The Carolina Panthers began their final week of organized team activities Monday, their last on-field sessions before mandatory minicamp opens next week.
With two weeks of OTAs complete, the most important word of the day for coach Ron Rivera’s team was “retention” as it prepares for a lengthy break between minicamp and training camp in July. To his relief, the Panthers seemed to retain an awful lot.
A few observations from Monday’s practice:
▪ Ian Thomas, rookie Christian Miller, Dorian Johnson, Marcus Baugh each worked off to the side to begin the session. Free-agent signee Matt Paradis worked on a stationary bike as he continues to recover from a broken leg suffered in 2018. Fellow offensive linemen Daryl Williams and Trai Turner ran sprints off to the side during the latter portion of practice.
Wide receiver Torrey Smith was not at practice.
▪ The most prevalent injury recovery of the Panthers offseason remains Cam Newton’s return from shoulder surgery in January. Newton did not throw Monday, splitting his time between working on the sideline and engaging with the offense during team drills, but Rivera confirmed the quarterback has begun to throw. The Observer first reported this development in Newton’s progress last week.
While the public confirmation is new, Rivera stuck to what he’s said throughout this offseason: that there is no date set for Newton to practice in full with the team.
“He’s just continued to work with the trainers on the side and do whatever they ask of him,” Rivera said. “He’ll continue to progress and we’ll see where he is at the end of the week.”
▪ Rivera said he is impressed by the way his team has retained and picked up new information during OTAs, specifically Carolina’s development within offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s system.
On the other side of the ball, it appears the Panthers accomplished their desire to get faster on defense. Rivera said the unit as a whole has handled the installation of a new 3-4 scheme “very well,” but its overall speed has stood out.
“I just really like the speed on the defensive side,” he said. “I mean, we’re faster than I think we’ve ever been, it’s been kind of cool to watch.”
▪ The Panthers defense flashed some of its playmaking ability, including a pick six by safety Quin Blanding off Kyle Allen. Rookie Will Grier was intercepted during team drills by defensive tackle Kawann Short and safety Kai Nacua. Short deflected a pass at the line of scrimmage before returning it for a touchdown. Nacua elevated over a triple-covered wide receiver D.J. Moore.
▪ Speaking of Nacua, Rivera said the second-year player is one of several names fighting for Carolina’s starting free safety spot — which essentially confirmed the team sees Eric Reid as a strong safety.
“We’ve got a good battle going on back there in the secondary when you look at the free safety position,” Rivera said. “Rashaan Gaulden has had a very good camp, Colin Jones has stepped up and done some very nice things and Kai is a guy who’s really made a name for himself as well.
“We’ve got guys that we need to take a real close look at. That’ll be one of the positions to watch during training camp.”
▪ First, it was Jordan Gross. Then it was Ryan Kalil. Now, it seems right guard Trai Turner will assume the leadership role on the offensive line. The four-time Pro Bowler has taken responsibility of a line that needs to improve from last season — and Rivera said the team is taking precautionary measures to ensure it keeps the unit’s best player healthy in 2019.
“It’s neat to watch Trai assume the mantle,” Rivera said. “Trai has stepped up and has become kind of that veteran leader ... He works hard when he’s in there, doing the things that he’s supposed to.
“We’ve tried to be real smart with Trai, he’s getting up there. You’ve got to continue to monitor his reps to make sure we’re not having him overexerting himself.”
Turner, a third-round draft pick in 2014, split his time between drills and side work Monday.
▪ Despite his two interceptions, Grier looked markedly better Monday than he did over the previous two weeks. He completed a gorgeous touchdown pass to Greg Olsen, who looked as healthy as ever after suffering a torn plantar fascia late in the 2018 season.