Five Questions Heading into Carolina Panthers Training Camp:
Summer is drawing to a close and NFL training camps are about to get started. This is the time to focus in on key position battles, new faces from trades, free agents, and rookies. Fans want insight to their favorite teams and see how they are set for the upcoming season. General manager and coaching changes can also affect the results. Let’s start the process by getting straight to the five questions I have for Carolina Panthers training camp.
1. How does Christian McCaffrey’s arrival affect Jonathan Stewart and the offense?
The Carolina Panthers finally addressed their concerns at the running back position. With Jonathan Stewart turning 30 years old this year, they had no choice but to draft a young RB to prepare for the future. Christian McCaffrey was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft and ushers in a new era for the backfield in Carolina. Along with Stewart, McCaffrey joins incumbent backs Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne.
In 2008, the Carolina Panthers selected Jonathan Stewart with their first pick, 13th overall. Since then, he has produced only one 1000-yard rushing season. Stewart was never really able to take control of the committee situation in Carolina.Now that the Panthers selected McCaffrey in the draft, many fantasy football analysts have been writing off Stewart as no longer relevant in fantasy. In fact, per Fantasy Football Calculator Standard ADP, McCaffrey is currently the RB17 while Stewart is the RB40. It’s true that we’ve seen many veterans cast aside by coaches eager to try out their shiny new draft picks. However, we have also seen times when an older RB is not ready to pass the torch so quickly. In fact, Panthers team writer Max Henson reported on panthers.com, “Everyone from Head Coach Ron Rivera to running back coach Jim Skipper has insisted that Stewart’s role will not change.”
McCaffrey possesses elite quickness, speed, and agility. He can run passing routes out of the slot, is a natural pass catcher and is an excellent return man on special teams. Basically, he’s a one-stop shop for just about everything you need in an all-purpose back. Except for size. Many analysts are going all-in on the “McCaffrey is a three-down back” mantra. However, he doesn’t have the size that Stewart brings and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Stewart on all the early downs and in both short-yardage and goal-line situations. The story of Stewart and McCaffrey has yet to be written, so keep a watchful eye on this situation and see if any clarity unfolds as Carolina Panthers training camp gets underway.
2. Can Cam Newton return to full health and adjust to smaller, faster targets?
Cam Newton underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in the spring. How is he healing, and will he be full go for Carolina Panthers training camp? Will he be on a “pitch count?” Does his current condition have an effect on his throwing velocity and range? Cam has had one of the tallest receiving corps in the NFL — how will he adapt to finding smaller, faster targets in McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel? The Panthers are on a compressed schedule to get all these guys on the same page. Don’t be surprised if initial reports out of camp paint a “doom-and-gloom” picture on poorly synced route timing and route adjustments. I expect that over the course of the next few weeks there will be both good news and bad news when it comes to assimilating the rookies into the process.
Arm strength has never been an issue for Cam. What’s in question will be his ability to make “touch” throws. Also, he will need to adjust his thought process when quick decisions require him to choose to get rid of the ball, or deliver the ball to his check down receivers rather than running the ball himself. This will be one of the biggest challenges facing Cam this season, but Cam is better positioned for a bounce back year. Fantasy players should draft him with confidence. He is currently listed as QB7 going between the seventh and eighth round in standard league drafts (per FFC).
3. What is the current state of the Carolina Panthers Receivers?
Kelvin Benjamin (WR27) shocked many when he showed up in April weighing over 280 lbs. However, by the end of minicamp, he had shed enough of those pounds to look like he was at a reasonable playing weight. His conditioning will probably continue to catch the focus of writers, but ultimately his focus should be on how to improve on his 67 receptions from last season.
Devin Funchess begins his training camp with higher expectations this year. After recording only 23 catches on 59 targets (39% catch rate), Funchess will need to improve his productivity on the opportunities afforded to him.
Joining the 6’ 5” Benjamin and 6’ 5” Funchess will be Curtis Samuel (WR62), the rookie wideout from Ohio State. At only 5’11” and 194 lbs., Samuel brings a speed element to what was one of the tallest receiver corps in the NFL. With Corey Brown gone to Buffalo, Samuel may get the chance to showcase that speed on deep routes this fall. The best thing Samuel can do is quickly learn the playbook and the correct route adjustments.
4. What impact does the firing of GM Dave Gettleman have during training camp?
The news of GM Dave Gettleman’s firing was a surprise to Coach Rivera and couldn’t come at a worse time. With training camp upon us, the new GM will face a wealth of personnel decisions. We have to believe that Panthers owner, Jerry Richardson, had a plan in place for Gettleman’s replacement, but in the interim they have turned to previous GM Marty Hurney. Will his opinions on players even be trusted during this time? These are important decisions, with much of the team’s current and future success depending on making the right personnel choices. The sooner this position is permanently filled, the better for Carolina to put their best athletes on the field come Game days this fall.
5. Can OC Mike Shula get all these moving parts to gel before Week 1?
As we saw in 2015, Mike Shula is definitely capable of coaching a top-performing offense. Cam and the Panthers offense were on a record-setting pace right up until SB50, where poor pass protection proved too much to overcome against Von Miller and the Broncos. The signing of OT Matt Kalil to protect Cam’s blind side and drafting of rookie Taylor Moton to compete at right tackle are encouraging moves. That, combined with drafting dynamic players at the RB and WR position, make the Carolina Panthers poised to return to better proficiency from a personnel standpoint. Cam should be full go by the time the season starts. If he does, his return to greatness is in the cards. They have a recipe for success and it’s on Shula to put it together. Their hopes at another title run rely on it.