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What we learned at training camp in Spartanburg

Training camp

CHARLOTTE — There's still a lot of preseason to go, and some of the most important work is coming next week when the Panthers line up with the Patriots for a pair of joint practices.

But with 13 practices in Spartanburg in the books, there are a few patterns emerging and a few things we can safely say we've learned about the Panthers.

Here's a look at what stood out over the last two-and-a-half weeks:

— First and foremost, this is a more powerful football team than it was a year ago in a few key areas. (See, we tricked you by not starting with quarterbacks. We'll get there, we promise).

The offensive line has more quality players than it did last year, when they were pulling guys in off the streets to be able to play some games late in the season. That could be one of the most significant differences in the results of the team as a whole this year.

Ikem Ekwonu

First-round pick Ikem Ekwonu was drafted to play left tackle, and he will, though he's less than three weeks into his first camp. He still has some technical things to either learn or iron out, but when they're in pads, you notice the difference when he's on the field. He moves people, and that's the job. It also appears that right guard Austin Corbett and right tackle Taylor Moton are becoming a very good side of the line together. They're a well-matched pair, and Matt Rhule just declared Moton his camp MVP, saying he "has taken the next step to becoming the dominant player he's capable of, and his leadership is being felt."

There's still some sorting out to do at the other spots. Michael Jordan was claimed off waivers in September, started 10 games for them last year, and was capable at times. They're probably not going to claim a 10-game starter off waivers this year. Once Ekwonu firms up a starting job, Brady Christensen seems headed to left guard. The center competition continues. While Pat Elflein was often overmatched at guard, he's much better in the middle, with the kind of in-a-phone-booth strength and former-wrestler leverage that serves him well. He's the more athletic option, while Bradley Bozeman is stronger but a little less mobile. They also have a couple of young players in Deonte Brown and Cade Mays, who have flashed in camp. The massive Brown also has the gift of moving people, while Mays looks like a guy who could eventually become a starter in year two or three, and he has the ability to play four positions now, which helps.

That's a lot of words, but they have a lot more people this year. They needed them. The offensive line is the single biggest difference in this year's roster, and they spent resources there for a reason.

But the addition of bulk is a theme at a few other positions which could benefit them.

Damien Wilson is a bigger middle linebacker than they've had in recent memory, which fits well with some defensive tweaking. Last year's defense was built for speed, and it was fast. It was also susceptible to the run. Wilson helps, and if Yetur Gross-Matos takes the next step, it would definitely help stabilize the run defense.

Adding running back D'Onta Foreman also lends some heft to the offense, giving them a legitimate short-yardage back. The rest of the backfield is full of sprinters, and Foreman isn't slow, but he's looking like a guy you can hand it to on third-and-1 (with a better chance of better blocking in front of him, too).

— OK, you've been patient; we'll do quarterbacks now.

Early in camp, Sam Darnold was the more consistent of the two, because he had more exposure to the offense. But with every passing day, his four-month head start becomes less of an advantage.

Baker Mayfield has gotten progressively better as camp has gone on. He'll still take chances, and if he starts, he will throw picks (people sometimes forget, but Jake Delhomme threw a lot of picks too). But Mayfield is also making plays downfield on a more consistent basis now.

Rhule has mentioned several times in camp that only 12 teams played the same quarterback in all 17 games last year, so the numbers tell us they'll need both of them at some point. And when both quarterbacks got their sides into the end zone on a 30-seconds-from-the-30, need-a-touchdown-to-win drill Tuesday, it was encouraging. Darnold has made some plays too. But over the four-year span of their careers, Mayfield has objectively been the better of the two, so not hyperventilating over August reps would probably be wise.

Also, Matt Corral throws a really nice ball. Once he learns how to play in the NFL, he could be good. He's still learning how to play in the NFL, though. If he has time and stability around him, you could see him starting in the league at some point.

— If there's a quiet standout in camp, it has been safety Xavier Woods.

He brings a maturity to a young secondary because he knows how to communicate across the defense. But he's not just talking; he's making plays. Having him back there will also allow them a little more freedom to do things with Jeremy Chinn. Woods didn't get the most attention among some offseason acquisitions, but he could yield some of the biggest rewards.

— Christian McCaffrey, good at football.

— CJ Henderson, always talented. Getting better at football.

— Jaycee Horn, good at football. Bad at trying to sneak his way into more reps than they want him to take. To adopt the popular slang of the young people, he has a dog inside of him, or something.

Matt Ioannidis

— They are still thin at a few spots, and they'll have their eyes open for help over the next few weeks. The defensive line, in particular, could use a few more known commodities. When Matt Ioannidis has a day off, you can see a difference, and you see why they sniffed around some veteran options. And while the Marquis Haynes Sr. injury scare wasn't as bad as it looked (he only missed one day), they're still playing defensive end by committee, so they're keeping an eye on what's available, via trade or veteran free agents, or what comes through the waiver wire.

They're also running dangerously short of tight ends at the moment (three injured and another excused for personal reasons) and may need to make some moves there to keep Sam Tecklenburg from switching positions full-time.

— If you know for sure what the roster's going to look like at receiver, you're more knowledgeable than they are. With the C.J. Saunders injury taking him out three or four weeks, Shi Smith has a chance to earn a job. Rashard Higgins has been consistent in camp. Terrace Marshall Jr. flashes when he's on the field. Brandon Zylstra is a need because of his overall special teams ability. Andre Roberts is one of the best returners in the league, and they went out and signed him specifically for that reason. There are at most four and maybe only three jobs available for the above names (the roster spot for the third quarterback has to come from somewhere).

— We haven't written a lot about the specialists in camp, and on the whole, that's a good thing. We spent way too much time talking about kickers and punters last season (insert the Ryan Santoso meme here).

In Zane Gonzalez, Johnny Hekker, JJ Jansen, and new special teams coach Chris Tabor, they have a set of competent adults in that room who have track records of performing at a high level. As a society, we don't put a high enough value on consistent competence. We should. They're also funny, which isn't in the job description, but it's a nice fringe benefit.

View some of the best photos from training camp from photographers Chanelle Smith-Walker and Kenny Richmond.

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