CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers begin offseason workouts today with two big questions:
How much can quarterback Cam Newton do as he recovers from March 30 surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder?
When will offensive tackle Michael Oher be cleared from the concussion protocol?
Newton will be restricted from throwing throughout OTAs, but will be able to participate in the two weeks of strength and conditioning and physical rehabilitation that makes up Phase 1.
The 2015 NFL MVP also should be able to participate, again with the exception of throwing and anything else that might put stress on the shoulder, in Phases 2 and 3.
Phase 2 consists of three weeks of on-the-field workouts with individual player instruction and drills as well as team practice conducted without live contact or team offense versus defense drills.
Phase 3 consists of 10 organized team practice activities. No live contact is allowed, but seven-on-seven, nine-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills are permitted.
Oher, according to general manager Dave Gettleman, has been working out five days a week. He should be able to participate in each phase without having to necessarily be cleared from the protocol, where he has been since the week prior to the fourth game last season.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be cleared before then. He may very well be. But technically he doesn’t need to be cleared before a mandatory minicamp (June 13-15) that concludes the offseason program.
The final phase of a five-step process to being cleared is a return to full participation in practice. The minicamp is the first full practice of offseason workouts.
But Gettleman last month offered encouraging news that Oher ultimately will be cleared.
“He’s working his fanny off,’’ he said. “He’s doing NFL workouts. He is fully engaged in that weight room and sweating his butt off, and he looks great. He sounds great.’’
The important thing for Newton is staying engaged as the Panthers evolve the offense so that he is less involved in the running game.
Coach Ron Rivera said Newton also needs to “rebuild his confidence’’ after a 6-10 2016 season that statistically was his worst in the NFL.
“It was shook,’’ Rivera said last month. “Let's be honest: I'm not going to lie about that. The young man went through a tough time and we went through a tough time.
"Why? Because of the injuries we incurred on the offensive line. That was probably the biggest thing. It just kind of shows the importance and significance of protecting your quarterback.’’
Many of the Panthers already have begun conditioning on their own.
Here’s an example from running back Jonathan Stewart:
And defensive end Mario Addison:
With that, here are three other things to keep an eye on during OTAs:
Evolution of the offense: It’ll be interesting once the Panthers get on the field to see exactly what Rivera means by evolution. We saw glimpses of it late in the season as Newton ran a more traditional offense with less read-option. That’ll mean more two-tight end and two-running back sets. The player pairings will be most interesting to watch, particularly at wide receiver with the loss of Ted Ginn Jr. Free-agent acquisitions Charles Johnson and Russell Shepard will be among those attempting to fill a big hole as the slot receiver that the Panthers hope will become a bigger part of the offense as it evolves.
Infusion of new faces: As mentioned above, Johnson and Shepard need to find how they fit into the offense, but there are other newcomers that must begin to develop chemistry with their new teammates. It starts on the offensive line, where Matt Kalil was signed to a five-year, $55.5 million deal to take over at left tackle. How well Oher adjusts moving from left back to right tackle where he played much of his career also will be key if he’s to win the starting job over Daryl Williams. Defensively, eyes will be on 37-year-old defensive end Julius Peppers and 36-year-old safety Mike Adams as they blend into an established group headed by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Avoid major distraction: Defensive tackle Kawann Short sat out a portion of the non-mandatory workouts last season as leverage to get a long-term deal. Until he signs the franchise tag, which he is expected to do, there’s really no incentive for him to participate in OTAs. The Panthers don’t want a replay of last year when cornerback Josh Norman had the franchise tag removed soon after OTAs began because he hadn’t signed it. Short insisted after the season his situation is different and he won’t be a distraction. The best way to do that is to get a long-term deal done, but don’t look for much movement until closer to the July 15 deadline. The first step is signing the tag.