SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Five observations from the Carolina Panthers’ first full week of training camp:
Early MVP: Whether it was intentional or not, head coach Ron Rivera sent a message to Kelvin Benjamin in June when he publicly said the wide receiver being overweight might have contributed to him missing most of OTAs with hamstring injuries. Benjamin reported in the best shape of his college or professional career. He looks more like a wide receiver than a tight end, as he sometimes did last year. He appears poised for a big second season. As fellow wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said, Benjamin is “the lead dog.’’
Loose as a goose: I’ve said this before, but quarterback Cam Newton is as loose and confident as he’s been since entering the NFL. Whether that’s due to maturity, the security of the five-year, $103.8 million extension he signed in June or the experience of four previous camps, leadership comes more naturally now. He’s also making audibles in the flow of a drive that he didn’t – and probably couldn’t – a few years ago. Having more talent around him with this confidence should make this a more explosive offense. Consistency remains his biggest demon.
Defense still wins: Despite what I just said about Benjamin, Newton and the offense, the defense remains the class or this organization. That unit picked up where it left off last season when it finished strong to rank in the top 10 for the third straight season. The addition of Kurt Coleman at safety and Charles “Peanut” Tillman at cornerback behind a front seven that should again rank among the top in the NFL should make this a top-five unit.
Biggest surprise: I’m going with wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. I knew he would upgrade the punt return game, but I was skeptical of what he would add at wide receiver with Corey Brown emerging. Thus far, Ginn appears ahead of Brown. I’m not so sure if you lined them up for a foot race that the 30-year-old Ginn wouldn’t win. The Panthers lacked quality speed at receiver at this time a year ago. Now they have two legitimate weapons, which should open up the offense.
Concerns: The loss of wide receiver Stephen Hill to a season-ending ACL injury is concerning because he appeared ready to contribute. But the more troubling injuries are to starting defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Short (back) hasn’t practiced, although he’s expected to return this week. Lotulelei will be re-evaluated in three weeks for a stress reaction in his right foot that was surgically repaired in January. Having Short and Lotulelei in the four-man tackle rotation is critical for Carolina to be the top-five unit I mentioned above.