: Tight end Ed Dickson.

Dickson "broke out" once before, but that was in Baltimore. Unfortunately for Dickson, his 54 catches and five touchdowns in 2011 were surrounded by three other subpar seasons. Given a fresh start in Carolina, Dickson could have a major role in 2014. The Panthers want to increase the number of plays they run out of a two-tight end set, and they see Dickson as an intriguing complement to fellow tight end Greg Olsen.

--Fantasy football reality check: Running back Jonathan Stewart.

After participating fully in offseason workouts, Stewart is the healthiest he has been since a rash of injuries cost him 17 games the last two seasons. The Panthers added first-round receiver Kelvin Benjamin to help in the red zone, but Stewart should get a number of carries down there as well. Plus, there is a chance he could eventually supplant starting running back DeAngelo Williams.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Cam Newton. Backups - Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard, Joe Webb.

Newton heads into his fourth season after a receiver makeover and ankle surgery. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula did a good job slowing Newton down in 2013, and it is hard to imagine much will change this season. Newton will be part game manager, part play-maker. He lost some weapons this offseason, but he gained some as well. Anderson has a pretty firm grasp on the backup job.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - DeAngelo Williams, FB Mike Tolbert. Backups - Kenjon Barner, Tyler Gaffney, Darrin Reaves, Jonathan Stewart, FB Michael Zordich.

With the passing game unlikely to be a consistent downfield threat, the Panthers will look to utilize their deep backfield. The 31-year-old Williams has some tread left on his tires, and Stewart is fully healthy for the first time since before 2012. Coming off his first Pro-Bowl season, Tolbert will get plenty of touches again. Barner could be on the bubble. Gaffney will be a special teams contributor his first season.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Greg Olsen. Backups - Richie Brockel, Ed Dickson, D.C. Jefferson, Mike McNeill, Brandon Williams.

The Panthers have a good problem here. They have six guys who can play, but they will have to make some decisions come cut time. Olsen is coming off two straight franchise record-breaking years. Dickson has the inside track on playing Olsen's complement in a two-tight end set. Williams, an intriguing project in 2013, has gotten better. Brockel and McNeill are blockers, but there may not be room for both.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery. Backups - Jason Avant, Brenton Bersin, Philly Brown, Toney Clemons, Tavarres King, Marcus Lucas, Marvin McNutt, Kealoha Pilares, De'Andre Presley, Tiquan Underwood.

Folks on the outside continue to ridicule this group, but some believe they are better than last year's lot. The 6-foot-5 Benjamin gives Newton a badly-needed red-zone threat, as does Cotchery, who scored 10 touchdowns with the Steelers in 2013. It is hard to see a No. 1 guy on the list. Benjamin could fill the role eventually, but he will have rookie growing pains. Bersin, King and McNutt will get a chance, and the coaches hope at least one emerges as a legit player.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Nate Chandler, LG Amini Silatolu, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Byron Bell. Backups - C Brian Folkerts, C Jared Wheeler, G Derek Dennis, G Edmund Kugbila, G Andrew Norwell, G Chris Scott, T David Foucault, T Kevin Hughes, T Oscar Johnson, T Andrew McDonald, T Garry Williams.

The departure of former franchise left tackle Jordan Gross created a void that will be hard to fill. Chandler and Bell will continue their battle in camp, but whoever wins the job will take his lumps. Kalil is as rock solid as they come at center. Turner, who turned 21 in June, played with the ones in offseason workouts, and it is hard to see him giving the job up. Silatolu is coming off ACL surgery, but the team believes he can get back to the form that saw him improving early in 2013. Depth here is not good.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Greg Hardy, RDE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, DT Colin Cole. Backups - E Mario Addison, E Frank Alexander, E Kony Ealy, E Alex Hall, E Wes Horton, E Craig Roh, T Dwan Edwards, T Linden Gaydosh, T Drake Nevis, T Shaq Rowell, T Kawann Short, DT Casey Walker.

Johnson and Hardy take up more than 20 percent of the team's cap space, so this will likely be the last year they will be paired together. The Panthers believe the duo - and the rest of the front seven - helps give them a shot at another playoff run. Ealy and Addison will see snaps, and they could be the future at end. Lotulelei and Short had solid rookie years and should only get better. Alexander is suspended the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Chase Blackburn, MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis. Backups - Denicos Allen, Billy Boyko, Adarius Glanton, Ben Jacobs, A.J. Klein, D.J. Smith, Jason Williams.

Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Kuechly anchors a strong unit that includes the now seemingly ageless Davis. The 31 year old has missed one game in two seasons after returning from a third ACL surgery. Blackburn will be pushed by Klein, but weak-side linebacker does not get a ton of snaps in the Panthers' nickel-heavy defense.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Antoine Cason, RCB Melvin White, FS Thomas DeCoud, SS Roman Harper. Backups - CB Bene Benwikere, CB Carrington Byndom, CB James Dockery, CB Charles Godfrey, CB De'Quan Menzie, CB Josh Norman, S Tre Boston, S Colin Jones, S Robert Lester, S Anderson Russell.

General manager Dave Gettleman is hoping Band-Aids will hold his secondary together again. Free-agent pickups Cason, DeCoud and Harper all look like starters, but they all had career-worst years in 2013. White, Norman and Thomas will battle for a corner spot, but none are super special. Benwikere and Godfrey will have an intriguing battle in camp for the No. 1 nickel role. Fourth-round pick Boston missed offseason practices after hernia surgery. Jones and Lester provide decent depth at safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, P Brad Nortman, LS J.J. Jansen, PR Antoine Cason, KR Kenjon Barner, P Jordan Gay.

Gano and Nortman are coming off career years. With Ted Ginn in Arizona, the return jobs are still up for grabs. Cason is in the punt return mix with receivers Kealoha Pilares and Philly Brown. Pilares and running back Kenjon Barner both have kickoff return experience, but neither are all that dynamic.

PERSONNEL TRACKER

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.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--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.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--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.

PLAYERS LOST

--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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