Do you feel that Ron Rivera is on the hot seat entering 2015? The team has won back-to-back division titles, but last year's 7-8-1 record had to be considered quite a letdown.
Brandon: Even though the Carolina Panthers did finish with a sub-.500 record, I thought last season was some of the best work Ron Rivera has done as the team's head coach. He had to deal with his franchise quarterback suffering multiple injuries, his star pass rusher being suspended after the first week of the season, an offensive line that had a starting lineup almost every week and an ineffective secondary. This could have turned south very quickly but he was able to keep the group focused and continue to try and play at a high level. I don't think he is on the hot seat entering this season however the NFL has become what have you done for me lately. Many believe the Panthers have more talent entering this year than last and there are certainly higher expectations. If the team misses the playoffs, there will be some interesting conversations around the organization.
Speaking of head coaches, how much has Rex Ryan changed the culture around the Buffalo Bills? He tends to be outspoken and make bold predictions? Do you think this will hurt the Bills? Or is this something they need to set expectations high and break this playoff drought?
Ryan: Rex has definitely made things more lively in training camp. The players admit that they're much looser than they were last season under Doug Marrone and it’s shown. Players have really responded well to Ryan. At his introductory press conference, Ryan told Bills fans to get ready for the post season, so the bold predictions have already begun. At the end of the day, Ryan's bravado won't hurt the Bills. His in-game management, something he's been criticized for, could hurt Buffalo, but being outspoken really won't have much of an effect either way. The talent is in place to break the playoff drought, so now Ryan and his coaching staff need to find a way to convert that talent to wins on the field.
The Panthers appear to be rather deep at linebacker. How do you see the position shaking out?
Brandon: Last season, the Panthers were hit hard with injuries at linebacker and towards the end of the season were forced to operate out of the nickel just because they didn't have that third linebacker. This season though they are completely healthy and have added key pieces to help with their depth. Right now veteran A.J. Klein is listed as the starter alongside Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Klein has looked good but he doesn't have the same athletic ability as Shaq Thompson, who I mentioned above I believe will be the starter by the start of the season. Klein is a great backup to have because he does have starting experience and should be able to step in if the need arises. The wildcard in this group is Jason Trusnik. The former Miami Dolphin was signed more so for his special team prowess but he has experience playing all the linebacker positions. He is another great depth player to really help round out this position.
Buffalo Bills General Manager Doug Whaley used the word purgatory when talking about the Bills quarterback situation. How bad is it really? Has any player emerged as a front runner?
Ryan: Many people misunderstood Whaley's 'quarterback purgatory' comment. He was actually referring to the 2016 NFL draft and that Buffalo has too much talent on their roster this season to realistically be picking at the top of the draft. The quarterback position is far from ideal as the team hasn't had a long-term franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly retired, but Buffalo has some possibilities this season. Matt Cassel has come on strong recently in training camp practices and is probably the quarterback the coaching staff feels most comfortable with under center. He'll be the game manager that won't make too many mistakes. If Buffalo's defense is dominant and the run game is strong, that's all Buffalo would need. Tyrod Taylor has also had a pretty solid camp. I personally believe that he's been the most consistent quarterback among the trio competing for the job. He seems to make at least one big pass per practice and he can also scramble very well. I'm most excited to watch him this preseason. Last, it's a bit frustrating to watch EJ Manuel. He'll have a great day and then follow it up with a dud. He just can't seem to find any consistency this year. This is his make or break season and right now it's not going as well as it could. He'll have to really impress the coaching staff in the preseason to win the job.
How have Carolina's rookies looked in training camp and who do you expect will be biggest contributor as a rookie?
Brandon: The one thing that has been clear this training camp is that all the rookies are going to have to earn their playing time. The first "unofficial" depth chart came out Monday and there was no rookie listed as a starter. Second round pick Devin Funchess has looked good this offseason but he is currently third on the depth chart while rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne is all the way down to fourth. I still think Shaq Thompson is going to have the biggest impact on the upcoming season as a rookie. He is still trying to learn the position but he has incredible speed and great hands. He should be the starting outside linebacker by the start of the season.
Leodis McKelvin has been dealing with an ankle injury. Who has stepped up in that starting cornerback position? Could he possibly keep the starting job even when McKelvin is healthy?
Ryan: Rookie cornerback Ronald Darby has stepped up in McKelvin's absence. He's struggled a bit as of late, but he's also covering terrific receivers in Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Percy Harvin. When Buffalo drafted Darby, they probably hoped that they could ease him onto the field, but it doesn't appear that McKelvin will be ready at the start of the season. If Darby excels early in the season, McKelvin may find himself playing behind Darby when he's back and healthy. Regardless, Rex Ryan has to be happy with the depth he has this year, as opposed to the cornerbacks he had on his Jets roster last season.
Ryan: In Buffalo's preseason opener, I think the Bills will win the game by a score. The team may have EJ Manuel running with the third team offense and he should be able to find some success in terms of leading the Bills to points.
Bills 24-Panthers 13
Brandon: I believe these two teams are built very similarly in the fact that they rely on a strong defense and strong run game. Neither offense really stands out due to the Bills lack of quarterback talent and the Panthers not having the same quality of weapons at the skill position the Bills do. If the defenses are considered equal, I will give the Panthers a slight edge thanks to Cam Newton and Derek Anderson.
Panthers 17-Bills 13
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