For the Carolina Panthers, Super Bowl 50 might as well be a decade ago. If there is a testament to how quickly teams can churn a championship roster, the Panthers have showcased it. Only 16 months after their title game loss to the Denver Broncos, the Panthers have parted with eight players who had solid-to-significant roles – booking at least nine starts – during the Super Bowl run.
Some spots for the better. Some arguably for worse. They all bring Carolina to a pivotal season in its championship window. One where quarterback Cam Newton and the team surrounding him sort out which was an aberration: the 15-1 gem from 2015, or the 6-10 flop that followed it.
When full-squad veteran minicamps convene this week, the Panthers will be one of the biggest NFL storylines to watch. Specifically, whether the Panthers get themselves right after an offseason of significant investment. Gone from that Super Bowl are Josh Norman, Kony Ealy, Ted Ginn and Mike Remmers. Stepping into their place? Captain Munnerlyn, Julius Peppers, a healthy (and pudgy) Kelvin Benjamin and Matt Kalil. And lest anyone forget, first-round pick Christian McCaffrey, who is the franchise’s highest drafted running back since Carolina took Tim Biakabutuka in 1996.
If you’re the glass half-full type, you can contend the roster is better than the one Carolina trotted into Super Bowl 50. But that contention is leaning on a lot of unknown variables. At 37 years old, Peppers needs to recapture his 2015 form to invigorate a defensive front that often seemed less than motivated last season. Linebacker Luke Kuechly has to be healthy. On the back end of the defense, either Munnerlyn or one of the young cornerbacks (maybe all of them) needs to take a significant leap forward. And at this point, it might be a bonus if right tackle Michael Oher can continue his career, although that appears to be tenuous at best.
That’s a lot of significant unknowns on the roster – none speaking to Newton. It’s June and he still hasn’t thrown a football since offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Even now, his rehabilitation schedule has left him almost entirely removed from the offseason passing program. Outside of classroom work, Newton has done little. And in full squad camp, he is expected to do little more than sideline throwing with the training staff. In other words, no live action, no working on timing, no tuning up chemistry going into the breaks. At this point, even handing off in live drills seems like a stretch.
For the Panthers, that’s scary. Especially with Newton coming off a subpar season that was a shadow of his 2015 campaign. All of which makes 2017 so important for Newton. Because the reality is last season (with 19 touchdowns, 14 INTs and a 75.8 passer rating) appeared to be more in line with the first four years of his career than his MVP/Super Bowl season. How he bounces back this year will go a long way in spelling out whether Newton remains among the league’s top two or three quarterbacks, or is destined to settle in a space that is a tier or two lower than expected.
Newton is only 28 and is just entering his prime. But he’s coming off a shoulder surgery and continues to take more physical punishment than almost any other NFL quarterback. So it will be important that the roster galvanizes around him. With Newton sidelined, that can’t happen right now. And with so many other unknowns, that makes the Panthers one of the most intriguing teams heading into the break before training camp.
Here are four more training camp storylines worth watching …
The new toys in New England
The New England Patriots took home the banner of best offseason, adding all manner of new pieces, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore, defensive end Kony Ealy, wideout Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, and running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Top to bottom, this looks like one of the most talented and versatile teams that head coach Bill Belichick has ever fielded. And to finish it off, he defied skeptics and kept high-value backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the fold. The big question mark is where Rob Gronkowski is at in his rehab. Aside from that, the Patriots’ first live full-squad practices should draw an immense number of eyeballs. This roster is loaded to repeat and everyone will be watching to see how it comes together.
Where does Dak Prescott go next
Tony Romo is in the rear-view mirror and it’s Dak Prescott‘s Dallas Cowboys now. But the prevailing thought last season – and even going into this year – is that Prescott succeeded by simply knowing his limitations within the offense. He rarely reached for big, splashy plays and didn’t take too many chances. Instead, Prescott’s value was that he let the offensive line do its job, let Ezekiel Elliott carry the load, and played opportunistic football all the way to a Pro Bowl nod.
The expectation is that 2017 will be more of the same, although Prescott was a little more than that at Mississippi State. As a passer, he had similarities between his college and NFL games. But Prescott rarely used his legs as a rookie, and he has the build to do more of that. While running around and taking punishment is not something the Cowboys want (see: Romo), it is a part of Prescott’s game that can accentuate his ability to make plays. He is capable of expanding his skills and that kind of growth could mean even more to an offense that should already be very good. This camp will be part of showing some of that expansion, and creating his own unique mark that continues to separate him from Romo.
The rookie quarterback pageant
It’s an annual ritual, trying to figure out which rookie quarterback will be the first to nail down a starting job. But this year it’s a little more wide open than most, thanks to a class that seems to need more seasoning than in previous years. Logic makes Chicago Bears second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky the odds-on favorite to take the first starting snaps next season, but veteran free-agent signee Mike Glennon is insistent that he’s been told this is his team and his season. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, Houston Texans rookie Deshaun Watson has more high-pressure college experience than most, but he’s behind a veteran in Tom Savage. That doesn’t sound daunting, but Savage has been in coach Bill O’Brien’s offense for three years and has seemed to take a meaningful step forward each year.
Pat Mahomes has high-paid veteran Alex Smith in front of him in Kansas City, likely keeping him on the bench for at least a while.
Maybe the clearest path to a starting job is right where you’d expect it: on the Cleveland Browns. The coaching staff will do all it can to shine up Brock Osweiler, but he’s on a poorer roster than he was in Houston. If he somehow makes it work in Cleveland, it will be a surprise (not to mention a terrible outcome for O’Brien). Odds are that Osweiler is what he is … which hasn’t been good. And even with his need for a lot of development and Cody Kessler sitting in front of him, DeShone Kizer could get a look far earlier than most.
Your career starts now, Jared Goff
General manager Les Snead is still in the franchise, so the idea that Jared Goff doesn’t have anyone tied to his success or failure is wrong. Goff tanking wouldn’t be good for Snead. Not in the slightest, and not after a handful of other draft picks also took a nosedive. So Goff should still have a champion in the building as last year’s first overall pick. That said, new coach Sean McVay isn’t going to sink or swim with someone else’s guy just because the future was mortgaged to get him. McVay will give Goff the chance he deserves, and a big part of establishing that line of credit will take place at veteran minicamp.
A lot has already been made of McVay uttering the ominous “right now, Jared’s the starter” endorsement. But McVay is also a head coach who values competition and it’s in his best interest to put pressure on Goff rather than hand him anything. And Sean Mannion is still the backup. Goff wasn’t great last season, but there’s no sign that Mannion was or is any better. Can that change? Yes. But if Mannion is going to be pulling a stunner and taking anything, he’s got to absolutely wow the staff in full-squad practices. Until he does that – and maybe more – Goff is going to be given plenty of room to fail.