The Carolina Panthers open 2020 NFL training camp at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on July 28. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines:
How has a virtual offseason made an impact on first-year NFL coach Matt Rhule?
Rhule insists that he and his assistants have become better coaches and teachers because they had to use new and innovative tools during the pandemic. But Panthers players haven't gotten a feel for the mental and physical toughness needed to be a part of the culture Rhule sees as essential to rebuilding. Rhule has met only 20 players personally. His assistants haven’t met that many on a roster that has been almost completely overhauled since the end of the 2019 season. Gone are key leaders such as Cam Newton, Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly.
So training camp will be as much about the players and coaches getting to know each other and how far they can be pushed as they implement systems. It will be about learning how leadership off the field will translate to on the field. It will also be about learning how the staff with the least NFL experience will adjust to the pro game. Rhule has only one year of experience in the league -- as an offensive line assistant for the Giants in 2012. His 30-year-old offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, hasn’t called a complete game -- ever. Even Rhule acknowledges he won’t have a real idea of how well Brady will do until the games begin. If any team needed a face-to-face offseason, it was the Panthers. So, as well as the virtual offseason went from a teaching standpoint, it has to be considered a major setback for all that was missed.
What will be expected from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in his first season in Carolina?
No Carolina player has more pressure on him than Bridgewater, who will be following in the footsteps of Cam Newton -- arguably the most popular and dynamic player in team history. Newton was released and signed an incentive-laden deal with the New England Patriots. Rhule moved on from the 2015 NFL MVP in part because he and his staff believed Bridgewater was a better fit what they were trying to do.
The good news for Bridgewater is he won’t be expected to carry the offense as much as Newton did for much of the past nine seasons. Bridgewater will be expected to manage an offense, much as he did in limited action the past two seasons behind Drew Brees at New Orleans. He was 5-0 as the team's starter while Brees was out with a hand injury. Bridgewater will try to get the ball into the hands of dynamic playmakers such as running back Christian McCaffrey and receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, as he did with Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas in New Orleans. Rhule is impressed with Bridgewater's leadership ability. “My interactions with him have been awesome," Rhule said. “He’s going to be a guy our team goes to battle for."
How will offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s system at LSU translate to the NFL?
The offense will likely look a lot like what Sean Payton has run in New Orleans, as much of what Brady learned came from his two seasons (2017-18) as a Saints offensive assistant. Because Brady spent one season working closely with Bridgewater, that should help. They know how each other thinks. This won’t be a fling-it-deep offense, even though the Panthers have plenty of deep speed in Samuel, Moore and Robby Anderson. It will be a combination of the Saints and what Brady did as the passing-game coordinator last year at LSU. That worked well as quarterback Joe Burrow became the Heisman Trophy winner and catalyst to a national championship.
The offense will involve a lot of rhythm and quick strikes, getting the ball into the hands of McCaffrey and other playmakers in space. It will be about creating mismatches. Brady’s ability to be a successful playcaller remains to be seen. He is, after all, the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL. Much will depend on how well the offensive line comes together. But the players are there offensively to keep the Panthers in a lot of games while the defense rebuilds.
How will McCaffrey’s role and snap counts change? Will he again gain 1,000 yards receiving and rushing?
You don’t make somebody the richest running back in NFL history and reduce his role, right? No running back took a greater share of a team's snaps than McCaffrey’s 93.35 percent, up from 91.3 in 2018. Don’t look for that to change much, if at all. Carolina gave the eighth pick of the 2017 draft a four-year, $64 million extension because they plan to build around him. With Newton gone, McCaffrey is the face of the organization. How successful Brady’s offense performs in large part depends on how successful he is at getting the ball to McCaffrey in space. “Christian had 429 touches this past year," Brady said. “That’s a lot, obviously, but if there is one person that can take it ... it’s Christian McCaffrey. A lot of it will come down to the rest of the personnel on our team and figuring out how we can utilize."
One word: Huge. Short, when healthy, is one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. He can do for the Panthers what Aaron Donald does for the Rams. Adding former Auburn star Brown (6-foot-5, 325) to the mix will only make it harder for teams to double-team Short. It could be similar to what the Panthers had with Short and Star Lotulelei from 2013-17. They were pivotal to Carolina’s run to Super Bowl 50 in 2015. ESPN ranked that unit the sixth-best defense of the past 10 years.
With Short and Brown shutting down the middle, that will free up 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns and free-agent acquisition Stephen Weatherly at end. The key for this defense will be replacing middle linebacker Kuechly, who unexpectedly retired in January, and the secondary that is suspect on the corners. Free-agent pickup Tahir Whitehead is first up at middle linebacker. Having Short and Brown in front of him will help tremendously.