The Carolina Panthers are looking to put last year's disappointments behind them as they recommit to team football and running the ball, hoping a new-look defensive line can be the difference maker in 2013. Questions remain concerning whether Ron Rivera has the mettle to be an NFL head coach, and he only has 16 games to prove he can be the answer long-term.
The 2012 season was a failure for Carolina. A sexy preseason pick to make the playoffs, a spate of injuries and unreliability once again put the team on the outside looking in. While the team couldn't have predicted the rash of players on IR, they shouldn't have made any predictions period. The Panthers became a league-wide laughing stock when All-Pro center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad before the season predicting a Super Bowl birth.
New general manager Dave Gettleman arrived in Charlotte charged with getting the Panthers out from under one of the league's worst cap situations. He inherited a 7-9 team with no cap flexibility -- the by-product of his predecessor's spending spree in 2011. This tied Carolina's hands in free agency, but with back-to-back rookies of the year in Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers have a nucleus to build around, and a much-needed vision for their direction.
Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to take the head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns. It was an unexpected loss for the Panthers given their offensive struggles in 2012. The tenets that made them strong in 2011 collapsed, and inconsistent play calling put too much pressure on Newton's shoulders.
Mike Shula takes over the offense's helm, as the team elected to promote from within rather than bring in a fresh set of eyes. The former QB coach is preaching an offense that relies less on Newton, especially on the ground. Instead the onus will be on Carolina's $80 million backfield to carry the load, with DeAngelo Williams and
Jonathan Stewart being reinstated as focal points of the offense.
The other side of the ball looks more promising. The Panthers' secondary is a mess, but they boast one of the league's better defensive lines and linebacking corps. Kuechly was a revelation in 2012, emerging not only as the team's top tackler, but as their defensive leader. He'll be flanked by Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, excellent players in their own right, but who have been felled by injury in recent years.
The story of Carolina's defense is the line, where Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy (both 10-plus sack defensive ends last year) will be joined by rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short at defensive tackle. It's the Panthers' belief that an overwhelming pass rush can mitigate their problems in the secondary, and Gettleman knows this plan can work given his football history with the New York Giants.
Free agency was quiet, with wide receiver Domenik Hixon arriving from the Giants as the team's biggest offensive signing, while veteran cornerback Drayton Florence is likely to start after the team released long-standing veteran Chris Gamble due to his cap figure.
Training camp location and schedule
The Panthers continue to take their show on the road, as Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, will once again host training camp. The sweltering southern heat and humble dorm room accommodations are sold to players as 'character building,' but can be brutal for fans heading to camp.
All practices are free and open to the public, with the team hosting a "Play 60 Family Fun Day" on the first Saturday of training camp on July 27. Here is the complete schedule, courtesy of Panthers.com.
|Thursday||July 25||No Practice|
|Friday||July 26||6:15 p.m. - Gibbs Stadium|
|Saturday||July 27||2:30 p.m.|
|Sunday||July 28||9:15 a.m.|
|Monday||July 29||9:15 a.m.|
|Tuesday||July 30||9:15 a.m|
|Wednesday||July 31||No Practice|
|Thursday||August 1||2:30 p.m.|
|Friday||August 2||9:15 a.m.|
|Saturday||August 3||3:30 p.m. - Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium|
|Sunday||August 4||No Practice|
|Monday||August 5||2:30 p.m.|
|Tuesday||August 6||9:15 a.m.|
|Wednesday||August 7||9:15 a.m.|
|Thursday||August 8||9:15 a.m.|
|Friday||August 9||8:00 p.m. - vs. Chicago Bears at Bank of America Stadium|
|Saturday||August 10||No Practice|
|Sunday||August 11||6:15 p.m.|
|Monday||August 12||2:30 p.m.|
|Tuesday||August 13||9:00 a.m.|
Carolina will likely keep a starting roster that looks very similar to 2012's unit. The rookie defensive tackles won't have to fight for their jobs, as both are expected to start from Week 1, though some lesser spots are still up for grabs.
Both cornerback spots are open in a preseason battle focused on quantity over quality. Florence and D.J. Moore were added as free agents, while Captain Munnerlyn was retained. The problem for the Panthers is that all three are better suited as nickelbacks, rather than starters on the outside. All three will battle with second-year player Josh Norman, who still earns high hopes from the team despite an underwhelming rookie season.
Third wide receiver
Brandon LaFell is locked in to the second receiver spot, much to the chagrin of many Panthers fans. This intensifies the battle for the third spot, where Hixon and Ted Ginn will compete. Hixon showed flashes with Eli Manning in New York, while Ginn turned heads recently in minicamp, where he showed an immediate affinity for working with Newton. Ginn believes he can still become a dominant NFL receiver, and his speed is a natural pairing for Newton's deep ball offense.
The Panthers elected not to renew the contract of former second-round pick Sherrod Martin, and will move veteran Charles Godfrey to free safety permentantly. This leaves the door open for 2012 seventh-round pick D.J. Campbell, who showed flashes in limited time last season. He'll work against Mike Mitchell and possibly UDFA signing Robert Lester, depending on how he looks early in camp.
You can find the Panthers' complete roster on the team's official website.