SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. ripped off his jersey and shoulder pads, thrust his hands into the air and then dropped to the ground following Monday’s extremely hot, muggy practice.
It was as if he was saying goodbye to training camp at Wofford College.
In a way, he was.
Tuesday’s final practice in Spartanburg will be a light workout in shells. It may not even go the full two hours.
It’s coach Ron Rivera’s reward for what he considered a good three weeks before the team returns to Charlotte to prepare for the Sept. 8 opener, a Super Bowl 50 rematch at Denver.
But before we get to Charlotte, let’s look back at five highlights from Spartanburg:
Co-MVPs? Coach Ron Rivera may disagree, but it’s between outside linebacker Shaq Thompson and wide receiver Devin Funchess. Thompson, Carolina’s first-round pick in 2015, easily was the MVP over the first week and a half. He began camp with a forced fumble on the first play of team drills and then intercepted Cam Newton twice in the first week. None was more spectacular than the Newton pass he tipped to himself for an interception while defending Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. Funchess, Carolina’s second-round pick last year, came on strong the last week and a half after the focus drifted off the return of No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin. He had at least one touchdown catch in each of the past three practices, showing the benefit of his speed and size (6-4). Both should be a force to reckon with in 2016.
Lost wager? Newton had a little wager going with linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis that neither would intercept him in camp. That ended on Sunday during a seven-on-seven drill in which Kuechly picked off the pass and Davis let Newton – and everyone else – know it with shouts of “We got him!’’ as he followed his middle linebacker to the end zone. Newton might argue that since it didn’t come in team drills it didn’t count. But it counted. At least Newton can say he wasn’t picked off by both. Had Davis made the pick you’d still hear the shouts. Nobody talked more trash than him in camp – again.
Josh who? Rookie cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have played so well that few have mentioned the loss of 2015 Pro Bowl selection Josh Norman. If the season started today, Bradberry and Worley would be the starters. A lot can happen over the next three weeks. The Panthers still have Bene Benwikere and Robert McClain on standby should the rookies falter. But if the rookies can wrap up the preseason without any setbacks, the worries fans had when Carolina rescinded the franchise tag on Norman will be forgotten.
Darkhorses: Every year there are players who come out of nowhere to make the roster. Damiere Byrd isn’t a total darkhorse. Wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl said in May that the second-year player could make an impact this season, not only as a receiver but as a returner. Not many believed it until they saw Byrd in camp. If the Panthers keep Byrd on the 53-man roster, it will be interesting to see if they keep another smallish receiver in Corey Brown. Odds are they would, but if there are needs at other positions this might be something to keep an eye on. Safety Trenton Robinson, a fifth-year player out of Michigan State, is another to keep an eye on. He spent three years with Washington and one with San Francisco. The Panthers have a habit of making journeyman safeties into solid players, aka Mike Mitchell in 2013 and Kurt Coleman in 2015. They need depth at safety.
Knock on wood: A year ago, the Panthers lost Benjamin and Stephen Hill, vying for a starting spot, to season-ending knee injuries. The worst of this year’s camp was bruised ribs by receiver Brenton Bersin in the first exhibition game. There are a few concerns with players such as backup defensive end Rakim Cox, who missed much of camp with a back issue. But nothing was as devastating as the injuries Benjamin and Hill suffered. Speaking of those two, Benjamin showed he’s ready to resume his role as the No. 1 receiver, but conditioning remains an issue. Hill has struggled to stay on the field every day because of lingering soreness in the knee, and making the roster seems like a longshot.