CHARLOTTE - This time last year, the Panthers' newly hired coaching staff did all they could day after day to prepare for the season, but something was missing.
While the coaches worked away in their offices inside Bank of America Stadium, players organized practice sessions at an area high school.
The NFL's work stoppage kept the two sides apart, but this June they're very much together.
"I love being out here. It's been an awesome offseason," Panthers tight end
"It's also nice coming out here and working with these guys for the familiarity aspect. It should lead to a big improvement."
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the strides made over the last three weeks have been obvious, and he's also looking forward to one more chance to improve prior to training camp with a three-day minicamp that begins Tuesday.
Any chance to work together is better than what the team endured last season.
"It was really tough on us last year not being able to build the rapport that we are right now," Rivera said. "We're seeing a lot of positives. We are getting better, but we most certainly can get much better."
Last year's team had remarkable chemistry given that Rivera couldn't even shake hands with many of his players until the week training camp opened. The team grew closer over the course of the season, as evidenced by their 4-2 finish, and now they're picking up where they left off.
"It's great to come out here with these fellas every day," wide receiver
"It's fun to come out here. Hopefully it will carry over into minicamp next and then the season."
Chemistry is an important component to success in the NFL, but it isn't just about feeling comfortable with teammates on a personal level. Chemistry leads to better things big and small on the field, and little things can make a big difference come game day.
"Today something that happened that I thought was real interesting was that we had a couple of misaligned guys on the offensive side, and Cam got those guys aligned," Rivera said. "On defense, you hear the communication between the safeties and the linebackers – something we didn't do as well as we needed to do last year.
"There have been a lot of positives coming out of this, and the biggest one is the continuity we have on both sides of the ball."
Better communication is important for veterans and rookies alike, though Rivera admitted that overall, the Panthers' newcomers are benefitting the most from a full offseason.
"Seeing Amini (Silatolu) and Luke (Kuechly) out there, our top two picks have really integrated themselves really well, as has
"It won't be like last year when our young guys came in and it was like, ‘Hey, here it is. Get it done.' Now we've been able to bring those guys along and have them develop with their teammates. We're very pleased with that."
The Panthers wrapped up OTAs in good spirits and health. Right tackle
"It went really well for the whole team," LaFell said. "We've got some new guys in here, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They've been flying around and making a lot of plays, and on offense we've picked up where we left off last year.
"We look way better than we did last year going into camp."
QUICK HITS: Rivera said next week's minicamp, which will culminate Thursday with a practice open to the public, will be conducted much the same as OTAs but with the addition of more game-like situations. "We'll make sure our guys have retained what we've installed, and it also will be a good chance to put us in what we call ‘move the ball' segments where, based on what our offense gains, we'll move the ball down the field," he said. … Newton, as he's apt to do, joked around with the media when Smith was being interviewed, standing behind him and gesturing in a way to make light of his eight-inch height advantage. Smith, however, stood taller in one regard: He came in at No. 35 on the latest installment of "The Top 100 Players of 2012" that aired Wednesday on the NFL Network, while Newton debuted at No. 40.