Postcard from camp: Panthers
It's unusual to see the Panthers without pillars Jake Delhomme and Julius Peppers
LSU rookie Brandon LaFell has turned heads with his playmaking and terrific hands
At QB, second-rounder Jimmy Clausen is outperforming sixth-rounder Tony Pike
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Peter King had to say about the Panthers camp in Spartanburg, S.C. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
On the campus of owner Jerry Richardson's alma mater, Wofford College, in Spartanburg, S.C., is one of the really fan-friendly spots of the camp tour. In the middle of campus is the university's soccer field, and this morning, I ran 10 laps around it -- 2.5 miles. The longtime PR czar here, Charlie Dayton, told me this afternoon: "The field you ran around today is the same field Mr. Richardson played his college football career, and the same field Stephen Davis played his high school football.'' Now there's a factoid I bet you didn't know.
1. What a different team. Strange to see the Panthers without Jake Delhomme and Julius Peppers. If the Panthers are going to a playoff contender, there's no question the two players that need to produce at a big-level are quarterback Matt Moore and defensive end Everette Brown.
2. I saw two good young receivers. Actually two good, young, third-round rookie receivers. Brandon LaFell (LSU) is an angular guy with terrific hands (he made a circus one-handed catch that drew oohs from the crowd on campus this afternoon) who is ahead of the Michigan killer, converted Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards. Edwards had two drops this afternoon, but I'm told he's been impressive and will definitely win a spot barring a very disappointing summer.
3. Replacing three starting defensive linemen (Julius Peppers, Maake Kemoeatu, Damione Lewis) won't be easy. And I worry that tackle Ed Johnson -- twice kicked off the Colts for disciplinary reasons -- will eventually disappoint John Fox. That's a huge key to the Panthers' season, whether the new pieces on the defensive front can get similar production to last year's eighth-ranked NFL defense.
Because the Panthers did nothing of note in big-name free-agency, I'll nominate a player returning from a 2009 concussion who has a chance to make a little noise this year in the event of a backfield injury -- running back Mike Goodson. At 6-foot and 212 pounds, Goodson plays a little bigger than that without sacrificing speed. He showed a good burst in practice this afternoon taking some of the reps that normally would have gone to Jonathan Stewart, who is on the active Physically Unable to Perform list, meaning he can return to practice at any time. (Stewart had offseason surgery to remove bone spurs pressing on his Achilles tendon.) Goodson's going to have to make every preseason carry count, but he runs violently and has good quickness. He's got a chance.
Second-round quarterback Jimmy Clausen, wearing No. 2, showed more accuracy with more zip on his ball this afternoon than sixth-rounder Tony Pike -- particularly in the accuracy department. Clausen, very simply, looks like he belongs. He operates confident in and out of the huddle, throws a strong ball, and I'm hearing Jeff Davidson's offense is not too big for him. But Clausen is not in competition for the starting job with Matt Moore. The job is Moore's to lose, and Moore would really have to stink it up early in the season to lose it.
The hands of Brandon LaFell. I don't know he 'LaFell' to the third round of the draft, but he made one terrific catch and another couple of nabs in traffic that were big-time. I would be surprised if by the end of the year we don't see LaFell making big catches down the field for Carolina. Coaches love him.
Lunch entrée: In keeping with my healthy camp habits (don't worry, they won't last), I threw together a good summer salad -- iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumbers, grape tomatoes -- with balsamic vinaigrette, and a scoop of chicken salad on the side. Excellent chicken salad. Just OK lettuce.
Drink: Dasani water.
1. You don't get any sense that John Fox is coaching, behaving or feeling like a lame duck. He's in the last year of his contract, and it's clear that if he wants top-eight NFL coaches' money (which he does), he's not going to get it in Carolina. I expect Fox to be elsewhere next year, but I don't expect it will be a factor with his team this year, because Fox isn't going to air it publicly and his players don't seem to notice.
2. Carolina's going to score. The question is whether they can defend. When they lost weakside OLB Thomas Davis to his second ACL injury in June, that was a blow Fox and company never expected -- and it meant that one of their best two front-seven players (along with Jon Beason) was gone for the year, in a year they couldn't afford to lose him. "Coach Fox brings in fighters,'' Beason told me, "and that's what we've got out here right now. We'll need that this year. I think we'll be fine.'' Beason, who has moved to strongside linebacker with Dan Connor taking over the middle (he would have preferred to stay inside, but understands he needed to move because Connor's a better option in the middle than Carolina had outside) will need to be more of a sideline-to-sideline playmaker this year, to help make up for so many missing pieces.
3. Carolina's the only team in NFL history to have two 1,100-yard-plus backs, Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and if both stay healthy, Fox plans to use them the same way. Last year, Stewart had 221 carries, Williams 216, and it was the perfect way to keep both relatively fresh -- although Williams missed three games with a knee injury last year.
4. Quickie observations: Armenti Edwards, I thought, would be a duplicate in body type and play of Antwaan Randle El, but he's thicker than Randle El in the shoulders ... Tight end Dante Rosario might have only 50 catches in 46 career games, but if you saw him in practice this afternoon, you'd have said: They've got to use this guy a lot more. Good hands, good power moves over the middle ... Matt Moore is an unlikely starting quarterback, to be sure. He's an anonymous guy, not a holler guy, and it'll be an adjustment for him to be the kind of leader Delhomme was. He throws a good, accurate ball. I'm more bullish on Mo ore than my peers. I think the proof is in how he played down the stretch last year, and he played very well in winning his last three starts ... Jordan Gross back at left tackle after 2009 knee surgery, looking stout.
5. After practice, I was interviewing Everette Brown, the defensive end whose job, in part, will be to replace Julius Peppers. The aforementioned Charlie Dayton approached and handed Brown a Gatorade. "Thank you, Mr. Charlie,'' said Brown, the epitome of southern politeness.