For a team that has undergone so much change, the Carolina Panthers’ starting lineup is fairly set on both sides of the ball. Most of the team’s training camp battles will concentrate on depth areas—backups and farther down the depth chart.
Here’s a look at some of the training camp position battles to watch as the Panthers prepare for the 2020 season.
The Panthers were left with a giant hole in the unit when Luke Kuechly, the best linebacker and perhaps defensive player in franchise history, chose to retire early in the offseason. Shaq Thompson will shift to Kuechly’s role as the key of the defense. Tahir Whitehead was signed from the Raiders to fill another spot inside. That leaves the pass-rushing outside linebacker spots. Brian Burns, a hybrid OLB/defensive end, will man one. The other is yet to be determined.
Christian Miller opted out of the season due to COVID concerns, adding even more uncertainty.
Jermaine Carter and Marquis Haynes appear to be the two most likely options. Carter is a fifth-round pick from 2018 who has contributed as a backup in his two seasons. Haynes was a fourth-rounder that same year but has played half as much.
Also in the mix are 2019 backup Jordan Kunaszyk and 2020 second-rounder Yetur Gross-Matos.
The Panthers have a veteran leader at quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, perhaps the best running back in the country in Christian McCaffrey, and front-line talent at receiver in D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel and free agent pickup Robby Anderson.
Injuries are always a concern in the NFL, and with no one sure just how much of a factor the pandemic will be, depth is as important as ever. So many of the battles on offense will focus on the second-teamers at these key spots.
Will Grier was a third-round pick in last year’s draft, but that pick was made by the previous administration. Grier struggled in limited time on the field last season, and new coach Matt Rhule brought in his own guy — XFL signee P.J. Walker, who just so happened to play for Rhule at Temple.
“I think we really feel really good about that (quarterback) room,” Rhule said. “To have those three guys in the room — to have Teddy, who has been a starter and has won a ton of games. Will, who has had a lot of production, and P.J., who is really talented. To have those three guys, I think we are really blessed to have that room. So we are going to battle it out through camp. No preseason games, it will come down to each and every day during practice.”
McCaffrey has blossomed into a star at running back, and he’s gone from being considered undersized and an injury risk to an every-down center of attention. Still, injury and wear and tear need to be taken into consideration.
Battling to back up McCaffrey is a pair of returning backs in Reggie Bonnafon and Jordan Scarlett. The two combined for 20 carries last year as rookies, with Bonnafon getting the bulk. They’ll be pushed by five-year veteran Mike Davis.
Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady like to use a lot of receivers, so look for the players behind the top three to get plenty of targets.
In preparation for the new offensive scheme, Carolina brought in veteran talent to push Moore, Samuel and Anderson, including former Ravens receiver Seth Roberts and Pharoh Cooper, who spent time with the Rams, Bengals and Cardinals.
A dark horse in the battle may be undrafted rookie free agent Omar Bayless, who finished second in FBS in receiving yards last season at Arkansas State. Free agent Keith Kirkwood, another former Rhule player from Temple, is also in the mix.
The wide receiver pool is widened by Rhule and Brady’s willingness to use the tight end in the passing game.
The Panthers lost Greg Olsen in the offseason roster purge, but the team has two returnees in Chris Manhertz — who Rhule called “one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL” — and Ian Thomas. Temarrick Hemingway leads a group of people competing to be the third tight end, which Rhule promises will be a key spot in the offense.
“We are taking Joe’s [Brady] offense, which is more three receivers. And I come here from Baylor, which is more three and four receivers. Even going back to Temple with 22 personnel,” Rhule said. “With that, I think that tight end position is really critical.”