As he stood under the shade of a tent Thursday following the Carolina Panthers’ final minicamp practice, general manager Dave Gettleman laughed and smiled as a group of visiting youth campers chanted for coach Ron Rivera.
Let others point out the holes and deficiencies in the Panthers’ lineup following an offseason of roster churn; the man responsible for putting it together was in good spirits as the Panthers wrapped up their minicamp.
The Panthers have a quarterback still recovering from ankle surgery, a completely remade secondary and receiving corps, and a competition at left tackle between two players who haven’t played the position.
But Gettleman likes the energy and attitude he saw during the four weeks of OTAs (organized team activities).
“I think they feel they have unfinished business,” Gettleman said. “It’s been since they walked in the door back in April (for offseason workouts). They’ve worked very, very hard. They’ve been very diligent. They’re focused.”
The Panthers went 12-4 in 2013 and won their division to snap a four-year playoff drought. But there’s never been a repeat champion in the NFC South, and many experts expect that trend to continue.
The Panthers’ personnel losses have been rehashed at length during the offseason, and Rivera and his staff got a look at the replacements and reinforcements during OTAs.
But Rivera and Gettleman were quick to point out it’s tough to make a detailed evaluation when players are practicing in shorts and jerseys – or in “pajamas,” as center Ryan Kalil put it.
Gettleman said it’s particularly difficult to get an accurate read on offensive linemen during the shorts-and-helmets sessions. So the Panthers will head to Spartanburg and training camp in four weeks still needing to sort out whether Byron Bell or Nate Chandler will take over for the retired Jordan Gross at left tackle.
When they pull the pads on at Wofford, Bell and Chandler will be tested daily by defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who have emerged as one of the top sack tandems in the league.
“One of the blessings we have is these pass-rushing defensive ends that we’ve got,” Gettleman said. “The toughest days for these (tackles) is going to be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We’ve talked to them about helping each other, (with) the tackles talking to the ends and the ends talking to the tackles. ... You just let nature take its course.”
Chandler, who signed a three-year extension worth $7.95 million this week, plans to work on his technique this summer with Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater. Chandler, the former defensive tackle who started eight games last season at right guard, went to UCLA with Slater’s son, Matt.
“This kid wants it,” Gettleman said.
Bell and Chandler will try to keep Hardy and Johnson off quarterback Cam Newton, who surprised teammates Thursday by taking part in 7-on-7 passing drills. It was the most extensive work for Newton since his March 19 surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle.
Rivera said the next step in Newton’s rehab will be the start of a running program. Newton didn’t move much in the pocket Thursday, but isn’t concerned about any mobility issues.
“That’s not a problem for me. I’m feeling better than I thought I would at this point, looking at the calendar,” Newton said. “All in all, it’s getting better and that’s a good sign.”
Several of the Panthers’ rookies had promising showings at OTAs. First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin plucked high jump-ball throws in the end zone each of the past two days, and is the red-zone target Newton has lacked at wideout.
Third-round pick Trai Turner has a bead on a starting spot at right guard, while second-rounder Kony Ealy looks like he’ll be in the defensive end rotation with Hardy, Johnson and Mario Addison.
There are still areas of concern, starting with the offensive line, secondary and wideout group.
“We have a ways to go,” Rivera said. “The one thing we want to get better at is the details, the little things. Every day this week I’ve emphasized something. Everything from tempo to managing the play clock to sideline discipline. Those are little things that we’ve got to continue to manage because they will lead to big things for us.”
Most experts aren’t expecting big things for these Panthers. NFL.com’s Gil Brandt, the longtime player personnel director for the Dallas Cowboys, picked the Panthers as one of six teams likely to take a step back this season.
And while Gettleman likes the spirit of his team, he wasn’t ready to start making predictions Thursday.
“Every year’s new. We’re all starting 0-0. And everybody gets tired of hearing that, but that’s really where it’s at,” he said. “I feel good about where we’re at right now. You just have to get into it and see where it goes.”