OTA Observations: The battles begin

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CHARLOTTE - With Cam Newton not yet throwing passes at organized team activities, the three quarterbacks that all have reason to believe they could be Newton’s primary backup are getting extra reps.

“The biggest plus is that we’ve got three young guys that we think can help us and we’re giving them every opportunity,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “We’re rolling guys through – each guy is playing with a different group every day. That helps the guys around him.”

Taylor Heinicke, who was Newton’s backup all of last season when healthy, was first up in team periods Wednesday, but on opening day Tuesday that distinction went to Kyle Allen, who started Carolina’s last game of 2018. Both days, the man in the middle of the reps was rookie Will Grier, who is the first quarterback the Panthers have drafted since they selected Newton in 2011.

-All three quarterbacks had their moments during Wednesday’s unseasonably cool practice, but those charged with defending the pass enjoyed even more moments. The Panthers’ defensive backs (and linebacker Luke Kuechly) were aggressive to the ball, closing fast to bat away several passes.

Cornerback Ross Cockrell, coming off a season lost to injury, did one better with a perfect break for an interception on a quick pass attempt by Grier. Safety Rashaan Gaulden was all over the place – quite literally – making his mark at both safety and nickel corner.

“It’s good to watch Ross come back after what he’s been through,” Rivera said. “Rashaan played both safety and nickel for us, and I thought he did a nice job. Very enthusiastic. Working really hard. He’ll continue to work at both spots.”

-Rivera added that Gaulden has “to be careful when we’re out there,” a reference to Gaulden knocking the ball out of Heinicke’s hand in the pocket on a blitz – a no-no with the quarterbacks in red jerseys. Rivera later called rookie pass rusher Brian Burns over when Burns did much the same to Grier, although Burns’ maneuvers to get close to the quarterback so quickly in the first place certainly were a positive.

-Rivera worked to push the pace throughout team periods, prodding the offense to get into and out of the huddle quickly.

-With Newton unable to utilize his deep ball ability much of last season, it felt almost novel to see some long passes uncorked Wednesday. Heinicke let one fly to Alliance of American Football product Rashad Ross, who appeared to have a step on corner James Bradberry, but the ball sailed too far for anyone.

-Later, a Heinicke deep ball almost appeared to be intended off of his hand for Jackson, who played center field to perfection and came away with an interception to go with the one he recorded during the first OTA on Tuesday. Heinicke came right back with a really nice deep connection with Curtis Samuel between two defenders, a play that fired up Newton on a mostly reserved day for him.

-Wide receiver Chris Hogan appears to be bonding with his new teammates and is already making plays like he did for his old team. One play after Hogan and corner Corn Elder joked around after Elder held his ground in coverage, Hogan got ahead of Cockrell in the right flat and made the catch of the day, stretching to get a hand on a Grier pass and tapping it up a couple of times before securing it.

“He’s a guy that was a part of something very special in New England,” Rivera said. “Hopefully that kind of rubs off on our guys. I think a guy like that really adds to the mix.”

-During the first of two team periods, construction crews started laying down sod mere feet from the sideline of the one field currently available for practice as work on a practice field bubble continues.

“It’s fascinating. Did you guys watch them putting the sod down? I think that was the highlight of the day,” tight end Greg Olsen joked. “Watching that guy drive that little truck and put sod down 18 inches at a time was mesmerizing. And then the machete guys, the rake guys! These guys are serious. It’s pretty impressive.”

-Special guests at practice included Rob Chudzinski and Harold Varner III. Chudzinski, a Norv Turner protégé who was Rivera’s first offensive coordinator from 2011-12 before leaving for the Browns’ head coaching job, last served as the Colts’ offensive coordinator in 2017. Varner, who hails from just down the road in Gastonia, was in the final pairing at last week’s PGA Championship before falling off the pace.

“We talked about what happened at the PGA,” said Rivera, who put on a T-shirt after practice featuring the “Gerard” character that serves as Varner’s head cover. “He said it was really cool because it was great to see the fruits of his labor from all the stuff he’s been working on and practicing to finally be able to put it together. He did it for three rounds. Unfortunately in the fourth round he struggled a little bit, but he said it’s an experience of learning.”

View photos from practice as the Panthers go through drills on the second day of OTAs.

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