NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Ian Rapoport details his visit with the Carolina Panthers below. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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The Panthers hold their yearly training camp at Wofford College in sleepy Spartanburg, S.C., but when we caught up with them, they hadn't yet hit the road. For three sessions prior to camp, coach Ron Rivera's team held a minicamp of sorts for rookies, quarterbacks and injured players on their practice field in Charlotte, N.C. It was home sweet home, complete with a gigantic panther outside the stadium and a practice field that feels like it's set in a leafy park.
1. Cam Newton is diving head-first into his second year. No one would deny Newton lived up to the hype in his first season in the NFL. The Offensive Rookie of the Year had lots of big numbers, including 4,051 yards passing, 14 rushing touchdowns ... and 17 interceptions and 35 sacks. The latter two big numbers are what the quarterback is trying to limit. Newton spent his offseason at the Panthers' facility, studying for hours on end. He's doing what he can to avoid a sophomore slump, and the focus is on decision-making. His electric arm and legs will only take him so far. To lead the Panthers, he needs to keep that offense on the field. Proper pre-snap identification and even-keeled mid-play adjustments will lead to more efficiency. It's all on his head.
2. This defense might be poised to improve rapidly. As dynamic as Newton's offense was, the defense was just the opposite. Twenty-seventh in points per game, 28th in yards per game, even 25th in sacks. It was woeful, which no doubt pains the defensive-minded Rivera. But help is on the way. Linebacker Jon Beason looks massive and appears to be in great shape following an Achilles injury. He'll line up alongside the rehabbing Thomas Davis and first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly. During the session I watched, the three starters were all on the field together, beginning the process of gelling. Beason said, "Well, we've made a few mistakes out there during this camp, but it's based on not being as familiar as the guy next to you, the terminology; little things we got to get ironed out. You got to get on the same page so we can play fast and play together." That's the goal, and that might help spur a quick turnaround.
3. Optimism is in the air like it hasn't been since 1996. The Panthers have success in their history. Twelve wins in 1996. A surprise Super Bowl run in 2003. Twelve wins in 2008. But never before, according to the locals, have they dealt with the kind of hype they'll see this year. Newton's emergence on the field and his celebrity have brought fanfare. So has a resurgence by receiver Steve Smith. It all culminated in center Ryan Kalil's Super Bowl guarantee (transcript below). Wow. Yet Rivera didn't distance himself from it. Neither did Beason, who said, "I love it." That excitement permeates the team, and one must enjoy how it's embraced. Sounds like Rivera believes in his team.
4. The Panthers know what they have in Newton. It would be tough to look at Newton and not understand he's a special talent. But it's another thing to ensure he's not out there alone. The Panthers aren't taking him for granted. That was clear when they traded for receiver Louis Murphy, acquiring the playmaker from the Oakland Raiders. Put Murphy with Smith, Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen, and those are some nice targets. And did we mention running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart? This team will score.
THE NEW GUYS
Kuechly: Focusing on defense was an obvious choice in the draft, and the Panthers used the ninth overall pick to pluck one of the most NFL-ready players available in Kuechly. The Boston College product is smart and tough, athletic enough and likely able to play all four downs. Put him next to Beason, and that's some tag-team. This defense needed an injection of steadiness, and a hard-nosed player in the middle might provide that. The early returns have been positive.
Murphy: There's never been a question about the former Oakland receiver's raw talent. The 6-foot-2 speedster just hasn't quite put everything together yet. He's battled injury, and he didn't look like himself last year following a groin issue. If the Panthers can get him to regain the form he showed in 2010, when he contributed 609 yards, the trade will have been a steal. The receiver position isn't deep behind Smith; Murphy will pressure LaFell and the others to perform. His familiarity with Newton (they were teammates at Florida for two seasons) might help, too.
Mike Tolbert: One of the more surprising signings of the offseason, Carolina stocked up at running back with, well, a stocky running back. Signing Tolbert sparked speculation that Stewart could be traded ... but he wasn't. Instead, the Panthers are simply chock full o' backs. Considering depth, Tolbert might make them the best in the NFL in that area. Tolbert was steady with the San Diego Chargers last year, flourishing as a short-yardage back with eight scores. Now, he comes back home (he's a Coastal Carolina product) and can be a key complementary piece. An underrated signing.
"Now, look closer. At the daunting, unpaved path ahead, lined with detours, nay-sayers, and walls which seem insurmountable. But not for you. You'll ignore what you hear and break through anything that stands in your way. Because you see what's at the end of this. Victory. One hundred percent sterling silver victory. The Lombardi Trophy."
-- Kalil, in a paid advertisement in the Charlotte Observer guaranteeing a Super Bowl win.
- Kalil's guarantee has already accomplished one thing: galvanizing the fans. The fanbase was already awake; no doubt many are now thinking, We could be really good.
- Newton is one of the NFL's most impressive throwers to see in person. The ball just explodes out of his hand and soars to its target. It sizzles.
- I wonder why more teams don't do what the Panthers did and hold some minicamp-style sessions for youngsters and injured players before the official training camp begins. It eases the acclimation process.
- Credit general manager Marty Hurney for having patience. Trade talks that led to the acquisition of Murphy and the dealing of Jeff Otah to the New York Jets actually began in April. He stuck with the off-again, on-again process and improved his team while trying to rid it of a negative force in Otah. (As it turns out, Hurney might end up with more work to do ... Otah failed a physical with the Jets, the New York Daily News reported Wednesday, a development that endangers the trade.)
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Yes, there are plenty of good feelings surrounding the Carolina Panthers. But the schedule is quite difficult. If they begin 1-3 with losses to the New Orleans Saints, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, the wind might be gone from their sails. But Newton gives them a chance to win every game, and they weren't that far off last year. If they finish 9-7, they could battle the Falcons for a wild-card slot. At 10-6, you know they're in business. At this point, 10 wins seems like a stretch, but a massive step forward -- like making the playoffs -- seems feasible. This is a team on the rise.