This list has to start with the Carolina Panthers’ newest 100 million dollar man, quarterback Cam Newton. The former first overall pick signed a contract extension with the Panthers this offseason for six-years, $103.8 million.
The contract extension isn’t the reason Newton is a player to watch. The reason he makes this list is to see whether or not he is completely healed from an injury-riddled 2014 season. Last year at this time, Newton was trying to work his way back from ankle surgery earlier in the offseason.
He was able to practice and play in a few preseason games before suffering a rib injury against the New England Patriots in the third preseason game. This injury forced him to only miss the season opener but even when he returned he still didn’t look completely healthy. The injuries didn’t stop there as he suffered a serious back injury in a car accident in December that once again forced him to miss a game.
Back in Feburary, head coach Ron Rivera told Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Jones that he spoke to Newton who said “for the first time in a long time he feels very, very good. His ankle, the one he had surgically repaired, he feels really good about that. The ribs don’t bother him. The back doesn’t seem to bother him.”
Now that he has had almost six months to recover since the end of the 2014 season, it is going to be interesting to see how Newton moves around the practice field and in preseason games.
The Panthers added veteran Charles Tillman this offseason in hopes the 34 year old has at least one more good season in his career. This could be wishful thinking if Tillman is not able to put his injury history behind him. The past two seasons he has played in only 10 games due to two tricep injuries that ended his 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Entering camp, Tillman is expected to be the starting cornerback opposite Josh Norman with Bene Benwikere moving inside to nickelback. The injuries and lack of playing time has to raise some questions of what shape Tillman will be in during training camp. If Tillman doesn’t have much rust and can play at a high level, this defense will be much stronger entering this year than a season ago.
The left tackle position last year was a disaster. The Byron Bell experiment did not work out well and with him leaving as a free agent, the front office had to address the position. Their solution to try and fix it was former Tennessee Titan Michael Oher.
Oher has fallen off quite a bit after a strong start to his career in Baltimore where he started on both the left and right side for them over his first five seasons. After a down year with the Titans at right tackle, the team released him and he eventually signed a two-year deal with the Panthers this offseason.
This is going to be the third straight season the Panthers will have a new starting left tackle when they open the season. They have struggled to find the replacement for retired Jordan Gross, who was as steady as they come protecting the blindside. The team hopes that Oher can be the man to end this cycle but he will need to have a strong 2015 season to make that happen.
The importance of Nate Chandler to the Carolina Panthers jumped significantly when Jonathan Martin announced he was retiring from football this week. Chandler was the team’s starting right tackle for most of the season in 2014 but ended the year on the IR with a knee injury. Chandler has been limited this offseason as he recovers from his surgery but the team hopes he can step in as the primary backup to Oher.
Chandler did get a look last year at left tackle but eventually lost that battle to Bell in training camp. Now, this may not instill a great deal of confidence in Panthers’ fans considering how bad Bell was last year.
However, fans need to remember that Chandler played defensive tackle in college and only switched to the offensive side before the 2013 season. That season he played both right guard and right tackle before moving to tackle full time last year. He could use more time to develop and gain a better understanding of the offensive tackle position.
As the team’s primary backup at the offensive tackle will give him time to practice and if the team does need to call his number this year, he should be much improved from last year.
Brandon Croce is the Lead Publisher for PantherInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonCroce.