SPARTANBURG, S. C. -- Recent dramatic moves from the front office to the roster certainly helped get the attention of the Carolina Panthers even before the full squad reported Tuesday (July 25) for training camp at Wofford College.
Coming off a pathetic 6-10 record in 2016, owner Jerry Richardson obviously decided not to maintain status quo. He surprised almost everyone last week, including head coach Ron Rivera, by firing general manager Dave Gettleman, who was replaced by his predecessor, and now interim GM, Marty Hurney.
Rivera denied any input on the matter.
Hurney, Carolina's general manager from 2001-2012, knows Richardson's impatience well. Hurney drafted two consecutive Rookies of the Year, quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. But after a 1-5 start in 2012, Richardson fired Hurney.
Why pull the plug on Gettlemen so close to camp opening? Some point to the unsettled status of popular linebacker Thomas Davis and productive tight end Greg Olsen as well as releasing iconic Panthers, including wide receiver Steve Smith and running back DeAngelo Williams.
Knowing Richardson's impatient nature first hand, Hurney made changes quickly. First, he released offensive tackle Michael Oher, who had 110 NFL starts but failed his physical(concussions). That saved $1.69 million toward the salary cap, but it was quickly spent when guard Trai Turner's contract was extended to the tune of $45 million over four years.
"The offensive line is a key to the team's success and Trai is a very integral part of that," said Hurney.
He then fired Mark Koncz, who had been promoted in May by Gettleman from pro personnel director to director of player personnel.
Hurney inherits a team that hopes Newtown rebounds from offseason shoulder surgery, an unsettled secondary and that offensive line on which he already made significant moves.
Newton will report in the best shape of his career, based on social media pictures that show ripped abs and muscle tone. Hurney also gets Gettleman's final No. 1 draft pick, versatile running back Christian McCaffrey from Stanford.
The good news as camp opened was the presence of tight end Greg Olsen, who was the subject of speculation that he might hold out. Olsen wants a new contract, but has two years remaining on his current deal.
Upon arriving in Spartanburg, Olsen said, "We thought, obviously, long and hard about everything over the last couple months - our position, the team's position, how things played out and things changed last week with the move to let go of Dave. At the end of the day, with everything going on, and now with the transition to Marty and slight chaos that went around for another week, I just didn't feel like it was right for me to add fuel to that fire and make things that much more complicated, add more controversy or distraction to our team.
"I didn't think it was right to the players, I didn't think it was right to the guys that count on me to be a leader on this team and coaches, people in this organization - Mr. Richardson on down - who count on me to set a certain example both by my presence here but also my play. I just didn't think my selfishness would do any good."
Top Summer battle:
Despite all those big names and big bodies already in the news, one of the key battles for the Panthers this summer will be at kicker.
Graham Gano is the incumbent, but the Panthers felt serious enough about this position they selected Harrison Butker in the draft. Gano had his shakiest season as a Panther, capped by missing three field-goal attempts in the final game in a loss to Tampa Bay. With the seventh-round pick, Butker became the first kicker ever drafted by the Panthers. Butker was 15 of 17 on field goals as a senior.
TRAINING CAMP: Wofford College; Spartanburg, S.C.
HEAD COACH: Ron Rivera
7th season as Panthers/NFL head coach
56-45-1 overall; 3-3 postseason
2016 finish: 4th NFC South (6-10)
TOTAL OFFENSE: 343.7 (19th)
RUSHING: 113.4 (10th)
PASSING: 230.3 (T21st)
TOTAL DEFENSE: 359.8 (21st)
RUSHING: 91.6 (6th)
PASSING: 268.2 (29th)
2017 PRESEASON SCHEDULE
All times Eastern
Aug. 9, HOUSTON (Wed), 7:30
Aug. 19, at Tennessee (Sat), 3:00
Aug. 24, at Jacksonville (Thu), 7:30
Aug. 31, PITTSBURGH (Thu), 7:30
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Cam Newton. Backups - Derek Anderson, Joe Webb.
Newton was the NFL's Most Valuable Player in 2015, so he's on the elite level. He made steady progress in each season in the league until last year, when injuries were partly to blame. He's coming off shoulder surgery so his workload in training camp is something that must be considered. Anderson gives the Panthers the veteran backup who's good to have, but they probably don't want to rely on him across the course of an entire season.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey. Backups - Fozzy Whittaker, FB Alex Armah, FB Darrel Young, Jalen Simmons.
Stewart will be pushed by McCaffrey, if not for direct playing time than for prominence in the game plan. McCaffrey's versatility will be put to use, and that could leave Stewart to handle much of the grunt work with carries. McCaffrey has the ability to bring flair to the position and that's something that's much anticipated. Whittaker has been solid at times in a limited role and he's likely to stick with the team.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Greg Olsen. Backups - Ed Dickson, Chris Manhertz, Scott Simonson, Eric Wallace.
Olsen is one of the league's top producers at the position and he doesn't seem to be letting up. Perhaps because Olsen has been so entrenched at the position since arriving in a trade from the Chicago Bears, the Panthers haven't had much of a chance to groom others at the position and it's not a spot that has been attractive to free agents. Dickson will be looking to hang on to his backup role, with the need for more consistency.
Benjamin's physical presence at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds makes him difficult to cover, though his sometimes-ballooning weight tends to be a topic of discussion. Funchess has made considerable strides and has been lauded for his leadership among the receivers. Samuel is a rookie out of Ohio State who figures to factor in prominently in the team's plans, particularly with his speed.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Matt Kahil, LG Andrew Norwell, C Ryan Kahil, RG Trai Turner, RT Daryl Williams. Backups - RT Taylor Moton, T Dan France, T Tyrus Thompson, T Blaine Clausell, C Gino Gradkowski, C Tyler Larsen, C/G Greg Van Roten.
Matt Kahil arrived from the Minnesota Vikings to join his brother along the Carolina offensive line. Ryan Kahil has been an all-pro player, but he missed time last year with an injury. There could be quite a bit of sorting out along the line in August, though Norwell and Turner have proved to be dependable. Moton might be versatile enough to fill spots at guard and tackle until he potentially moves into a starting role. In fact, there's some thoughts that Moton might be the key to the whole breakdown along the front.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Charles Johnson, NT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawann Short, DE Wes Horton. Backups - NT Vernon Butler, DT Kyle Love DE Mario Addison, DT Eric Crume, DT Toby Johnson, DT Gabriel Mass, DE Charles Johnson, DE Julius Peppers, DE Bryan Cox, DT Toby Johnson.
This group has the chance to be extremely stout and there aren't any perceived weaknesses. Lotulelei and Short have gained more stock with their play and Horton has continued to be a force. The experience level is high as well, particularly with Johnson and Peppers, who began his career with the organization, available to fill vital roles. Addison has a high motor and could be in line for a breakout season after a nice contract bump. Upgrading the pass rush remains a priority, particularly with questions in the secondary.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - MLB Luke Kuechly, WLB Thomas Davis, SLB Shaq Thompson. Backups - David Mayo, Jeremy Cash, Jared Norris, Ben Jacobs, Ben Boulware, Zeek Bigger
Kuechly sat out a large chunk of last season with a concussion, missing time with that ailment for the second year in a row. He has the ability to be one of the best defensive players in the NFL, a status he has held previously. With Davis, the Panthers have one of the most revered players in the league and he continues to be a playmaker. There's no shortage of expectations for Thompson as well and his athleticism is something the team would like to see more of. Mayo made a case for the key backup role when he picked up some unexpected playing time for injured teammates last year.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB James Bradberry, RCB Daryl Worley, FS Kurt Coleman, SS Mike Adams. Backups - CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Corn Elder, CB Zack Sanchez, CB Teddy Williams, S Dean Marlowe, S Colin Jones, S Dezmen Southward, S Travell Dixon, S Brian Blechen.
Bradberry and Worley paid their dues during what was sometimes a rough 2016 rookie season. But they're more seasoned now and building their confidence during the offseason was one of the objectives. With the likelihood that Coleman moves back to free safety, that should increase his comfort level. But this means the Panthers are counting on Adams, at age 36, to provide additional stability in the secondary. Munnerlyn, a former Panther returning after playing for Minnesota, figures to be on the field plenty, particularly in special packages. Elder could stick on the roster in part because he has value as a return specialist. Jones' work on special teams adds to his value as well.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Graham Gano, K Harrison Butker, P Andy Lee, P Michael Palardy, LS J.J. Jansen, KOR Corn Elder, Chris Samuel. PR Corn Elder.
Gano has experience on his side, but Butker was valued enough to use a draft selection. Among punters, Palardy provided efficient after Lee went out with an injury last season. Jansen is the stabilizing force in the kicking game because he largely goes unnoticed. The returning specialist roles could be turned over to rookies, so that will be worth keeping an eye on. Elder provided some big-time plays on returns in college for Miami.