CHARLOTTE — One of my low-key favorite things about this job is walking through empty stadiums, on game days or offseasons. The scope of a place comes through when it's not filled with fans, and those quiet moments before games create the contrast which puts the excitement that follows into context.
And today, that's what Bank of America Stadium provides.
The place isn't totally empty (the grinders in the equipment room, athletic training, and other support staffers, [along with ahem, the digital department] are here getting ready for training camp), but for the most part, the players, coaches, and scouts have cleared out. This is the five-week break before training camp, the preseason, and the 18-week march of a regular season.
So we take a breath. And today, it feels like the stadium has exhaled all at once.
It'll be full again soon enough.
But now, we look back on what we've learned over the offseason so far. Things are very different around here. A new coaching staff has created a different energy. Trading for Bryce Young has created a new excitement about the quarterback position, and a raft of offensive free agents provide an opportunity for an easier transition for him. A switch to a 3-4 defense brings a world of possibilities (and also more than a few questions).
And once we get to training camp, we'll start getting a better idea about the answers to all the questions.
But this is our chance to review the year to this point and to sift through a never-ending pile of mail. Let's get to it.
It has been said that The Panthers are not Super Bowl contenders yet. Would a trade for pass rusher Danielle Hunter from the Vikings change that? — Paul, Corpus Christi, TX
There's actually a lot to unpack in that one, beginning with the question of team expectations and how hard this team should push the envelope this year. But mostly, this one can be explained by money.
For starters, I'm not even sure Hunter is actually available. Pass rushers of that quality are valuable commodities, and teams are loath to give them away. To make a deal like that, the cost would be steep, and the Panthers have already made a big trade using future draft picks (perhaps you've heard). And even if anyone traded for a player such as Hunter, the expectation would be the acquisition comes with a new contract for him.
The Panthers are working on a new deal for their own big-ticket pass-rusher in Brian Burns at the moment as well, and as tempting as it might be to imagine them together, that doesn't seem fiscally reasonable either. They want to keep him, and Burns wants to stay, so it feels like something that's going to work out.
I do think there's an interest in the market at the position. Adding another pass-rusher would help a number of things this defense is trying to do.
After watching six weeks of OTAs and minicamp, there are a few things you can pick up. Among the existing options they're trying to convert, it's probably fair to say Marquis Haynes Sr. is the furthest along the learning curve. He's an active pass-rusher anyway and has shown his value over the last few years as a situation substitute. If they had to play a game today (and it would be huge news if they did), it's reasonable to think he's starting in that spot opposite Burns.
At the same time, it's a little early to say that since we haven't seen any of them in pads. Because of the physical nature of the outside linebacker position in a 3-4, you're not going to get a perfectly accurate read on these guys yet. I want to see what rookie DJ Johnson looks like once the pads go on. The coaches who advocated for him believe he's the kind of physical player who will stand out then. If he shows up in camp and the preseason the way some of them expect him to, it's not inconceivable that he could be a starting-caliber player. He has the size and speed for it.
But I do think they're keeping an eye on the position. With a few veterans finding work recently (Leonard Floyd and Frank Clark), it's thinned a bit, but there are still some guys out there who could be of benefit to them. I expect they'll keep tabs on that market, and if they get a deal done for Burns before training camp, they'll have that much more flexibility to do something in the short term.
It looks like we are going to have a quarterback in place before training camp for the first time since you've started working for the team. What in the world are you going to write about? — Travis, Gastonia, NC
Still quarterbacks, probably.
Having a well-defined depth chart at the position will definitely not be consistent with my experience (having started this job in November 2020). It goes back further than that, since Pittsburgh 2018, really.
There's plenty of stuff to write about when we get to Spartanburg. Wofford consistently delivers storylines (and humidity).
There's a competitive situation at right guard, for instance (at least for the first few weeks of right guard). I know offensive line stories really move the needle, so that's just yellow journalism and a shameless quest for traffic on my part. I am not ashamed.
Seriously, there's all kinds of stuff to learn, and quarterback remains high on the list. Things will change for Young once he puts pads on, and the guys around him do too. He's still off-limits, as he'll wear the black jersey most days (the red ones will come back out when the Jets come to camp, just to make sure the visitors understand the rules).
But there's all kinds of stuff I can't wait to see develop. The wide receiver room will be deeper and more competitive than I think I anticipated early, as there are at least five guys with a shot at significant roles. The defense is still very under-construction, and they've already done stuff in practice to suggest they're adapting to the personnel rather than adapting personnel to a particular style (with a couple of particular players, Jeremy Chinn and Frankie Luvu, likely playing a number of parts). The deployment of the defensive line will be intriguing since Shy Tuttle can play all over the front, Marquan McCall could emerge as a reliable nose tackle, and Derrick Brown will adapt to a new responsibility. I could go on, and I haven't even gotten to how specialists JJ Jansen, Johnny Hekker, and Eddy Piñeiro spend their days (including the interminable waits between feedings).
There's a lot of stuff coming, and quarterback stuff will remain near the top of the pile because I like people to read this website.
Hi Darin! Although it can be considered normal or expected for a rookie QB, I'm curious to know if you saw many, few, or (hopefully) no plays of Bryce during OTAs/minicamp where you thought, "what was he thinking doing that?!?!" (In a bad way - like we unfortunately saw too many times done by Panthers' QBs the last few years). Hope you're allowed to answer that! Thanks. — Fernando, São Paulo, Brazil
Honestly, not all that many. Though I committed a journalism and found a potential flaw. In an EXCLUSIVE hallway interview yesterday, Young admitted limited experience in residential construction, but he's an eager learner.
On the field, the decision-making part doesn't appear to be a problem. There were times when Bryce would get frustrated in rookie minicamp when tryout guys couldn't match his pace of understanding, but the more work he's gotten with the regulars, the more comfortable he's looked there.
If anything, I was surprised with as many plays as I saw the defense make at times since non-contact drills aren't really designed for them to shine.
View photos of Bryce Young serving along with Lowe's employees as they worked together on a project for Habitat for Humanity.
Hopefully, you have the pants on with your crystal ball in your pocket. How do you see special teams working around new kickoff rules? — Will, Mt. Airy, NC
I've learned a few interesting things about special teams coordinator Chris Tabor in the last couple of years. One, he has a sharp sense of humor. Two, his dad was Panthers legend Mike Rucker's high school football coach. Three, he puts fewer miles on a car than practically anyone I've met. But mostly, he's not afraid to push the limits in the kicking game.
The new rule that offers the team a touchback and the ball at the 25 for a fair catch on a kickoff might not be of particular interest to him, considering his aggressive nature. Also, he has a couple of guys who have shown they can make a play in that phase of the game.
Running back Raheem Blackshear was quite good with the ball in his hands last year. He averaged 27.0 yards per return on the 19 chances he got. So the 25-yard line as a starting point might not be the attractive default position some think it ought to be.
And if a team tries to squib kick to the Panthers and make them return it, between Blackshear and Laviska Shenault Jr. (27.3 yards per attempt on his three returns last year), the Panthers have a couple of dudes with open-field running ability who could make some plays there.
Tabor's a disruptor in the truest sense, so shrugging his shoulders and letting that play be anticlimactic isn't in his nature.
Please tell me why Fan Fest is on Wednesday. As a fan who lives in Tennessee, I can't be there through the work week. I used to enjoy it on Saturdays, and it was OK on Friday evenings, but on Wednesday, I feel that it isn't for out-of-town fans. — Kenneth, Bristol, TN
Some of it has to do with the sequence of training camp and player days off. And some of it has to do with a new coaching staff's scheduling preferences. But some of it has to do with Beyonce, of course.
She's playing Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday, Aug. 9, and if you've seen any of the clips of previous concerts, you'll realize it takes more than 24 hours to set that production up. It's faster coming down than going up, so the stadium will be clear for the Aug. 12 preseason game against the Jets.
Maybe when she's finished with the show, she'll swing down to Spartanburg to catch that joint practice with the Jets while she's in town. If she (or anyone else) needs to check the camp schedule, the link is right here.
And Kenneth, while I can't offer you a ticket to the concert or a weekend night Fan Fest, I can make you this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and get the appropriate honorarium on the way to you soon.
Come to think of it; I'll make the same deal for Beyonce. I'll leave some of my merch for her here on my desk at the stadium. I know she's been dying for the chance to be a FOTM (such that she isn't already).
Hello, Darin, Not a question or even a barbecue recipe, but a shout-out to you, Augusta, Kristen, and the rest of your crew for all of the work you guys put in to keep us informed on all things Panthers! I was reminded last week of how valuable our Panthers.com page really is! Other social media sites are cool, but you guys really have the most accurate and up-to-date information out there. I bit the bullet and listened to The Happy Half Hour Podcast (I had so much rather read the printed word and usually steer clear of anything podcast-related). You guys really nailed it, and I didn't feel one bit of cringe. So thanks for all the long hours and written as well as spoken words and the incredible pictures! See you all in Spartanburg! — Susan, Inman, SC
We do it for the people. But especially Susan, because she's awesome and at training camp every day.
We're kicking around some new ideas for podcasts, and we'll be back soon enough with the HHH after a short break. It's a lot of fun, we even have our own sound effects.
But thanks for the kind words; we appreciate you for sharing your time with us, and we've got some cool stuff coming this summer that you'll all want to participate in.
Only the most preferred of the FsOTM get to ask questions on Twitter.
That's where Matt Ryan puts the alarm clock, so he doesn't start screaming in the middle of the night when it hits 2:32.
(Internal monologue: "They're going to get this, right?" "Who cares, tell the joke anyway.")
Let's go lightning round, brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, to close it out this week.
Will we have to wait 20 years again for new entries into the Hall of Honor? I think it's long overdue to add the likes of Moose, Mike Rucker, Brad Hoover, and John Kasay if you restrict it to people who have been retired for longer than five years from the league. I understand that COVID put a crimp in it, but don't you think the time is right, as the fanbase seems to be into the team once again? — Omer, Wilkesboro, NC
That is an interesting question, let me talk to the boss about it. Plenty of interesting names, the ones you mentioned and others. We could generate all kinds of summer content with the discussions about candidates and the order they'd go in alone.
Here's a question for the lightning round: what's the difference between OTAs and minicamp? — Scott, Cheshire, MA
Technically speaking, OTAs are voluntary, and the final minicamp of the year is mandatory. The realistic answer is not much since practically everyone was here all offseason anyway.
Why are the Panthers not re-signing Matt Ioannidis? That would seem to be a no-brainer. Is he asking for too much money, and they're slow-playing him until his price comes down some? — Dave, Hickory, NC
Not sure he's a great fit for what they want to do defensively now. Plus, he's turning 30 in January and has a grand total of 5.0 sacks in three years since the injuries that stopped his hot streak in Washington (16.0 sacks from 2018-19).
These free tickets for training camp (presented by Ticketmaster), are they actually free or are there all kinds of fees? — Will, Rock Hill, SC
Nah, man, this time, free means free. No fees or handling charges whatsoever, all you have to do is secure your free tickets. Did I mention they were free?
What's a tougher part of the offseason, the month of March or the month between OTAs and Training Camp? Sincerely, a man starved for content. — John, Matthews, NC
Man, I wish the month of March had been slow. Between free agency and the pro day tour, I saw my family for about five minutes. And if you could see the whiteboard in my office today, you'd know there's not that much time off between now and Spartanburg. Stay tuned; we've got some cool stuff coming I think you'll want to see (since you apparently missed the cool stuff in March).
What does a guy have to do to get lightning-rounded around here? Hey Darin, what's the best home game this year to go spend my hard-earned money on tickets to see Bryce and company embarrass the opposition? — Stephen, Durham, NC
Come to a game with people you love or your closest friends, plan some food and beverage options, participate in the communal experience, and the day will be well spent regardless of the result of the ball game.
You want specifics? Hang on, let me run downstairs to the football offices and ask somebody there. ... I'm back, they were all gone, so you'll have to ask again later.