Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:
One thing I’m certain of: Quarterback Cam Newton won’t be learning on the fly this time around. Last year, Newton spent almost no time with his coaches before training camp opened because of the lockout. Everything was new to him and there were many moments when he looked like a rookie. The Panthers didn’t fully grasp what they had until Newton passed for more than 400 yards in the season opener.
This time around, Newton knows his teammates and the playbook. All indications are he spent as much time at the team facility as allowed in the offseason and worked out elsewhere during the time the players weren’t allowed to be with coaches. That’s why I’m not buying into any of the talk about Newton perhaps hitting a “sophomore slump.’’ Sure, opponents now have an idea of what to expect from Newton. But he knows what he’s doing now and knows what to expect from those defenses.
One thing that might happen: If outside linebacker Thomas Davis can be the player he was before three torn ACLs, it will be one of the greatest comeback stories in NFL history. Davis was a top-notch outside linebacker before the injury. Coaches and team officials have raved about how hard Davis has worked in his rehab and are keeping their fingers crossed that he can stay healthy. With a strong training camp and preseason, Davis can jump right back into the starting lineup.
But the Panthers know they can’t count on that. They’re prepared to use Jon Beason, rookie Luke Kuechly and James Anderson as their starting linebackers. That’s a pretty solid group. But it could be even better if Davis is healthy and able to move into the lineup ahead of Anderson.
One thing we won’t see: Captain Munnerlyn won’t get all the first-team work as the No. 2 cornerback during camp and the preseason. The Panthers are going to take very long looks at rookie Josh Norman and second-year pro Brandon Hogan. In fact, the hope within the coaching staff is that one of those two can earn the starting job. They both are bigger than Munnerlyn and that allows them to match up better with larger receivers on the outside.
Ideally, the Panthers would like to use Munnerlyn as the No. 3 cornerback. In a worst-case scenario, Munnerlyn could retain the starting position, but slide inside to play slot receivers in passing situations with either Norman or Hogan coming onto the field on those downs. The Panthers are so aware of the matchup problems they faced with Munnerlyn last year that they may be willing to start Norman or Hogan even if they don’t have great preseasons.