Analysis: Five key questions facing Carolina Panthers

jperson@charlotteobserver.comMay 21, 2013 

— It’s beginning to look a lot more like football around Bank of America Stadium and other NFL facilities.

The Panthers are one of 29 teams starting phase 3 of their organized team activities this week. Live contact is prohibited in this stage of the offseason program, although teams can conduct 7-on-7, 9-on-9 and 11-on-11 drills.

The Panthers will hold 10 OTA practices over the next three weeks before staging minicamp June 11-13. The practices begin today and are closed to the public.

We look at five questions facing the Panthers as they start summer school, on Page 2C:

What is Jon Beason’s status?

The linebacker continues to recover from surgeries on his right knee and left shoulder, and is not expected to do much, if anything, during OTAs. Beason, who had three surgeries in a 17-month span, is hoping to be 100 percent for the start of training camp in July.

Beason has played in five games since signing a five-year $51.5 million extension in 2011 that made him the NFL’s highest-paid middle linebacker. After running back DeAngelo Williams restructured his contract last week, many have asked whether Beason might do the same.

To this point, Beason has not been approached about re-working his deal. The Panthers are about $8.5 million under the salary cap – more than enough to sign their five draft picks.

There is too much money left on Beason’s deal for the Panthers to cut him, even if they wanted to. Beason, 28, who went to three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2008 to 2010, has vowed to return better than his pre-injury form.

With Luke Kuechly entrenched at middle linebacker, Beason’s future will be at the strongside spot.

What area does Cam Newton need to work on?

The third-year quarterback wanted to cut down on turnovers in 2012, and was successful in doing so. Newton reduced his interceptions from 17 in 2011 to 12 last season, and set a team record with a stretch of 176 consecutive passes without throwing one.

Overall, the Panthers had 22 turnovers in 2012, the second-fewest in franchise history.

Newton said he wants to be more consistent in his decision-making and ability to read defenses. He audibled much more in 2012 than he did as a rookie, and will look to take another step in his development under Mike Shula, promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator.

Indications are that Newton will be in the pocket more under Shula, who will retain Rob Chudzinski’s zone-read package without necessarily featuring it.

How about the health of the other veterans coming off surgeries?

Coach Ron Rivera indicated the three rehabbing offensive starters – left tackle Jordan Gross (ankle), center Ryan Kalil (foot) and running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) – are progressing at a satisfactory rate. But none is expected to participate in any team drills before training camp.

“We’re pretty much going to keep the same tempo and tone with what they’ve been doing,” Rivera said.

That means extensive reps for backup tackle Bruce Campbell, who barely saw the field in 2012 after being traded to Carolina from Oakland. Campbell looks the part of a starting left tackle, but has not shown he can handle the role.

Stewart’s absence will give rookie Kenjon Barner a chance to show off his play-making skills. For all of the running backs on the roster, the Panthers don’t have one like Barner – small and shifty, with lots of speed.

How will the secondary shake out?

Despite cutting top cornerback Chris Gamble, the Panthers did not use a draft pick on a defensive back. General manager Dave Gettleman added several pieces in free agency, and picked up a couple of intriguing undrafted prospects in Alabama safety Robert Lester and Louisiana Lafayette corner Melvin White.

Lester, who won two national titles with the Crimson Tide, looked good in the rookie minicamp, and could challenge at the up-for-grabs safety spot opposite Charles Godfrey.

This will be the first time the veteran newcomers – corner Drayton Florence, nickel D.J. Moore and safety Mike Mitchell – will go through drills alongside returning corners Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and Captain Munnerlyn.

Who will provide depth on the lines?

After placing a team-record 18 players on injured reserve the past two seasons, Rivera wants to use OTAs to build depth, particularly along both lines.

Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers’ first two picks, will get plenty of work. So will Colin Cole, a 330-pound nose tackle who needs to show he’s in shape after being out of football two years.

Rivera mentioned several other young defensive linemen he wants to see – Sione Fua, Frank Alexander, undrafted Southern Cal defensive end Wes Horton and Louis Nzegwu, who signed last week after trying out at the rookie camp.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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