Panthers fans, we back.
The Carolina Panthers move into their dorms at Wofford College next Wednesday, July 24, with training camp slated to begin the next day. Over the three weeks that follow, we’ll learn what sort of team this group could become, and if they’re past the disappointment of going 7-9 in 2018.
This will be my first full training camp at Spartanburg, and I can’t wait to dig into answering all the questions I have. Understandably, you all have questions, too. Here are a few of the best that readers sent in this week. Hopefully, this leaves you as excited for training camp as I am:
1. Other than Cam Newton, whose injury status/recovery should we be watching most closely?
A number of you expressed concerns about the many Panthers players recovering from injury, and that list starts with Newton.
The team has long maintained that Newton would be a full participant when training camp rolled around, and there have been no hitches in that timeline to suggest anything different. That Newton progressed so well during the three days of spring workouts he actually threw — he started with stationary targets but moved up to intermediate throws 20-25 yards downfield — is an encouraging sign.
Other than Newton, there are a number of starters and high-impact players expected to make their return at camp. Chief among them, center Matt Paradis.
Paradis has started for the Broncos since their Super Bowl-winning season in 2015, but he finished last year on injured reserve after breaking his fibula. Denver general manager John Elway said the team had “real concerns” about Paradis’ recovery, which freed Carolina to sign him to a three-year contract.
With Ryan Kalil retired, Paradis has big shoes to fill. He did some work in OTA’s and said he’s practiced snaps with Newton. But how he meshes with the rest of Carolina’s starting O-line will be crucial to watch during training camp. If Paradis is fully recovered, he’ll play a major role in keeping Newton upright and paving running lanes for Christian McCaffrey. If not ... well, the Panthers might be in more trouble than anticipated.
2. Does Reggie Bonnafon earn one of the backup running back spots? Which other RBs do you expect to make the roster behind Christian McCaffrey?
Bonnafon is an interesting gadget player, but I’m more intrigued by the Panthers’ two rookie running backs and how they slot in behind McCaffrey.
Fifth-round pick Jordan Scarlett has a nice combination of speed and strength, but the biggest question on him is whether he has the vision to find NFL holes. Meanwhile, there are speed concerns about undrafted free agent Elijah Holyfield. But his violent running style would be a great foil to McCaffrey’s burst. I still expect the Panthers to keep Cameron Artis-Payne as a proven commodity, but I like Holyfield’s chances of impressing in preseason and earning the third running back spot. That would mean sticking Scarlett on the practice squad, if possible.
3. Is Ron Rivera relying too much on versatility at safety? How long of a “trial period” does the team give Rashaan Gaulden before looking for free agent help?
When the Panthers released veteran free safety Mike Adams in the spring, it seemingly left a starting spot for 2018 third-round pick Rashaan Gaulden. Gaulden played practically every position in the defensive backfield at Tennessee, but he spent the bulk of his rookie year in Charlotte focusing on nickel cornerback and free safety.
Coach Ron Rivera also went as far as to say this spring that the team is going to give Gaulden every opportunity to win that job.
Rivera values positional versatility up and down his roster. The NFL is still far from matching the NBA in terms of positionless players, but there’s certainly a great value placed on people who can fill multiple roles.
Considering the secondary is one of the major areas of concern with this roster, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team add a free agent before the regular season. Whether that’s a depth player or someone who could start — ex-Panther Tre Boston is still unsigned — remains to be seen. But Gaulden is definitely in the driver’s seat to start at free safety. It would take some egregious mistakes in the preseason for him to lose that advantage.
4. What’s the deal with first-round pick Brian Burns? He still hasn’t signed his contract, and training camp starts in less than a week.
With the current rookie-wage scale, there isn’t much wiggle room for Burns as far as his actual contract numbers. Per that scale, Burns’ four-year contract should come in worth about $13.5 million, with a team option for a fifth year.
What’s likely holding up the process is language in the deal, related either to a signing bonus or other small factors. For example, 2018 Chicago Bears first-rounder Roquan Smith missed two preseason games last August while his agent and the team argued over incentives voided in the case of ejection.
The Panthers have no history of contract holdouts, and that shouldn’t change with Burns. Even if it takes all the way until next Wednesday when players arrive in Spartanburg, so be it — but don’t plan on Burns missing any time.
5. Will we see a major uptick in Curtis Samuel’s usage?
Fantasy football gurus and Panthers fans alike are tagging Samuel as the team’s breakout candidate on offense, and I agree. He’s incredibly fluid running his routes and dynamic with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his seven touchdowns on 47 touches last year — and that was with him missing the first four games of the season.
I saw a crazy stat on Twitter the other day, that Panthers quarterbacks had a 125.2 passer rating when targeting Samuel on the perimeter. That. Is. Ridiculous. It just goes to show how explosive Samuel can be when he’s fully healthy (although that caveat is necessary given his history).
I’d expect the Panthers to get the ball in Samuel’s hands as much as possible in space, whether it as a pass-catcher or runner. He’s just as dangerous on an end-around as he is on a go route, and he also has potential as a kick returner. I’m not one to predict fantasy-football stats, but if you’re looking for someone (somewhat) under the radar who will play a major offensive role for a playoff contender, Samuel’s your man.