CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are far from a finished product.
But if there's a lesson to be learned after watching three weeks of OTAs and a minicamp that allowed them to ease into their summer break, it's that they're getting closer to where they want to be.
When Panthers head coach Matt Rhule was asked about the state of his team after the offseason work, he reflected on a conversation with Hall of Fame coach Dick Vermeil, on how you could tell when a roster was actually getting better.
"I remember him (Vermeil) telling me that when he was making their 53 cut, he was proud that they never went out and took somebody from another team," Rhule said. "He coached the guys he trained. Sometimes that's the difference between personnel and coaching staff. The coaching staff is like, we've invested five months in this guy, we'd like to coach him during the season. Personnel will say, this guy is a little bit better, maybe. So as your roster gets better, those conversations are less and less, because it's harder to pick someone up from another team who's better than someone you have.
"Our depth has gotten better. The amount of guys we've gotten has gotten better. Even in the draft, we were very specific; we don't need a ton of guys. This year it was targeted.
"I'm hopeful that we don't have to at the 53 go out and bring in three or four guys, that we're happy with the team that we have. But also knowing that we'll do whatever it takes to make the team better."
Of course, that leads into the first big question that's on everyone's minds — their continued search for a long-term answer at quarterback.
They've been looking for three offseasons now, and the search continues. While Rhule said incumbent Sam Darnold was "night and day" better this spring than he was a year ago, he also made it clear they're not settling with what they have.
If an upgrade is available, they won't be afraid to try to make it. If one is not, Darnold has shown signs that he's more ready to fight for his own job.
The biggest difference, however, is everything around that quarterback.
This offseason was a fruitful one. They knew they needed to address the offensive line, and they did in free agency and again with first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu. They filled some key spots on defense with established veterans. As a result, they're deeper than they were a year ago, though there are still some spots that are reasonable to worry about.
They're still a little short on bodies on the defensive line, and have looked around. Veteran Carlos Dunlap was in recently for a visit and remains an option. They could stand some reinforcements in the middle of the defensive line as well, and that search will continue.
Otherwise, the progress Rhule alluded to is real. The offensive line is something resembling deep. That clearly wasn't the case last year, when they claimed Michael Jordan off waivers when the Bengals cut him, and he ended up starting. This year, they're choosing starters from good options rather than making the best of what's available, as they did last year when they started 13 different combinations of offensive linemen in 17 games (that's bad).
Here's a look at some of the other lessons learned this spring, as they get ready for their summer break:
— It's tempting to dismiss the praise of Darnold as coachspeak, but he's clearly had a better offseason.
Part of that stems from him spending more time here, absorbing new coordinator Ben McAdoo's playbook. It's not that he didn't study a year ago, but this work has been more focused.
Darnold has always had the talent to play the position, but on the field (in shorts and against a defense that doesn't get to hit), he has been better. Specifically, he connected on more deep balls as the sessions wore on. There was more of a sense of presence from him. One day during OTAs, when practice got a little loose, Darnold called the team to huddle up, and they responded. It was the kind of thing a leader does. Rookie Matt Corral also said Darnold had been a good mentor for him, helping him understand the (vast) differences between the college game and his new role.
Darnold still has a lot to prove. But to dismiss the progress he's made would be unfair.
— Rhule hedged a bit Thursday when asked about the construction of his offensive line, and for some reason, a lot of people still wonder where Ekwonu is going to play.
While last year's last left tackle Brady Christensen has had a good (unpadded) offseason, Ekwonu was chosen sixth overall for a reason, and it wasn't to play guard (though he probably could).
Ekwonu even added some flair to Thursday's final practice by catching a touchdown pass, creating quite a stir among his teammates and those watching. Again, that's not why he's here, but it is a sign of the kind of athleticism he has.
— While offensive line depth is a new thing, secondary depth remains a positive here.
CJ Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr. both had solid springs, building on last year's work. Henderson's a former top-10 pick with the athletic profile that comes with that status, but he's more comfortable now, and settling in nicely.
Along with veteran Rashaan Melvin and newcomer Chris Westry (a unique size-speed guy who could be a good special teams player), and fast rookie Kalon Barnes, the Panthers have a lot of interesting options there.
— The coaching staff was high on C.J. Saunders early on, and the former undrafted rookie from Ohio State spent most of last year on the practice squad.
He spent most of the spring this year making plays, including beating Horn for a touchdown one afternoon during OTAs.
Saunders has gone from a fringe prospect to someone who has developed in a year, and the attention he'll get in training camp will be taken more seriously.
Their depth at wide receiver is a curious thing, because starters DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson didn't do all that much this week. That left a lot of reps for guys such as Terrace Marshall Jr., Rashard Higgins, and special teamers Andre Roberts and Brandon Zylstra, among other younger options. There's some projecting going on when they watch the young receivers, and that's a spot that could be one they continue to watch (though veteran upgrades are few, as that market has gotten much more expensive).
— It's worth saying again, this isn't a finished product. But from the roster additions to a more-experienced coaching staff, they're clearly in a better place now than in June 2021.
View photos from Wednesday's second minicamp practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.