CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The portion of offseason workouts that Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has pointed to since losing Super Bowl 50 begins today.
The Panthers start Phase 3 with the first of 10 allowed organized team activities. These are significant in that it will be an important teaching time with 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 non-contact drills.
Offseason phases up to this point have mostly been about conditioning. Rivera actually started the Phase 1 portion a week late to give players more time to recover from a season that was extended five weeks by the Super Bowl run.
Here are five storylines to follow:
Cam Newton: He's always Carolina's biggest storyline, whether he wants to be or not. He's not scheduled to talk to reporters, but this will be the first time the NFL MVP has been on the field in front of media since the Super Bowl. He sets the tone for this team in practice and games with his enthusiasm and work ethic, so his every move will be documented. Coach Ron Rivera said last week that Newton has just scratched the surface of how good he can be, so this will be another opportunity for him to improve. Because the secondary is the team's biggest offseason concern, it'll be interesting to see how they handle going against the three-time Pro Bowler as opposed to tryout quarterbacks two weeks ago.
Very limited: Rivera said those rehabbing from injuries would be "very limited," so that will create opportunities for others to step up. But you can bet a lot of eyes will be on wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed last season with a knee injury suffered in training camp. The Panthers are counting on Benjamin to return to his role as the top receiver he was in 2014, but they won't take many chances with him now. The same for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Both will be involved and are on track to be ready for training camp in late July, but don't look for them to go wide open in drills. Also, wide receiver Philly Brown is coming off shoulder surgery and cornerback Bene' Benwikere is recovering from a broken leg suffered late last season, so they'll be limited as well.
The secondary: Rivera was impressed enough with rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry (second-round pick), Daryl Worley (third) and Zack Sanchez (fifth) that he released free-agent acquisition Brandon Boykin last week. With Benwikere (see above) still rehabbing these three will get a lot of reps with veteran Robert McClain. They'll be at somewhat of a disadvantage because they aren't allowed to bump and run during drills, but that will give coaches an even better idea of how fundamentally sound they are. Ultimately, Benwikere is expected to take over one starting corner spot, so one of the rookies will get a chance to replace 2015 Pro Bowl selection Josh Norman. Corner isn't the only battle in the secondary worth watching. Carolina didn't re-sign veteran safety Roman Harper, seemingly leaving Tre Boston as a starting safety with Kurt Coleman. But the Panthers also want to see what Dean Marlowe, Marcus Ball and Trenton Robinson can do before turning the job over to Boston.
End of the day: The Panthers didn't draft a defensive end, insisting they were comfortable with the talent on the roster. So there will be an opportunity for somebody to step up and earn a starting job. On paper, Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy are the starters. But Johnson was released to clear $11 million in cap space and re-signed to a one-year, $3 million deal. Set to turn 30 in July, the franchise's second all-time leading sack leader hasn't been promised a starting job after missing seven games with a hamstring injury in 2015. Ealy showed his potential in the Super Bowl with three sacks and an interception, but he needs to show he can be that kind of a player on a consistent basis. Look for the Panthers to give Mario Addison, Ryan Delaire, Wes Horton, Rakim Cox, Larry Webster and Arthur Miley a lot of reps to see whether one -- or more -- emerges.
For kicks: As mentioned several times here, the loss of punter Brad Nortman to Jacksonville left a big hole on special teams. Swayze Waters is the leading candidate for the job after spending the past four years in the Canadian Football League. Former University of Tennessee punter Michael Palardy also is in the mix. But if neither impresses during these sessions you could see the Panthers shopping for others -- possibly a veteran -- to add to the mix.