Panthers looking for rookie Christian McCaffrey to fill many roles as back, receiver

The Carolina Panthers will have at least four new starters when they open training camp on July 26 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Here's a starting lineup projection:


Quarterback (Cam Newton): The Panthers are hoping offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and the evolution of the offense to take the pressure off Newton to run will help him return to his 2015 MVP form. How long it takes Newton to regain full strength in his throwing shoulder remains the big question. But having first- and second-round draft picks Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel as big-play options should make Newton's job easier.

Running back (Jonathan Stewart): Much has been made about the dynamic playmaking ability of McCaffrey as a running back and slot receiver. But the Panthers signed Stewart to an extension during the offseason because even at 30 he's still the first option to jump-start the running game that will remain the centerpiece of this offense.

Fullback (Darrel Young): The staff is high on sixth-round pick Alex Armah, but the former defensive end at West Georgia likely is a year away from being ready. Coaches felt strongly enough about Young that they didn't re-sign Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert, now with the Buffalo Bills.

Wide receiver (Kelvin Benjamin): If he returns to the form he showed prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury during the 2015 camp, he could be in for a big year. With the new receiving weapons (McCaffrey, Samuel) it'll be hard for teams to double-team the 6-foot-5 Benjamin as often. He was questioned for being overweight at the start of offseason workouts, but he appears to have that under control.

Wide receiver (Devin Funchess): The offensive MVP of last year's training camp has fallen short of expectations after being drafted in the second round in 2015. The third season often is telling for wide receivers, and Funchess will have a chance to emerge now that Ted Ginn Jr. is with the New Orleans Saints

Tight end (Greg Olsen): Last year he became the first tight end in NFL history to have three straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving. Now he wants to be paid like one of the top tight ends in the NFL, and it would be best for the Panthers to do so. He's a huge part of this offense and helps keep Newton comfortable.

Left tackle (Matt Kalil): The Panthers gave the former Minnesota Vikings tackle a five-year, $55.5 million deal during the offseason to protect Newton's blind side. With Michael Oher's future uncertain and a weak draft class at tackle, there weren't many other options. If 2016 hip surgery returns him to his rookie form, it could pay off. If not, it was a big financial mistake.

Left guard (Andrew Norwell): Carolina placed a second-round tender on Norwell to retain his rights for 2017. The former undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, who has 38 starts since 2014, has proved to be one of former general manager Dave Gettleman's better finds.

Center (Ryan Kalil): His 2016 season ended prematurely with a shoulder injury that required surgery. When healthy, the five-time Pro Bowl selection is one of the best in the league at his position, and there's no reason to think he won't return to that form.

Right guard (Trai Turner): The 2014 third-round pick out of LSU is in store for a big payday. He's already a two-time Pro Bowl selection and proving to be one of the better guards in the NFL.

Right tackle (Daryl Williams): The most competition in training camp on the offensive side will be here between Williams and second-round draft pick Taylor Moton -- and Oher if he's still with the team. Williams appears to have the upper hand with 12 starts and 23 games played since 2015 if Oher isn't on the roster.


Defensive end (Julius Peppers): The return of Carolina's all-time sack leader after a seven-year hiatus with the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers was the team's feel-good story of the offseason. At 37, the nine-time Pro Bowl selection still appears capable of playing at a high level. Having a player who can stop the run and rush the passer as a part of the four-man end rotation should pay huge dividends.

Defensive end (Charles Johnson): He was Carolina's most consistent defensive lineman last season despite issues with his hamstring at the end of the year. Johnson had back surgery in the offseason to help correct that. His leadership and ability to play the run and rush the passer, despite a drop in sacks the past two seasons, is highly undervalued.

Defensive tackle (Star Lotulelei): The 2013 first-round pick is playing for his future this season as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal. He has been solid but not spectacular in his first four seasons. If 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler emerges, Lotulelei may be expendable if the asking price is too high for 2018.

Defensive tackle (Kawann Short): His 17 sacks over the past two seasons ranks third among defensive tackles in the league. Carolina rewarded him with a five-year, $80.5 million deal during the offseason. The 2015 Pro Bowl selection is one of the most dominant tackles in the league.

Weakside linebacker (Thomas Davis): At 34, the two-time Pro Bowl selection (2015 and 2016) believes he still has a few good years left in him, so he'd like an extension as he enters the final year of his contract. He and Luke Kuechly form arguably the best linebacker combination in the NFL. Look for the Panthers to be more judicious with how they use Davis this season to keep him fresh, but it'll be hard to keep him off the field.

Middle linebacker (Luke Kuechly): There's no question he's the top middle linebacker in the league. The question is, will concussions that have sidelined him for multiple games the past two seasons remain an issue?

Strongside linebacker (Shaq Thompson): He started to emerge as a force last season and will be used more moving forward. When Kuechly was out, the Panthers put Thompson in his spot in nickel situations.

Cornerback (James Bradberry): He's fast on his way to making Carolina fans forget about Josh Norman. After a slow start, the 2016 second-round pick went on to receive Pro Football Focus' top grade (82.6) among rookie cornerbacks.

Cornerback (Daryl Worley): The 2016 third-round pick improved more than arguably any player on defense last season. Once he settled in after a rocky beginning, he finished with 88 tackles (fourth most on the team), nine pass deflections and an interception.

Strong safety (Mike Adams): The Panthers didn't look at his age (36) as much as they did his production when they signed him in free agency. He made the Pro Bowl in two of his past three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. His ability to anchor the strong safety role allows Kurt Coleman to return to the free safety spot.

Free safety (Kurt Coleman): He led Carolina in interceptions with seven in 2015 when playing free safety and the signing of Adams allows him to return there. He has become the leader of this secondary and defense in general.

Special teams

Kicker (Harrison Butker): The Panthers had never used a draft pick on a place-kicker before selecting Butker in the seventh round out of Georgia Tech. If he has a solid camp, look for him to replace veteran Graham Gano, whose shaky 2016 season and big salary-cap number make him expendable.

Punter (Andy Lee): The three-time Pro Bowl selection was acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Browns just before the 2016 season began. He was having another solid year before a hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve in November. He should be back at full strength.

Long-snapper (J.J. Jansen): Carolina thought enough of the 2013 Pro Bowl selection to give him a five-year, $5.5 million deal in February 2016. He's as solid as they come at an unheralded position.