18 months removed from the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers are in a jarringly different place. The franchise that just endured a stunningly chaotic offseason will be counting on its two most important players to bounce back seamlessly from injury and must find a way back from last year's 6-10 debacle in a division where at least two of the three teams they need to leapfrog figure to be even better than last season.
Not ideal to say the least, but from year to year, there's truly no predicting the NFL. Actually, let me walk that back. We can predict what'll happen in New England and Cleveland. Everyone else is in the murky middle, including the Panthers.
There are a multitude of storylines to follow as Camp Wofford kicks off Tuesday in Spartanburg. Here are the 11 that I'll be watching most closely:
1) Nobody talks about distractions quite like an NFL team. Distractions are to be avoided at all costs, because they interfere with the other all important word and concept: execution. You can't EXECUTE when you have DISTRACTIONS. So, when you've lost your team President, Assistant GM, Defensive Coordinator, General Manager and Director of Pro Personnel in the span of a few months - THAT'S A HUGE DISTRACTION. The Panthers are probably not a team in freefall, but they've certainly got some of the hallmarks. I'll be interested to see how Marty Hurney assimilates himself back into the team in Spartanburg and how often we see the Big Cat himself, Jerry Richardson.
2) Relatedly - Thomas Davis spoke of the need for he and the other team leaders to rally the troops in the face of all the front office uncertainty. You guessed it, he wants to prevent - distractions - and feels that's on the leadership of the team first and foremost. That might partially explain Greg Olsen's decision not to hold out (No). It might also be completely unrelated (Yes). I don't know because I haven't spoken to Greg Olsen since a falling out in high school when he asked my girl to prom*. (*Not factual) (Also - I don't really believe he was ever going to hold out) (I have almost used up all my parentheses on these few sentences)
3) Cam Newton should be fine, but until I see that in a game, I'm certainly not taking it for granted. It will be worth noting how much work (read: contact) he gets in Spartanburg and once the preseason games are underway. The temptation has to be there to keep him in plastic wrap until the season starts, but I don't imagine that'll be the reality. As Cam always says - that's probably up to Head Trainer Ryan Vermilion. Once he's back, how will he play? I don't think we can assume he'll immediately rediscover his once incandescent ability to take over the game.
4) The other obvious eyeballs will be on Luke Kuechly, who made it clear long ago that he's fully out of craps to give when it comes to discussing concussions, the frequency thereof and how they may effect his career/life going forward. 59 just wants back in and you have to believe he'll blow the door and opposing offenses down in the process. It's impossible for me not to view him as slightly more brittle than before though. As much as Luke has moved on, I can't erase the sight of him crying on that injury cart.
5) Christian McCaffrey is a good football player from Stanford. The Panthers are hoping that he will be good for them too. Jokes aside, we're all going to be craning our necks to see how the Cardinal kid is utilized both in camp and in the preseason games. He was an every play gamebreaker in college and that's some electricity the Panthers could certainly use. Curtis Samuel also fits here. Always fun watching the new guys.
6) Kelvin Benjamin belly watch. I'm assuming KB has slimmed since Paunch Watch in the summer. As has been well-documented, looking like a #71 seems to be a recurring issue with #17. To be fully weaponized, Benjamin obviously has to be in shape. He's a deadly end zone weapon when he's on, something the Panthers (and every team) need.
7) The Panthers added 100% more Kalil over the summer. While Ryan is a stalwart at center, his little bro is looking for a fresh start with his move to Charlotte. We should see some early indications good or bad in the coming days/weeks. It's too important a position not to get right, especially with a fresh off injury Cam depending on that protection. While it never quite clicked for Kalil in Minnesota, the Panthers bet $50M plus that Kalil will be their guy. Dave Gettleman did, anyway.
8) it never occurred to me while watching Graham Gano miss at Mile High vs the Broncos in last year's season opener just how south the season would go for Gano and the team. It turned out to be an early indication though that the magic dust of 2015-16 had floated away. Gano wasn't good enough last year and as a result, watched his employers use a 7th round pick on a boot.
Harrison Butker of Georgia Tech is the opposition. Training camp kicker battles add a bit of spice to the proceedings. Both guys will be under the gun, we'll see who steps up.
9) Julius Peppers is back home in his rightful Panthers jersey. Just how much petrol is left in the tank is the question that needs answering. it won't happen in camp as it's probably a safe bet that he'll spend large swaths of Spartanburg on rest days. It's also a safe bet that "PEPP! PEPPERS! JULIUUUUUUS!" will be one of the most popular shrieks from the fans on the days he is in attendance.
10) TJ, ahem, Trevor Graham tries to jumpstart a stalled NFL career. It was nice of the Panthers to giftwrap an easy story for us Triangle folks on the eve of camp. TJ, ahem, Trevor is surely a longshot to make the team, but it'll be an interesting conversation with him about what's happened in the years since he was drafted by the Bills.
11) When in Spartanburg, visit Gerhard's Austrian restaurant. I know you read that as "Australian" just now, but no, it's Austrian. Try the spaetzle.