CHARLOTTE — You can just tell the difference in their voices this week.
They've all talked about this a lot. God, we have talked some of it to death.
But the talk gets a little more tangible when there's that countdown clock on the wall, which tells you exactly how much time there is until the regular season starts. That's when all the months of deals and moves, all the planning and preparation, all the Xs and Os and Jimmys and Joes come together.
What we don't know is how it's all going to work out. The trend line is generally positive, but they think that in practically every camp across the league.
I was asked this week about a particular topic and how I thought it was going to go, and the most honest answer I could come up with was: "Don't know. Maybe. We'll see."
And that's exactly where we are right now, in that sweet spot of anticipation for what could go right (or dread of what could go wrong, if you're that kind of person), with no way to prove you wrong either way.
The things the Panthers did this offseason appear to have made sense in the larger context of what they're trying to build. Will it work? Will this Mailbag do anything to help clear any of it up?
Don't know. Maybe. We'll see.
Hi Darin, originally from southwest Ohio, I've been a Browns fan since 1958 and watched some good teams in the early '60s and the Bernie Kosar-era '80s. When the Bengals entered in the late '60s, my family switched, but I stayed loyal to my Browns. Pretty lean years in this century. I was not in favor of drafting Baker Mayfield because I thought he'd be Johnny Manziel v.2. I was wrong. Baker is very, very good. Of course, the Browns had to jettison Baker. So now I will follow the Panthers, whom I know very little about. (Everybody knows Christian McCaffrey.) Two questions: 1. The Browns released DT Sheldon Day, whom I thought was decent enough. Will the Panthers be interested, do you think? 2. Do you honestly believe the WRs are as good as some people say? This is really weird. At least now I can relate to my sister who lives in beautiful NC. — Tom, Dundalk, Ireland.
On the scale of weird, this ain't even in the top 10 this week, Tom. Welcome. And you're far from alone. Based on the mail we get and the interest we've received, Mayfield has dragged a lot of folks with him to Charlotte, from Ohio and beyond (more on that later).
As to Tom's actual question, without making it about Day in particular, defensive tackle is the one place they're deep enough at the moment they'll likely wait and see. Could they use a veteran at that position? Possibly. Would that seem more likely next week? Maybe. Veterans' salaries are guaranteed for the season if they're on the roster in Week 1, so a lot of name players are on the streets right now because of reasons fiscal not physical.
As for the receivers, I know the top of the group is very good, because DJ Moore is good at football. For all the moves made this offseason, I think that contract was important for a couple of reasons, beginning with the fact that it locked a top talent in for three more years at a position where the going rate seems to be expanding exponentially rather than arithmetically. Also, if you're going to be a serious franchise, you draft and develop your own, and Moore is a prime example of that. When you play the way he plays and work the way he works, you ought to be rewarded.
The rest of the room is admittedly a mystery. Which Robbie Anderson are we getting, the 90-catch version or the 50-catch version? Will Laviska Shenault Jr. pick things up quickly enough to integrate himself into an offensive whole? Who emerges as the third and four options? (And can any of them be of assistance on special teams?)
You may have guessed it, but the correct answer to that at the moment is: "Don't know. Maybe. We'll see."
I know many fans are excited by our new look offensive line, but being a realist (some call it pessimism), I'm not sure how easy it is to fix a line as underperforming as ours was last year in just one off-season. If it was, every team would have a stellar O-line. So my question is, where do you expect our line to rank among the league? I know last year we were around 26th at best, but hopefully that jumps up to 17-20 this year. — Grant, Columbus, OH
Former and current Ohio residents, right out of the chute this week. I sense what could be a theme this year.
Thinking back on last year, 26th might be generous. Grant, you hopeless optimist. I mean, 14 starting lineups in 17 games was not an ideal situation, to put it mildly.
And this one is absolutely more talented. Have they fixed everything? Not yet. Ikem Ekwonu gets to play his first NFL game against one of the league's top pass-rushers in Myles Garrett. Not ideal. Brady Christensen is less than a month into his new identity as a full-time guard after spending his college career and a lot of last year at left tackle. Pat Elflein's starting at center, as his competition with Bradley Bozeman was won sort of by default, after Bozeman missed a couple of important weeks with an ankle injury. The right side appears solid, but Austin Corbetts wife had a baby this week, so God knows if he's sleeping at all.
That's a long way of saying there's still work to do, but the hope is that this group is largely assembled and can grow together. It takes more than an offseason to turn a bunch of dudes into a cohesive whole, no matter how good those dudes are. It takes more than a season to become a really good group, actually. They have the kind of parts they need (and some young guys to develop, like Cade Mays, who could end up being a starting center someday). Now they have to grow together and actually do the thing. But it could reasonably become a middle-of-the-league group now, and depending on Ekwonu's progress toward his ceiling, possibly something greater down the road.
Having James Campen around to coach this bunch is also a key component. For years in Green Bay, he was used to taking a lot of fourth-rounders and below and turning them into really good lines. Now he gets to work with a group that's practically pedigreed (a first, two seconds, and two thirds, none drafted lower than 70th overall). He's a very good coach, and with time could turn this into a solid unit.
I asked this back when you started the Mailbag, but I'm sure you got slammed with questions then. So, I'm trying again. What's an average day like for these guys during the regular season? Treatment? Weight room? Meetings? Practice(s)? Media? Food? We get to see a small portion that the media provides us, but we always hear the "he's the first guy in and the last guy out" stuff, so, what does that really mean? And we definitely always heard that Luke Kuechly was there watching film late at night. So, what do they DO during the day? Thanks, man! I'm excited for the '22 Panthers! — Dave, James Island, SC
It's a lot of stuff, trust me, and you're right that seeing a few minutes of practice footage isn't even the tip of the iceberg.
Monday wasn't a normal day per se, more of a chance to get back in the groove after their last three-day weekend before December, but it does provide a glimpse of what an "extra" day entails.
The weight room and the cafeteria were open at 6:30 a.m. There were people lined up when it opened, as there always are; it's a morning crowd. At 8:15 a.m., there was a 40-minute walk-through, which is effectively a preview of the day's practice, conducted at a slow pace while wearing shorts and t-shirts. After that, there's a two-hour window for offensive/defensive meetings and lifting (offense and defense alternate hours, so the weight room doesn't get overcrowded). Then a 20-minute meeting of the full team, followed by a 40-minute meeting for those involved in special teams (which is most of them). That gets you to 12:20 p.m., and it's already been a day.
There's food available afterward, but nobody fills up since practice was an hour-long event starting at 1 p.m. After practice is when most guys eat lunch, and that coincided with the time the media was allowed in for the first open locker room period of the year. There would generally be positional meetings after that and treatment, but Monday wasn't a normal day.
There are always players hanging around watching film on their own, and there are always guys talking ball. McCaffrey and Mayfield have thoughts about which plays they like, and they discuss it by the coffee machine the way we would talk about last night's game. Conversations like that are pretty common throughout the day. Kuechly was super into football, but it's not like he's an outlier, necessarily.
Usually, during the regular season, players are done with meetings by around 5 p.m. and headed for the door unless they're around getting extra treatment, though schedules can vary from year to year. But generally, it's a before-breakfast-to-dinner kind of day.
Could you please shed some light into the process of determining a player's workload? Is there any collaboration with the medical team and/or sports-science analytics taken into consideration? There should be more than one input that tells staff it's negligent not to change Christian McCaffrey's game-day workload by reducing his meaningless snaps, but it doesn't sound like there's any attempt to mitigate his injury risk. If that's the case, I suppose you can continue to call CMC's injuries "unlucky" as it sure is unlucky he'd end up with a staff that doesn't understand they're mismanaging him into soft-tissue injuries that have plagued him the last two seasons. Reduced practice reps are great. Seriously, Derrick Henry's had rest days for the last two to three seasons! Practice is but one piece of a player's workload - and it's all for naught if the Panthers continue to overuse CMC on game day. — Valerie, San Antonio, TX
The short answer to your first question is: Yes. A lot.
The one thing I can absolutely tell you is there's nothing cavalier about it. Players wear GPS tracking devices which offer an incredible amount of data in terms of not just the number of reps a guy gets, but the intensity of those reps. That's one piece of a much larger puzzle.
Mentioning Derrick Henry also brings up a valuable component this year — having D'Onta Foreman around. A big back such as Foreman offers a true complement to McCaffrey in terms of style, so there ought to be a chance to distribute the labor during games. A wider array of receiving targets (both in number and style), and a more cohesive offensive plan should also help.
But here's the trick. Christian McCaffrey is really good at football. Letting the people who are good at football do more football things generally enhances the chance of winning football games. So when head coach Matt Rhule said "we're going to play him," it's not that they're willingly throwing the guy in a wood-chipper; it's that they're trying to gain yards and score touchdowns, and he's very good at both of those things. Also, he wants to, as often as possible. At the same time, no one is more interested in McCaffrey's longevity than McCaffrey himself.
And you may not want to hear it, but dumb luck is always an underestimated part of football. There's no amount of training or tracking that keeps a dude from falling across the back of your leg in a pile. It's unfortunate, but that's also part of the business.
What's the long-term vision for our receiver room? What's the hierarchy? Who's WR 1, 2, 3, and 4+ this season? Can C.J. Saunders become a mainstay if he balls out later in the season (a possibility considering he was making "Pro Bowl plays" in camp pre-injury)? Seems like an awfully crowded room looking long-term, as you don't want to part with Rashard Higgins because he has chemistry with Baker, and Shi Smith, Terrace Marshall Jr., and Laviska are your young developmental pieces, and you need two set guys, presumably DJ and Robbie. If you acquire more talent through the draft, trades, and free agency, the room would be so deep you have to end up parting with guys you had a long-term vision for. So is the long-term philosophy just to keep stacking good players and let them battle it out, parting with the lesser of the good players? Because that's what it looks like. — Agam, Charlotte
In a perfect world, that's the way you kind of want it, a blend of guys at different points in their careers (unless you want to end up like Appalachian State, graduating all your receivers at once so you throw big passes to talented but untested kids, wait where was I?). You can't have a bunch of guys whose contracts expire at the same time if you want to create any kind of year-to-year development of the offense as a whole.
With Moore and Anderson and Higgins and even Shenault (who has played a lot of football), they have some reasonably proven guys to put out there right now. Marshall and Smith are still learning how to do this, so it's unclear how much action they'll get right now. (Especially with Andre Roberts here to handle returns.) All seven of these guys are not getting a uniform this weekend (stay tuned to Panthers.com at 11:30 a.m. Sunday for the inactives).
Moore's a long-term piece here; we know that for sure. Shenault on two more years of a rookie deal and their own picks, and the practice squaders keep the pipeline stocked. That's the goal at every position, really.
With all the DT's we have and many of them having experience in the 3-4 defense, will we see more 3-4 looks instead of 4-3 looks when we go into the base defense, because it seems so? — Kenneth, Bristol, TN
Again, all shapes and sizes.
The Panthers play a variety of defensive fronts anyway (including some Bear fronts, where linemen are covering the center and both guards), so having some contrast in styles is necessary. Bringing in big ol' Henry Anderson to play defensive end adds to that versatility.
They got caught small last year, with Brian Burns and Haason Reddick on the field at the same time and guys their size behind them. This year, there's more diversity of shape in that defensive line room, which ought to help with the run defense.
I would like to know if you like my idea for having two bye weeks during the season, instead of a holiday week to start the season and a seemingly random bye during the season? I have followed you since you started at the Rock Hill Herald and have enjoyed your writing and witty (if a little crotchety) comments. Thanks for bringing a laugh, or at least a smile, to my face on many, many occasions. Since I feel I know you, I know you are a smart guy, and therefore, I'll let just give you the facts of my proposal and let you draw your own conclusions.
- I propose that every team should have two bye weeks. One on either Week 6 or 7 and one on either Week 13 or 14. This means that there will be only eight games on Weeks 6, 7, 13, and 14.
- All the teams in each division will have the same bye weeks.
- When a division has a bye week, the corresponding division in the other conference shall play that week. For example, when the NFC South has a bye week, the AFC South will be playing and vice versa.
- On the weeks where a division plays while its corresponding division is on a bye, the teams in that division should play each other. So, when the AFC South is on bye, the Panthers will play another team from the NFC South.
That's it. Here is basically what it would look like. During the season, there will be four weeks affected by byes. Each of those weeks will have eight games. These games will be 2 "rivalry" games per region (north, south, east, and west) of the US.
Darin, if you are still reading this, I hope this has intrigued you enough to start thinking of the impact this change (both positive and negative) would have on the league in four areas:
- Physical and mental health of players and coaches
- Competitive advantages
- Job of the schedule makers.
P.S. On hearing that the NFL season would have four bye weeks in which a full half of the players are out, most Fantasy players will initially be aghast. However, if you play Weeks 6 and 7 and then Weeks 13 and 14 as if they are one week each, the bye week chaos is met with order. In fact, you would never even have to consider bye weeks ever. — John, Kannapolis, NC
I'm going to congratulate John on a couple of things, including kissing up to the host. But also for thinking outside the box. This is like 400 words of "listening to Art Bell while driving an overnight long-haul truck full of produce and possibly meth" sort of outside-the-box, but still.
This question/answer blew my mind. It also seems crazy on its face but seems reasonable after a long weekend and a long preseason. I love outside-the-box thinking (I also value a good box sometimes, because when you have many small and loose items, what you really need is a squarish vessel with a bottom to hold them all).
In general, I think more bye weeks are good, for them and me. I'd happily sign up for a President's Day Super Bowl if it meant my next weekend off wasn't in December. On the other hand, having experienced a few Labor Day weekend Saturdays since they moved cut day to the Tuesday before, you'll pry that one from my cold, dead hands.
Until I can process this more fully, I will say I'm intrigued. Additionally, I'll say I'm forwarding this to the powers that be at 345 Park Avenue. And also the FBI.
John, you're a genius. A possibly insane genius, but one that needs to be clothed for the good of society. Thus — and because this is the longest question in the history of this column — I'm making you this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and will be getting the appropriate honorarium coming your way soon.
Everything has a different feel this year. I think perhaps the new coaching staff makes a big difference. I even have some anticipation that we may actually utilize the tight ends this season, which makes a big difference. The mostly new offensive line makes me smile occasionally. My question is have we done enough to get us over the hump? The first four or five games are crucial as they offer a less-difficult beginning to the season. Thank you for the wonderful insight you bring to us with every Mailbag. — Stephen, Columbia, SC
Don't know. Maybe. We'll see.
But yes, the difference in this coaching staff is easy to get lost this week when it's all Baker, Baker, Baker.
Secondary coach Steve Wilks (a former Browns coordinator) was asked about Mayfield last week, and casually dropped an, "I'm sure he has a chip on his shoulder — as we all do."
Not that Wilks has a particular ax to grind, but there's a lot of cross-pollination among coaches anyway (newcomers Campen and Chris Tabor are also former Browns assistants). And the additions of those guys and Ben McAdoo and Paul Pasqualoni added a gravity to this staff you can feel. It's more experienced (more than twice as many years in the league as Rhule's first staff), and that matters.
As for the tight ends, that one's still in development. Getting Ian Thomas back on the field helps the run game as a blocker, but we're still waiting for him to truly turn into the pass-catcher the evidence suggests he could be. Will Tommy Tremble do more this year? It would certainly help. Still waiting to see if Giovanni Ricci will be ready from the opener after a preseason groin injury, which puts a demand on Stephen Sullivan to show up, at least on special teams. It's a group with versatility and potential, if not a known pass-catching commodity.
I would like to know of the players we cut, who was picked up by other teams. Thanks, and I really enjoy reading "Ask the Old Guy." — Linda, Charlotte
With practice squads staying at 16 this year, a lot of them ended up back here (13 of the 16 were in camp with the Panthers).
The Seahawks claimed defensive end Darryl Johnson off waivers when the Panthers kept six defensive tackles on the initial 53-man roster and just four defensive ends.
Rookie cornerback Kalon Barnes elected to sign with the Dolphins practice squad, and as stacked as the cornerback room here is, it's hard to blame him.
Still waiting to hear if Daviyon Nixon gets claimed after he was waived Monday; we'll know that later this afternoon. [UPDATE: Nixon cleared waivers and was re-signed to the practice squad.]
OK, let's go lightning round to close it out this week:
Is there a problem with the Mailbag this morning, or is it just me? I can see last week's but can't get today's. — Text from my mother at 11:04 a.m.
I'M WORKING ON IT MOM!
(For the record, my mom is the best mom, followed closely in the Top Five Mom Power Rankings by Your Mom, Florida Evans, Mother Fletcher's in Myrtle Beach, and Yo Mama jokes).
Also, call you soon Mom; the kids are great. Thanks for the card. Love you.
Darin, hope you got the crystal ball handy. We have a united football team. We outclass the Browns in this area. Will we start off the season with a big W. Keep Pounding. — Will, Mayberry, NC
This was not phrased in the form of a question Will, but it's Week 1, be fired up.
Also, like Ben McAdoo, my crystal ball's in my other pants. (Not the same pants as Ben, for the record.)
Watching NFL football used to be as simple as turning on the TV. Now, there are so many choices, and I cannot figure out which is best to watch Panthers football from Asheville. Neither CBS nor NBC list Asheville in the charts provided. HELP!!! — Vic, Weaverville, NC
Now that we're in the regular season, all the viewing options will change a little bit from the preseason. Every Wednesday, we'll put out a chart in our How to Watch story that shows where the viewing locations are for each NFL game in each time window. Asheville is nearly always in that mapped area, along with most cities in North and South Carolina, but it's always good to check that first on Panthers.com. We do it for the people.
Do you think you like the Matt Corral draft pick over the other QBs? Now that you have seen glimpses of all the young QB Talent, what QB should we have taken to develop behind Baker? — James, Kings Mountain, NC
Possibly still Corral; the rest of the class is TBD as well. I think he was a year away anyway, so while the injury was unfortunate, it also doesn't really set back the long-term timeline for him.
Which is another way of saying, ... wait for it, ... Don't know. Maybe. We'll see.