The next chapter of the offseason begins this week with organized team activities – a series of practice sessions over the next three weeks that allow the Panthers’ offensive and defensive units to line up against each other for the first time in 2019.
It’s hard not to get excited about seeing first-round pass rusher Brian Burns line up against a revamped offensive line or seeing rookie Will Grier stare down an NFL defense for the first time. It’s also not hard to fall into the trap of making too much of what’s happening.
No live contact is allowed during OTAs, and pretty much any snap might have turned out differently if contact were allowed. And this is the first time Carolina’s offseason additions and returning players will line up for each other, so the coaches will be trying a lot of different looks. They don’t even know at this early juncture which combinations will click and which ones will eventually be scrapped.
But regardless of whether what we see over the next few weeks proves to mean much come September, we can’t help but wonder. So here are some storylines to follow – even if this is just the beginning of the story.
Tracking the quarterbacks
Cam Newton draws plenty of eyes under normal circumstances. These are not normal circumstances. Newton is coming of a procedure to repair his throwing shoulder after soreness sidelined him for the final two games last season. All reports have been positive about his progress, but we don’t know how active his arm will be in OTAs.
Common sense suggests that there will be plenty of snaps taken by his backups, and that’s certainly worth watching. The race for No. 2 behind the Panthers’ No. 1 is filled with candidates and intrigue, featuring the first quarterback that Carolina has drafted (Grier) since selecting Newton in 2011 and the two quarterbacks who started in Newton’s stead late last season (Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen).
A lot of eyes will gravitate to Christian McCaffrey’s arms – the bulked up ones that even caught the attention of GQ. But the running back situation beyond McCaffrey is worthy of attention, also the lack of allowable contact means the real competition will have to wait until camp.
It’s a touch different at wide receiver, which is always a fun position to track and also ranks as an OTA favorite as pass catchers and defensive backs square off. The departure of Devin Funchess via free agency further handed the reins over to DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. The other top returners are Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright, but keep an eye out for two more veterans Carolina brought in (Chris Hogan, Aldrick Robinson) as well as seventh-round draft choice Terry Godwin.
Drawing a line in the sand
There’s no question that the offensive line has a chance to be really good and deep after an active offseason, but how will the pieces fit together? Matt Paradis at center and Trai Turner at right guard appear to be givens, but how will three talented players all capable of lining up at tackle (Taylor Moton, Daryl Williams, second-round draft choice Greg Little) actually line up come Week 1?
Don’t expect the final answer to be revealed during OTAs, but the search for the best solution will begin in earnest.
Diagramming the defense
While the offensive front is about who will line up where, the defense will continue figuring out how it will line up. Draft picks Burns and Christian Miller, as well as free agent addition Bruce Irvin, have been listed as linebacker/defensive end by the team. That’s because head coach Ron Rivera wants to keep opposing offenses guessing with more multiple and possibly more disguised defensive looks up front.
How those three players as well as the likes of second-year players Jermaine Carter and Marquis Haynes will be used in 2019 is up in the air, and that’s how Rivera wants to keep it. So as much as anything at OTAs, drawing conclusions from how Carolina lines up its front seven could be fool’s gold.
Last line of defense
While James Bradberry and Donte Jackson at outside corner and Eric Reid at one safety spot appear set in stone, things appear relatively rocky at the other safety spot and at nickel corner. But the Panthers showed plenty of faith in the options already on the roster by recently releasing veteran safety Da’Norris Searcy and then filling the final couple of spots in the 90-man roster with offensive players.