CHARLOTTE — The Panthers value versatility on defense, and have several players who can play multiple roles.
And as the offseason has progressed, they've continued to add to what third-year defensive end Brian Burns is being asked to do.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said they've had Burns meeting with run game coordinator Al Holcomb on linebacker skills, in addition to his regular sessions with pass-rush specialist Don Johnson.
It's similar to the setup last year, when they took rookie Jeremy Chinn, and made Holcomb his personal coach as he transitioned from safety to linebacker.
"I just think he's like Chinn was last year; he's a position-less player," Rhule said.
Rhule said that Burns has developed into a player who can even play inside linebacker in certain packages, which allows them the ability to move from a four-man defensive front to a three-man front without substituting.
"This year, he can play inside backer position, he can cover backs out of the backfield, he can slide out and be an outside linebacker, he can be a defensive end in our four-down," Rhule said. "That gives us tremendous versatility without having to change personnel, and let them know what we're going to be in."
Burns had 9.0 sacks last year and just missed a few sacks late in the year, which would have pushed him into double digits. His speed and flexibility are not common, but Rhule said that Burns could do more for reasons that transcended physical ability.
"He's rare in every way," Rhule said. "He's a special talent. He's unbelievably smart and detailed, and has tremendous recall. That's fun as a coach. Coaches really enjoy coaching him."
— If anyone was looking for easy narratives Wednesday, such as quarterback Sam Darnold seeking revenge against the Jets or Christian McCaffrey seeking redemption after a year lost to injuries, they weren't finding them in the interview room after practice.
Both Darnold and McCaffrey were at their "one day at a time" best Wednesday, with Darnold in particular offering no bulletin board material.
When one reporter began by suggesting that the opener against his former team wasn't "just another game," Darnold replied: "But it is."
Asked if he didn't have enough help in New York in terms of protection or weapons on offense, he replied: "I didn't do my job to the best of my ability. That's all there is to it."
Asked what he enjoyed here that he didn't have in New York, Darnold said: "It's warmer here, that's pretty much it."
In terms of message discipline, Darnold was on his A-game.
Likewise, McCaffrey didn't get far beyond his general gratitude at being healthy again after missing 13 games last season.
"The best part about football is the guys, your teammates and the locker room and going out to practice," he said. "We've got a group of guys who have worked extremely hard to accomplish a goal, and now that the season is here, and that's the stuff you don't take for granted.
"Sunday's the fun part; you put the work in and let it roll. Definitely, you don't take anything for granted, this is a special league, and if you have the ability and opportunity to play in it, you definitely appreciate it."
— Rhule said they still wanted to be "cautious" when it came to McCaffrey's workload, though that's mostly a function of the burden his star running back is expected to carry.
They held McCaffrey out of all the preseason games, while the rest of the starters played a half in the final game.
"It's not even about not getting hurt, he's just going to take so many hits, so just saving those hits for the season," Rhule said. "We 'thud' him in practice, and he needs some contact, but I think Christian is full speed and ready to go, physically and mentally, and we're going to put him out there and play him."
— Rhule wasn't prepared to make a decision on a punt returner for Sunday, again mentioning practice squaders C.J. Saunders and Alex Erickson, along with starting wideout DJ Moore.
"We'd prefer to use him situationally, in crucial return situations," Rhule said of Moore, not wanting to offer up one of his top offensive players to what is often a high-exposure and low-value situation.
For a point of reference, the Panthers managed 117 total yards on 20 punt returns last year. So while it's an important job (you have to make sure you catch it), it's not something you make a priority.
— Tight end-turned-fullback Giovanni Ricci has another new number, settling into 45. He's worn 47 and 40 in practice as he converted, but perhaps putting him in Brad Hoover's old number will bring out the true fullback in him.
View photos from Wednesday's practice in Week 1 as the Panthers prepare to face the Jets.