Ten takeaways from 2021 training camp

Sam Darnold

CHARLOTTE — Training camp is over.

The work to build the 2021 Panthers continues.

And with a night to sleep on it (on an actual mattress), a few trends became apparent during the last month in Spartanburg and Indianapolis. Progress was made. Issues remain. How much of one or the other is a determining factor for the regular season remains to be seen.

But from the vantage point of having been there from the first day to the last, here are a few things that have stood out.

1. It's not about Sam Darnold

Every time a radio show calls to get an update on Panthers camp, the first question is practically always: "How's Sam looking in camp?"

And the answer is practically always: "Fine. Not amazing. Not awful. OK."

And that's OK, for now.

The Panthers did not trade for Darnold so he could single-handedly set the league on fire. What they really want to do is upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater, and do so by surrounding a talented young player with sufficient help so that he doesn't have to carry the entire load himself. See Christian McCaffrey? Please give it to him often. Darnold's personality also fits being one of 22 starters, rather than THE GUY. He kind of fits in that way with what head coach Matt Rhule is building.

He's actually looked quite good in two-minute work, though the successes there were often about getting the team into position for a game-winning field goal, as opposed to throwing 60-yard touchdown bombs.

He's not chucking it downfield very often, but he can. He's also not throwing a ton of "why-did-he-do-that" interceptions either. And that's the point.

If your hope is that Darnold throws for 4,000 yards and goes to the Pro Bowl, you're likely going to be disappointed. If it is for Darnold to keep the team in position to win because of all the stuff happening around him, there's a much better chance of that coming to fruition.

Is it a soft-bigotry-of-low-expectations situation? Maybe. Is the bar being placed at a level that Darnold can reasonably clear it and continue to build on his potential? Also possible.

2. The defense could actually be pretty good

The difference in the secondary alone is stark, to the point that it barely resembles last year's thrown-together mess, though half the starters remain.

Drafting Jaycee Horn and moving Jeremy Chinn back to his college position of safety adds immediate play-making ability to the back end.

They're also better equipped up front with pass-rushers, with Haason Reddick quietly fitting in opposite Brian Burns, and guys such as Morgan Fox, Marquis Haynes, Frankie Luvu and Yetur Gross-Matos giving them a depth they lacked last year.

They're thin at linebacker, but as long as the underrated Jermaine Carter and Shaq Thompson are on the field, the floor through which they might fall is at least higher than it was last year.

It's easy to see it being a top half of the league kind of defense, and it's clearly getting better.

3. They like their offensive line more than you do

Rhule may have offered the quote of camp when he compared his offensive line to the perpetual road construction in South Carolina.

"We're like I-85 on the way down here," he said. "We're under construction."

Rhule talks about his "best five" linemen a lot, and at the moment, that still includes left tackle Cameron Erving. Taylor Moton moving from right to left is a subject of continual fascination, but even though Erving is not universally loved by the people who rank players at PFF or by the popular consciousness, the team is choosing to see him as a glass-half-full.

Because of some schematic things they plan to do, they think his athleticism serves him well. He's never been a particularly durable player, but they're working on that too, and trying to keep his weight up and giving him time when he needs it.

It's not a sure thing, but they feel OK about him starting and Moton staying where he's best.

At the moment, Pat Elflein and John Miller are steady at the guards and Matt Paradis in the middle, but they have two stronger and larger guards in the pipeline in Dennis Daley and Deonte Brown, and Brady Christensen looked good in his rookie debut last week.

It's easy to see a situation this year or next when Elflein slides inside to center (Paradis is fine but in the final year of his contract), and either Daley or Brown takes over a guard job and doesn't give it back.

It's not a dominant group right now. It's also not necessarily worse than last year.

4. They also like their kicker more than you do

Joey Slye missed a 43-yard extra point last week, along with a 63-yard field goal, and that got people wondering if he's the guy again.

He's probably never going to be a Justin Tucker, the Ravens kicker who practically never misses, but Slye is likely better than anyone they could replace him with at the moment.

While the notion of bringing in competition for him gets traction whenever he misses something, the reality is, anyone who is qualified or better than Slye is already in an NFL camp.

Slye's still got one of the strongest legs in the game, and he's worked on his mental approach all offseason. It's not like they're lashing themselves to him for the next five years, but at the moment, upgrading at kicker is not one of the four or five most pressing needs for general manager Scott Fitterer.

5. It's still not a particularly deep team

We mentioned Carter and Thompson earlier. There's not really much of substance behind them at inside linebacker.

It might have been Denzel Perryman, but he hasn't made a great first impression this camp. He appears to be lighter than they'd prefer (both Carter and Thompson have mentioned adding weight this offseason), and he's barely practiced after a soft-tissue injury on the first day in pads.

The good news is, there's generally more of a supply of veteran inside linebackers than other positions, because it's a spot many teams try to get younger and cheaper at. Bringing in old-head Josh Bynes last week was a step in that direction, but Fitterer specifically mentioned that position as something he'll be looking at when other teams make cuts.

They'll also be looking at offensive linemen, and a few other spots over the next week and a half.

If the joint workouts with the Colts and Ravens proved anything conclusively, it's that those two teams are a year or two or five ahead of the Panthers in terms of roster construction, and it's most evident when the twos and threes are on the field.

6. The evolution of Jeremy Chinn continues

Yes, Chinn's a safety now. That's good for him and them, as the functional lifespan of 215-pound linebackers isn't as long as larger ones.

But they're also not nailing him to one spot.

Defensive coordinator Phil Snow said they still want to bring Chinn into the box, where he can make plays closer to the linebacker spot he occupied a year ago out of necessity.

They don't want to ask too much of a second-year player, but he's still very much going to be a major part of the game plan each week.

7. Breaking news: McCaffrey still good at football

It's easy to lose sight of certain things, when there's a lot of change or upheaval, especially when a certain player is understated off the field.

But you could see against the Colts and Ravens, that McCaffrey looks like himself again, cutting and popping through holes that do not exist for other backs.

He appears healthy, and as long as he stays that way, he's still a high-volume back who will make Darnold's life easier. Rhule remarked in camp that quarterbacks here are "blessed" with the ability to dump it off to McCaffrey if everything else goes wrong, and that doesn't oversell it.

Having McCaffrey around to touch the ball 350 or 400 times a year will make everyone's life easier.

Christian McCaffrey

8. The skill-position talent around him ain't bad either.

There weren't a ton of eye-popping highlights in camp.

Robby Anderson's oh-by-the-way one-handed catch was one of them.

This just in, Anderson's really fast. Along with the steady quality of DJ Moore and the emergence of tight end Dan Arnold as a downfield threat, and that McCaffrey guy, the Panthers have a good collection of players to give Darnold a chance to look good.

Terrace Marshall Jr. and Chuba Hubbard and Tommy Tremble look like rookies with something to offer, but at the moment, all three are blocked by pretty good veteran players.

9. They got reasonably lucky

One of the low moments of camp was losing cornerback Troy Pride Jr. to a torn ACL in the preseason game at Indianapolis. And while last year proved that you can't take secondary depth for granted, Pride was still fighting for a roster spot at the time of injury.

Likewise Keith Kirkwood, whose frightening concussion on Aug. 3 sidelined him for over two weeks.

Knock on wood, and don't blame me if this isn't the case all year, but the Panthers haven't had horrible injury luck this offseason, compared to other teams.

10. There's a reasonable chance at a good start

The Panthers don't have the luxury of looking too far ahead. They're not there yet.

But they open the regular season with the Jets and Saints at home, and then a trip to Houston.

The Jets are starting a rookie quarterback who has looked like a rookie, and they just lost their best pass-rusher (Carl Lawson) to a season-ending Achilles tear this week. The Saints are planning on either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill at quarterback, and they've already alienated star receiver Michael Thomas and who knows what's happening with him. The Texans are just a hot mess right now.

Again, the Panthers can't take anything for granted. They have issues of their own. But that's a more hospitable start to the season than a young team could reasonably expect.

View the best photos of Panthers 2021 training camp at Wofford from photographers Chanelle Smith-Walker and Angela Denogean.

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