NFL camp preview: Panthers hope simpler is better

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Although the Carolina Panthers are going to college for training camp, rather than seeking a higher education they will focus on dumbing down their offense for 2013.
The Panthers report to Wofford College Thursday and begin workouts Friday. Third-year quarterback Cam Newton will use a simplified approach to play-calling, courtesy of new offensive coordinator coach Mike Shula.
Shula who was promoted to replace Rob Chudzinksi, now head coach at Cleveland, simplified the play-calling, and he claims he will utilize the team's talented backfield more than Chudzinski did the past couple years.
Promoting a coordinator from within should help Newton from a continuity standpoint, but camp will still be a vital time for Newton and the rest of the offense to familiarize themselves with whatever wrinkles Shula adds.
The Panthers' biggest offseason makeover was spent on the middle of the defensive line when they used their top two draft picks on tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short.
The Panthers drafted them after losing Charlotte native and former New York Giant Chris Canty, who left home to sign a three-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens. The loss of Canty can be traced to the Panthers beginning the offseason $16 million over the cap, which handcuffed them in terms of talking to expensive veteran free agents.
"We obviously had issues early on, and we addressed them," general manager Dave Gettleman said of the team's salary cap challenges. "We've come through the other side pretty well. I feel good about the way we're positioned right now."
So, bottom line, so to speak, is that Lotulelei is expected to start Week 1, while Short will likely be in a rotation that will give him a decent chunk of playing time.
Carolina's front seven is a strength, one the Panthers hope will mask a weak secondary. Free safety Charles Godfrey is the only defensive back with a starting job heading into camp, leaving a bunch of castoff veterans, inexperienced former late-round draft picks, and even some undrafted players to fight for the other three spots.
On the injury front, the Panthers open camp in good shape.
Running back Jonathan Stewart, who underwent two offseason ankle surgeries, is the biggest concern. Linebacker Jon Beason, center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Jordan Gross are also coming off surgeries, but they all returned to take reps during either OTAs and minicamp.
The bulk of this team -- including players and coaching staff -- is entering its third training camp and season together. The first two years each began with 2-8 records. If this group has a similar start this season, next year's training camp will have plenty of new faces.
Right guard Geoff Hangartner started 28 of the Panthers' 32 games the past two seasons, but coaches hope he will be pushed in camp by Edmund Kugbila, who is only a fourth-round pick from little Valdosta State. But Kugbila is not to be underestimated, making it this far after coming to the United State from Ghana when he was only 10 years old.
On defense, the Panthers feel they have a good, young linebacker group, led by Luke Kuechly, the 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is expected to improve with more help up front from their two big, strong rookies, Lotulelei and Short.
In the secondary, the Panthers are looking for starters at both corners and strong safety. Captain Munnerlyn is the team's most talented defensive back, but his size (5-8) makes him best suited for nickel back. Free-agent pickup Drayton Florence could have an inside track at one of the cornerback spots, with Josh Norman, Josh Thomas, and former Bear D.J. Moore all in the mix.

-- Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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