Try to Avoid A Super Bowl Hangover
The last time the Carolina Panthers were playing in a NFL game they saw the Denver Broncos hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end and celebrating their Super Bowl victory. This type of disappointment can linger for a team that made it as far as they did and accomplished as much as they did a season ago.
This is something that the coaching staff, as well as the veterans, will need to address early in training camp. However, this is something that Greg Olsen and Thomas Davis are aware of and discussed with ESPN's David Newton back in April.
"We’ve got to understand that you’re not entitled to anything in this game," Olsen said. "They don’t just [say] the Panthers had a great year last year, let’s just pencil them in. That’s not how this game works."
"We start from ground zero," Davis said. "We know just because we made it to the Super Bowl last year doesn’t mean we’re going to come in and be the NFC favorites to be back."
There has been only two teams since 2000 to make the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons with the New England Patriots reaching in 2004 and 2005 and the Seattle Seahawks in 2014 and 2015. However, in both of those instances they won the Super Bowl in their first trip. The last team to reach the Super Bowl the next season after losing the big game came in 1993 by the Buffalo Bills.
How Much Will the Injured Players Participate in Training Camp?
The Panthers will have a number of key players entering training camp with potentially lingering injuries or still recovering from offseason surgery. It will be interesting to see how cautious the coaching staff is, especially in the early parts of training camp, with these players.
Luke Kuechly is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery after suffering the injury in the final regular season game but played with it through the team's entire playoff run. Meanwhile, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Stephen Hill will be working their way back from ACL injuries suffered in last year's training camp and cornerback Bene Benwikere has been recovering from a broken leg suffered towards the end of the regular season.
The biggest concern though may be with Jonathan Stewart, who was still dealing with a sore foot during the team's OTAs. This is the same foot that forced him to miss the last three games in the regular season and he then re-injured during Super Bowl 50.
These five players have had limited action to this point, missing or limited during OTAs, and will need to knock off the offseason rust during training camp as they try to get back up to speed. However, the coaching staff is going to need to make sure they don't suffer any setbacks by starting too soon.
Which Cornerbacks Will Emerge?
The Panthers have had almost a complete reset at the cornerback position. The team lost or didn't bring back Josh Norman, Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan, who all played pivotal roles in this defense last year. The front office decided to address the position by drafting three cornerbacks (James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Zack Sanchez) and recently signing veteran Leonard Johnson.
The coaching staff is going to have plenty of options to choose from and it wouldn't be a surprise to see multiple starting combinations throughout this preseason. As long as Benwikere is fully recovered, he should earn one of the starting jobs which would leave only two spots left for the coaching staff to decide on.
Veteran Robert McClain seems to be the one who likely have the advantage over the rookies, as well as Johnson, who has plenty of experience as a nickelback. However, Ron Rivera and company are not afraid to play rookies, as evident in 2014, and will be sure to put the best players on the field against the Denver Broncos in Week 1.
Who Will Be the Slot Wide Receiver?
The coaching staff will also need to sort out the depth chart at wide receiver during training camp, in particular the Y or the slot receiver. The past few years the job has gone to Jerricho Cotchery however the team released him after the Super Bowl and now have a hole in their offense.
The Panthers currently have 14 wide receivers on the roster so there will be plenty of competition for this job. However, one player in particular who could excel and be a great fit is second-year wide receiver Devin Funchess. The former Michigan Wolverine has tremendous size at 6'4" and would be a great target for Cam Newton in the middle of the field. He is also used to playing close to the offensive line as he played tight end in college.
Can Charles Johnson Stay Healthy?
This is going to be an important season for Charles Johnson, who was cut during the offseason but decided to return on a new one-year deal. The veteran pass rusher is coming off his worst season in his impressive career after registering only one sack during the regular season. He missed a significant amount of time in the middle of the season due to a hamstring injury and this didn't help.
However, Johnson finished the year strong with a sack in each playoff game and hopes to build off this heading into the new season. He will need to have a strong training camp though and stay healthy, which is something he hasn't done the past two years.
In 2014, Johnson dealt with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss a majority of training camp and play in only one preseason game. This past season, Johnson suffered a calf strain as well as a trapezius injury and both years got off to a slow start. In the first four games of 2014 and the first three of 2015, Johnson combined for only eight tackles and one sack.
If Charles Johnson can stay healthy during training camp, he could be in line for a fast start to the year.