Carolina Panthers training camp superlatives

jperson@charlotteobserver.comAugust 13, 2013 

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— The Panthers’ three-week stay at Wofford could be summed up like this: No major injuries, no major drama and not much zone read.

Third-year quarterback Cam Newton spent most of training camp in the pocket, with new offensive coordinator Mike Shula only occasionally breaking out the read option. Newton traversed Wofford’s streets and sidewalks on a Segway but interacted more with teammates, whether it was making one-handed catches before practice or playing cards between meetings.

Running back Jonathan Stewart ended camp as he started it: on an exercise bike rehabbing his surgically repaired ankle. Stewart and linebacker Jon Beason (knee) have yet to step onto the practice field.

But most of the Panthers’ injuries were what coach Ron Rivera called the “knickknack” variety, with the exception of the likely season-ending surgeries coming up for backup offensive tackle Bruce Campbell (shoulder) and undrafted rookie fullback Mike Zordich (knee).

The Observer breaks down the Panthers’ training camp and what still needs to be accomplished before the Sept. 8 opener against Seattle.

Five players who helped themselves

Mike Mitchell: Strong safety was a position of concern before camp, but Mitchell, a free agent pickup from Oakland, secured the spot. Mitchell sometimes angered receivers with his aggressive play, but he looks like a good complement to free safety Charles Godfrey.

Armanti Edwards: It took four years and three position coaches, but the former Appalachian State quarterback is finally looking like an NFL receiver. He could be the No. 3 wideout if he returns quickly from a hamstring injury.

Brandon Williams: Three weeks ago he was a project: A former Oregon tight end who played basketball at Portland Bible College last winter. Now he’s the team’s second-best receiving tight end, behind Greg Olsen.

Garry Williams: Thrust into the starting lineup at right guard after the surprising release of Geoff Hangartner less than a week into camp, Williams has made the most of his chance.

Graham Gano: The fourth-year kicker was in no real danger of losing his job, but Gano continuously showed off a strong leg, including a 50-yard field goal against Chicago that would have been good from 60.

Three players who hurt themselves

Edmund Kugbila: The fourth-round pick was expected to challenge for the right guard spot, but even after Hangartner was cut, Kugbila has been a non-factor because injuries are keeping him off the field.

Domenik Hixon: Considered the favorite at No. 3 wideout, Hixon’s hamstring problems continued at camp. Rivera said he’s concerned about Hixon being able to get his timing down in the offense.

Robert Lester: An undrafted safety from Alabama, Lester was the talk of the spring because of his championship pedigree and good frame. But he showed in camp why he wasn’t drafted, with average speed and lack of big plays.

Biggest areas of concern

Offensive line depth: Campbell’s shoulder injury leaves the Panthers without their best reserve tackle. Kugbila is at least another week away from returning from his hamstring injury, and no one knows for certain how he’ll play when healthy.

Secondary: Rivera said he’s not worried about the cornerbacks. Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn had solid camps and Josh Norman dazzled with a two-interception game against the Bears. But this is a secondary that allowed quarterbacks to complete 66.8percent of their passes in 2012, the worst mark in the league.

Receiver depth: Three of the wideouts fighting for the third spot are expected to sit Thursday at Philadelphia: Hixon, Edwards and Joe Adams. Ted Ginn Jr. had a hard time getting on the same page as Derek Anderson in the first preseason game, and David Gettis and Kealoha Pilares still have issues with drops.

Biggest injury concerns

Jonathan Stewart and Jon Beason: This was true when camp started, and it’s still the case. Each is progressing but is not yet running full speed. Rivera still hasn’t given a specific timetable for their return.

Three things we learned

Steve Smith can still play: Smith, 34, has to slow down at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet. He snares everything with his hands, gets behind defensive backs and has good chemistry with Newton.

The front seven looks as good as advertised: Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly set the tone by picking off Newton during the first practice, and ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson gave blockers fits. And most of the drills weren’t live.

Ted Ginn Jr. is a major upgrade: Though he didn’t return any kicks against Chicago, Ginn has made it look effortless when he brings kicks out of the end zone during special teams drills. Expect Ginn to break a couple of long ones this season.

Best quote

“I’m more at the point now where if I was a female and 35, I’m looking to get pregnant and married tomorrow. So sense of urgency is an understatement.” – Steve Smith

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

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