The Panthers begin the third, final and most intense phase of their offseason program Tuesday with the start of organized team activities (OTAs), a four-week period of practices in which offense-versus-defense snaps will be allowed.
Here are five things to look for as the Panthers ramp things up a bit.
1. ANOTHER TEST TO PASS: The Panthers' pass defense will be under the microscope for the foreseeable future, and OTAs will give the coaching staff its best opportunity yet to see how bright the future is for Carolina's three drafted cornerbacks.
Still, there are limitations.
"As we start to get into the OTA and minicamp phase of it, then we'll get to see the competition part of it, but we've got to be careful," head coach Ron Rivera said. "There are rules that don't allow certain things. One of the big techniques you get from corners is being able to jam, and you can't during OTAs and minicamp. So what we'll be looking for really is the skill sets – watching them backpedal, watching them flip their hips, transition and drive."
Live contact won't be allowed until training camp, but this phase will at least pit James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez against veteran receivers in a "tag" version of game-like situations. OTAs will also provide a test for a safety group adjusting to life without the leadership of veteran Roman Harper.
2. CAM: The defensive backs will be at a disadvantage because of their inability to bump and run, but also because of the ability of the quarterback they'll be facing. Cam Newton is always a storyline, and that's certainly the case coming off an MVP season.
Newton set the tone for the special year both he and his team enjoyed in 2015 during last year's offseason program, and he'll be looking to create the same mentality during OTAs. The year ended on a down note with a loss in Super Bowl 50, but look for Newton to pick up where he left off after becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 30 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns in the same season.
3. END GAME: The limitations on physicality somewhat limit the ability to access how linemen perform in OTAs, but is it the next opportunity for Carolina's defensive ends to prove Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman right in their assessment that the position is in good shape without any offseason additions.
Among the veterans, it's a chance for Charles Johnson to show he's trending toward the player who had one sack in each postseason game as opposed to the player who had one sack during an injury-plagued regular season. Among the young players, it's a chance for them to show they belong. Ryan Delaire showed flashes as a rookie last season, while Rakim Cox and Arthur Miley enjoyed promising preseasons but are yet to earn regular season snaps two years into their careers. And could Larry Webster, a former fourth-round draft pick of the Lions also yet to play a snap two years in, be a diamond in the rough?
4. KICKING GAME: The next month provides a golden opportunity for Swayze Waters and Michael Palardy, the two punters signed by the Panthers this offseason, to put their best foot forward and prove that - as Gettleman likes to say – the answer is on the roster.
The Panthers signed Waters even before Brad Nortman, Carolina's punter the past four seasons, signed with Jacksonville. Waters' credentials (north of the border at least) are as intriguing as his name. He averaged 47.5 yards per punt over the past three seasons in the Canadian Football League, uncorking at least one 80-yarder each season. Palardy is a little less known but is younger by five-plus years and showed a knack at the University of Tennessee for placing the ball where he wanted it.
The next four weeks could determine whether Carolina is comfortable with its current options or needs to look elsewhere.
5. INJURY IMPACT: Rivera recently said that some players rehabbing from surgeries will be "very limited" at OTAs. It will be worth tracking whether wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin does much nine months removed from his knee injury and how involved linebacker Luke Kuechly and some others coming off recent shoulder surgeries are.
Though Kuechly never gets his fill of football, he obviously wouldn't be hurt too much by missing time. Benjamin would no doubt love to begin building rapport back with Newton, but he still has plenty of time. What might be more notable is whether any absences create opportunities for prospects trying to catch the coaches' eyes. The wide receiver room is particularly crowded now, with 14 players – including recent veteran signings LaRon Byrd and Tobais Palmer – looking for chances to impress.