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Carolina Panthers: 2016 season preview

By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange

After a near-perfect 2015 regular season and a disappointing performance in the Super Bowl, the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers must guard against one key issue when sixth-year head coach Ron Rivera opens full training camp July 27.

Super Bowl hangover.

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"We need to push even harder this year and remind each other you can't assume anything," Rivera said after minicamp. When training camp opens he will continue to remind 19 returning starters that it will be even harder to replicate their 15-1 record from 2015.

Newton walks off the field in defeat following the Panthers final possession against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Photo by Brian Kersey/UPI
Quarterback Cam Newton, criticized so often and severely after the Super Bowl it was almost forgotten he was the NFL MVP, embraces Rivera's warning about Super Bowl hangover.

In fact, he is intently focused on improving.

"I haven't peaked, I haven't climaxed as a player, and that's what I need to get better at," Newton said during minicamp last month.

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"I always can find ways to take my game to the next level. Just getting everybody on the same page, as one of the captains, I take that very pridefully knowing that there are a lot of people looking at me to lead this team."

Heading into his sixth season, Newton acknowledges that he must focus on improving accuracy and decision-making on the field.

In the personnel department, some were surprised when general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise designation from Josh Norman, allowing the feisty cornerback to sign a free-agent contract with the Washington Redskins ($75 million, five years, $36.5 million guaranteed; $15 million signing bonus).

That means the Panthers will open training camp with one corner spot manned by rookie James Bradberry (Round 2, No. 62), from little Samford College. At the other corner should be Bene' Benwikere, who is coming off a broken leg.

In the first round of the draft, the Panthers took Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler (No. 30 overall), who should add depth and youth to the rotation.

Here is a closer look at the newcomers and key players and how they should factor into the Panthers' 2016 team:

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TRAINING CAMP SCHEDULE

SITE, LOCATION, ROOKIES, VETERANS

Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC, 7/27, 7/27

2015 RECORD: 17-2

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 5-1

COACH: Ron Rivera

6th season as Panthers/NFL head coach

50-35-1 overall; 3-3 postseason

STARTERS RETURNING:

19; 11 offense, 8 defense, kicker

OFFSEASON STANDOUT: Wide receiver Devin Funchess

Funchess makes a leaping catch during Super Bowl 50. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
--The 2015 second-round pick really came on in the second half of last season and he picked up where he left off. Funchess was clearly the most improved player on the field the past month and the Panthers are salivating at lining him up across from a now healthy Benjamin.

NEWCOMERS

The draft -- A closer look at the Panthers' picks (5):

--Round 1/30 -- Vernon Butler, DT, 6-4, 323, Louisiana Tech

Panthers strengthened a strength, adding another big body to the interior of their defensive line. Butler will slide into a rotation led by Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.

--Round 2/62 -- James Bradberry, CB, 6-1, 211, Samford

A small-school player who the Panthers believe has a big-time ceiling. Has ideal size to play in Carolina's zone schemes.

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--Round 3/77 -- Daryl Worley, CB, 6-1, 204, West Virginia

Like Bradberry, has a frame Carolina wants in a corner. Worley was suspended for two games in 2014, but the Panthers believe he's past his previous troubles.

--Round 5/141 -- Zack Sanchez, CB, 5-11, 185, Oklahoma

Feast or famine playmaker who racked up 15 interceptions in his three seasons with the Sooners. Also allowed 12 touchdowns.

--Round 7/252 -- Beau Sandland, TE, 6-4, 253, Montana State

Miami transfer had nine scores for the FCS Bobcats. With strong spring and summer, could make roster as third tight end.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--C/G Gino Gradkowski: Versatile, former Falcon slides into backup role at both center and guard.

--S Trenton Robinson: Free-agent signing from Washington could carve out a special teams role.

--P Mike Scifres: Has a great opportunity after long career in San Diego.

--DT Paul Soliai: Free-agent signee will back up fellow Polynesian space-filler Star Lotulelei.

KEY LOSS: CB Josh Norman (16/16)*

--Few expected the Panthers to meet Norman's long-term contract demands, but no one foresaw the team taking the tag away in April. His departure leaves a big hole in the secondary.

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OTHER LOSSES:

--DE Jared Allen (12/12), T Nate Chandler (0/0), WR Jerrico Cotchery (14/3), DT Dwan Edwards (12/0), CB Cortland Finnegan (5/0), G Tyronne Green (0/0), S Roman Harper (16/16), P Brad Nortman (16/0), G Amini Silatolu (9/3), CB Charles Tillman (12/12), C Fernando Velasco (12/1)*

Total games played/started lost: 124/63

*Number in parentheses is games played/games started in 2015

-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX's network of NFL insiders provided information for this report.

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