The Carolina Panthers have been living a yo-yo-like existence the past few year. Since the end of coach Ron Rivera’s first year on the job in 2011, they have literally followed each “down’’ or sub-.500 season with an “up’’ double-digit winning season.
If the pattern holds, the 2015 NFC Champions should bounce back well from the 6-10 crash landing they suffered a year ago with a return to prominence and perhaps even the playoffs in 2017.
After re-signing defensive tackle Kawann Short, drafting running back Christian McCaffrey and signing left tackle Matt Kalil, defensive end Julius Peppers and safety Mike Adams in free agency, the Panthers look like a team poised for a bounceback year.
That said, they still have a few lingering questions to resolve during training camp. So, here are the three position battles that will warrant the most attention once camp starts up in a couple of weeks.
If Michael Oher were to show up for the start of training camp healthy and ready to go, this battle would probably end right then and there. The chances of that happening, though, seem quite slim.
Oher has been in the concussion protocol for 10 months and, of late, Rivera sounds like he doesn’t expect to see his former starting left tackle return anytime soon.
That will likely leave it to incumbent Daryl Williams and rookie Taylor Moton to duke it out for the starter’s job. Williams didn’t necessarily excel when given the chance last year, suggesting Moton could beat him out.
The Panthers invested the second of their two 2017 second-round draft picks in Moton (No. 64 overall), but a lot of scouts believe they over-drafted him and that Moton will need at least a year or two to develop.
The same was said of Williams when he came out of Oklahoma three years ago, and now that he’s had that time as well some starts he could emerge as the team’s best option, but getting Oher back would be even better.
Were it not for rookie Roberto Aguayo failing to justify his status as a second-round draft pick in Tampa Bay, Graham Gano would have had the worst hit rate of any kicker attempting 30 or more field goals last year.
During a season in which Carolina lost six games by a field goal or less, Gano hit only 30 of 38 field-goal tries (78.9-percent) and made just 31 of 34 his PATs, prompting the Panthers to draft Harrison Butker in the seventh round.
The transaction marked the first time in franchise history that the Panthers have spent a draft pick on a kicker, but there’s little to suggest that Butker will be an immediate improvement from a scoring standpoint.
Though he has a leg strong enough to help his coverage unit and eliminate the potential for kick returns, Butker made just 43 of the 60 field goals he tried (71.7-percent) during his college career at Georgia Tech.
That will help give Gano an edge going into camp, but Gano’s field-goal percentage has been on the decline for four years, so a good camp in which he displays a little bit more consistency could win Butker the job.
The depth chart here is in a state of flux. Kelvin Benjamin is still the top dog and Devin Funchess should be the other starter but the Panthers are open to a lot of other possibilities and well they should be.
The problem is that neither Benjamin nor Funchess have played to the level the Panthers believe they’re capable of and this is a team that desperately needs someone to step up as an alternative to tight end Greg Olsen.
Funchess will go to camp with the inside track on earning that second starter’s job but the arrival of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel in the draft and Russell Shepard and Charles Johnson in free agency will force him to earn it.
McCaffrey and Samuel likely will be used primarily in the slot, which means Funchess will be pushed hardest by Shepard and Johnson, and Shepard is the one who bears watching the most.
He was one of Carolina’s most impressive players during spring workouts and he came to the Panthers in part because he’s eager to show he’s more than just gunner on special teams.