Postcard from camp: Panthers
Cam Newton has a tall task ahead as a rookie, but fans have embraced him
In a tight end-friendly offense, Greg Olsen can deliver on his high potential
The team spent big money in free agency, and needs a return on the investment
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
In Spartanburg, S.C., at Wofford College, the same campus owner Jerry Richardson roamed as a student a half-century ago. Other than a few shiny new buildings (it's a lovely little campus), it's not a lot different from the place Richardson attended. Nor is it any cooler. When practice began Sunday at 6, it was 88, with a heat index of 99, 95 percent humidity and thunderstorms on the way. Richardson drove down from Charlotte for the practice. And if you're coming for practice Wednesday, bring an umbrella. It'll be 102 and sunny.
1. Tight end may have gone from a position of weakness to one of strength. It's been since Wesley Walls that the Panthers had a good offensive tight end. Now they have two if Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey can stay healthy, which is no gimme. Shockey signed as a free agent; the Panthers dealt a third-round pick to Chicago for former first-rounder Olsen the other day. Saw Shockey in the student union after lunch today, hunkered down with tight end coach Pete Hoener, working on learning the playbook. I like what they've done there.
2. All eyes on Cam. No kidding! Newton sat next to left tackle Jordan Gross in the cafeteria Saturday and said, "Man, this is a lot to learn.'' Six weeks to the opener, and Newton will win the job if he's able to do what do few rookies can -- master what opposing defenses are doing, master the playbook and know where your receivers are going. But he's an impressive thrower, that's for sure.
3. The money guys had better come through. Big signings, but also big gambles for GM Marty Hurney. In giving 25-year-old Charles Johnson $12 million a year, he realizes that Johnson goes from being the underrated strongman no one could block to a guy who's going to have to justify being paid like a top-five defensive player in the league. Kicker Olindo Mare and his $3-million-a-year deal will be microscoped when he misses his first 31-yarder. Running back DeAngelo Williams and Jon Beason re-signed ... for an amazing $20.6 million a year, average. Meanwhile, they've lost value players like cornerback Richard Marshall.
Cam Newton, quarterback. It's rare to ask a rookie quarterback to carry so much weight, and rarer to ask one to do so without the benefit of an offseason with his team. But that is the lot Newton faces. On Sunday night, he threw the ball hard and in a tight spiral, but he was inaccurate for much of the practice until hitting wideout David Gettis on a deep bomb down the right sideline.
The fans have welcomed Newton with open arms -- anything successful Sunday night got a rousing hand from the several thousand there for training camp -- but Newton knows, as do the Panthers, that he'll be judged on games, not the friendly environment of steamy camp workouts. Owner Jerry Richardson has already let Newton know he'll be under a very hot spotlight, because of being the first draft pick overall and because Carolina has been looking for a quarterback of the future ever since letting Kerry Collins walk 13 years ago. It's unfair to ask a young player to shoulder so much of a franchise's burden, but fair or not, it's what Newton faces -- in a hurry -- in Carolina.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who came in trade from Chicago for a third-round pick, is a mystifying player. Why did the Bears draft an offensive tight end in the first round, and why wasn't Olsen given the chance to develop his skills in the Bear offense? Both good questions, but with Carolina offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski calling the plays and loving tight ends, I like Olsen to re-emerge as an offensive threat if he stays healthy.
Always like the Wofford cafeteria because of its variety -- and its vegetables, which, as you may know, are in short supply very often on this trip. Unless you count ketchup as a vegetable. This afternoon, the steamed zucchini was especially strong, along with the steamed cauliflower (not quite as good; slightly overcooked). Had a fine turkey burger patty with a slice of pork loin ... and a Starbucks bottled coffee drink, whatever those things are called. After a long morning writing for the magazine, that really hit the spot, all of it. Grade: B+.
I don't like a three-game November road trip, with Peyton Manning as the middle of the sandwich. And I don't like Green Bay coming to town in Week 2 off a 10-day break following the Pack's Thursday night opener. But let's face it: Could you invent a schedule in the tough NFC South that any team would actually look forward to?
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