The Carolina Panthers hope to have upgraded the left tackle position over last year's starter Byron Bell. Bell struggled greatly against faster defensive ends who could quickly divert around him. 
Bell's replacement, Michael Oher, appears to be having the same issue early in training camp. 
Oher had a tough time today containing Mario Addison and Frank Alexander in the first practice where the players were in full pads. On more than one occasion, Cam Newton would have been sacked if not for the "QB off limits" rule in training camp. 
The play of the day for the defensive line came from Mario Addison who was matching up against Oher. Addison was able to quickly move around Oher's left side and bat down a Cam Newton pass. While cheers came from the sidelines for the defense, the offensive coaching staff must be at least a little concerned. 
Options at left tackle are extremely limited for the Panthers currently. The second string left tackle for the Panthers is currently Nate Chandler, who lost the left tackle position last season to Byron Bell. 
Oher will need to improve, particularly against the speed rushers, if the Panthers offense plans on having an effective passing game this season. 
Shaq Thompson has officially arrived at Panthers training camp. While being largely absent the first two practices, he started to come into his own on today's third practice. 

 
During 7 on 7 drills, Thompson made a speedy break on a Cam Newton pass intended for Greg Olsen. Thompson batted the ball now, marking his first official play made in Panthers training camp. 

One of Thompson's primary responsibilities will be to cover talented tight ends like Jimmy Graham (now in Seattle). Getting camp experience against pro bowler Greg Olsen can only accelerate his learning and adjusting to the pro game. 
Thompson continued to impress throughout the day. Another play that sticks out in my mind is a very quick gap stop, halting Fozzy Whitaker's progress. The Carolina Panthers had issues with plugging the correct gap in run defense for a good portion of last season. 
Shaq Thompson is having more thrown at him than most defensive rookies. He is learning what is probably the most complicated position on the defensive side of the field. While other rookies can be thrown into the mix relatively quickly, Thompson will require more film room time in addition to playing time. 
If today's performance is any indication, Thompson may be a quick study. 
Not a great day for photos, but the day did yield some things worth seeing. 
 
First off, Kelvin Benjamin continues to impress. This long reception from Cam Newton over Carrington Byndom put an exclamation point on his day. Kelvin has been catching the ball very well, with very few drops. 

 
Shaq Thompson has been very quiet in team drills. There is no bad news, but there is no good news on that front. In drills, however, it is easy to see how athletic he is. He moves exactly like that linebacker/safety hybrid he was billed as. It remains to be seen how this will translate on game days 

I am really impressed with Brandon Wegher's speed. Once he hits a hole he bursts out as quickly as any running back I have ever seen. Keep an eye on this kid, he could be a sleeper to make the practice squad or more. 

Jordan Todman took the field again after missing some time yesterday. He is in direct competition with Wegher for a roster spot, but Todman's experience returning kicks will most likely give him the edge. 

Kurt Coleman has been very impressive in camp so far. He spent some time in the strong safety position today with Roman Harper sliding over to free safety. He made a really nice adjustment on a poorly thrown Cam Newton ball intended for Greg Olsen and made the interception. No comment on the socks... 

After being Captain America yesterday, Today Cam was Spiderman. Tomorrow.... Ironman? 

A funny moment occurred after practice as the linebackers practiced catching interceptions. Kelvin Benjamin strolled through their drill casually and purposefully, taking his time. 
 

Kelvin was notified by Thomas Davis that it would be the last time he did that, as Kelvin just grinned. 
 
Other thoughts not pictured- 
- Ted Ginn was very impressive today. His TD reception over Josh Norman was something the Panthers could have surely used early last season. Norman was a good five or six yards yards behind Ginn. 
- Up until now the offense has been winning the training camp battle, which is typically how it works. It will likely be a different story on Sunday when the pads are on. 
Last season, then rookie Kelvin Benjamin was selected to get in special reps with Cam Newton away from the other players. Typically, they would go over end zone routes or fine tune a few things here or there.
Well, that trend is happening again this year, but they have added one more participant. 
Devin Funchess

During Saturday's training camp session, Kelvin and Devin joined Cam Newton on the opposite field to work together away from the rest of the team. 
 
They caught extra passes from Cam Newton while running various routes, and then spoke to Newton about them. 

 
 

 
Small adjustments were made, and the routes run again. 
 
During one of the drills, Funchess had a chance to show off his vertical while going for an overthrown ball. I found it fairly impressive. 
 

I realize this may not seem like much, but it could be early signs of a Kelvin/Devin duo taking over the receiving corps.
 
Stay tuned. 
Each day during Carolina Panthers training camp I will be giving a few observations on how some of the Panthers rookies are shaping up according to their performance that day. Not all rookies will be discussed, as I only have a single set of eyeballs. 
Offensive Tackle Daryl Williams seems to have improved since OTAs. This may be because contact is allowed now, giving a guy like Williams his full arsenal to work with. 
Williams was able to get out of his stance quicker, kick that back foot and not letting speedy defensive ends around him as easily. 

Ron Rivera watched on as Williams demonstrated his improved technique. 

Note: Daryl Williams spent time in drills on the right AND the left side. A sign of things to come? Could be. 
Cameron Artis-Payne had the crowds in the stands and on the lawn pretty excited. He showed a really nice second gear once he got past the defensive line. He also covered up and protected the ball well. At this point you could not ask for much more from a rookie runningback. 

Devin Funchess had a relatively quiet day. Nothing negative to report, but not much positive as well. He caught the ball well in drills, but did not have many opportunities in team drills. 
 
One could easily make the argument that Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell was the biggest steal in last year's rookie class. At the cost of an undrafted free agent, the Panthers landed an impressive full time starter in year one. 
Now, in year two, he seems to have picked up right where he left off. 
During 1 on 1 drills between the offensive and defensive lines, Norwell displayed exactly why he is currently the starter over former starter Amini Silotulu. 
Norwell is not a physical specimen. He does not have the measurables and stats that pro scouts adore. 
But he does have a special set of skills....

 
Norwell is technically sound and football strong. Even while taking hands to the face from Dwan Edwards. 

He recovers, plants himself, and drives the defensive opponent backwards. 

Later, he did much the same with KK Short, which is no easy task. 
 
 
Notice the quick feet, wide stance, and punishing forearm that will keep Cam Newton looking down field and not for somewhere to run. 
 
I know, I know, its another Norwell article from Igo. But really folks, this kid is a long term solution for the Panthers that did not cost a draft pick. In today's NFL of high priced QBs and other marquee players, Norwell is exactly the type of player that allows a team to contend year after year. 
The Carolina Panthers need unsung guys like Norwell if they expect to be playing in January. 
 
 
It is about to get a little sappy on the Huddle. If that bothers you, click away now....
While there is much media coverage of some of the more negative things that happen in any given year to any given team, very little attention is sometimes paid to the more understated positivity that becomes the foundation for a team's identity. Its character. 
After Friday night's practice, spectators got a glimpse of what is the real heart of this Panthers team and what makes a veteran player one that is respected both on and off the field. 
You know, I can't really relate to these guys in most areas. I am not particularly athletic or competitive. But after practice on Friday night I found myself relating to the Panthers players in a new way. A much more important way, in fact. I related to them (and I assume many onlookers did as well) as a parent, not just a player. 
After the whistle had blown and the helmets came off, the men in black and blue were just dads. Dads on a football field seeking autographs for their kids. Can you relate?
Greg Olsen and Ryan Kalil made sure the gang got some attention from Cam Newton, who thoroughly enjoyed the exchange. I imagine Cam's Captain America shirt may have meant more to the kids at that age. None the less, lasting memories made. 

Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly happily signed for the kiddos as well. 

Luke added a high five for good measure. 

Greg Olsen was sure to introduce his son to Panthers rookie Shaq Thompson. Olsen made sure to instruct him on how to make a proper and courteous introduction, as all good fathers do. A practice I have made countless times with my own twin boys. Again, commonalities and relating to the person, not just the player. 

After the fanfare and before signing countless more autographs (how these guys have the energy for so many fans and autographs after practice I will never know), Thomas Davis managed some one on one time with his daughter who reveled in the opportunity. 

And that, my friends, is an example of the underlying foundation of this entire team.

 
Carolina Panthers training camp 2015 kicked off on Friday night to a good sized crowd, anxious to see what their 2015 squad had to offer. 
To help get the crowd excited, Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton had a contest of sorts. Which player could get the crowd louder. Tolbert may have won, in my opinion. 

Cam Newton continued to look very sharp throughout the day. I remarked in OTAs that this may be the best I have ever seen him. One can only hope this development continues when the pads are on. 

Newton and new left tackle Michael Oher have a special hand shake they do before each series. It is important that these two develop a trust quickly if the Panthers offense hopes to improve on last season. 

Colin Jones could possibly be the most improved defensive player of the offseason. He may not let go of that buffalo package roster spot as quickly as some think. Jones is the fastest defensive player on the team and a real asset against those offenses that like to spread the ball around. 

Stephen Hill practiced and improved on a lackluster June performance. My only concern remains his propensity to catch the ball with his body and not look it into his hands. He has a tendency to take his eye off the ball more than any other receiver I have photographed. 

Ted Ginn, on the other hand, nearly always is looking the ball into his hands.... observe...

Fozzy Whitaker showed the explosiveness that the fans grew to love last season. He has some new competition this year in Jordan Todman and rookies Artis-Payne and Wegher, but Fozzy does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon . 

Even though he is on the sideline, Cam Newton doesn't take a break. He continues to go through mental reps that helps him prepare. Cam's growth as a player has as much to do with what he does on the sidelines as what he does under center. 

Brenton Bersin made a few nice catches much to the delight of the Wofford crowd. "Here we go Bersin, here we go" was the chant of the day. 

Josh Norman had a mixed day. While he did may a couple of nice plays on the ball....

He also let Jerricho Cotchery get behind him for a long completion from Cam Newton (would have been a touchdown.). 

Ted Ginn was first team punt returns, and quickly impressed. 

As he bolted up field and to the sideline, he received from praise from new Panthers safety Kurt Coleman who exclaimed "Oh, he is fast". 

Speaking of Coleman, I liked what I saw out of him on Friday. He had an interception and a really nice break up on a Cam Newton to Ed Dickson connection. Note the ball coming out below.... 
Former Panthers safety Chris Harris is back in a Panthers uniform, this time coaching up the defensive backs as an assistant. He and Peanut Tillman spent a lot of time going over the finer points. 

Damiere Byrd got in a few snaps late. While he was able to get behind the defenders, he was then slowed by contact that probably would not have drawn a flag. Byrd needs to learn the finer points of playing through such contact on a pro level. He has time, and I feel the Panthers are impressed enough with him to keep him in the mix and see if he improves. 

Overall, it was a solid first practice. I was happy with the tempo and enthusiasm. The Panthers are looking less like a young team in search of an identity and more like a veteran team on a mission. 
 
 
Over the past several weeks, Kelvin Benjamin had to live with the first bit of real negative press about him concerning his weight. Of course, we all remember in June when Ron Rivera remarked he was 10 pounds overweight, which played a role in his hamstring pull.
Well, if the first training camp practice of 2015 was any indication, Kelvin Benjamin has turned that criticism into motivation and made a statement saying exactly that. 
Kelvin made multiple catches from Cam Newton, finding a nice soft spot in the zone defenses and making the grab. While being covered by a variety of players, from Boston to Byndom to Norman, Benjamin made play after play, and did it with style. 

Towards the end of practice, Kelvin hauled in a long bomb form Cam Newton in which he out bodied and out jumped Carrington Byndom for what would have been a first down in the red zone. 

I think it is safe to say we can all officially put to rest the concerns over Kelvin's conditioning (which I never fully bought into in the first place.) Kelvin has picked up exactly where he left off last season, namely the most dangerous receiver on the team. 
 
The Carolina Panthers Training Camp last season introduced us to guys like Andrew Norwell and Corey Brown. Two undrafted free agents who ended up making major contributions to the playoff run of 2015. 
So who will be the sleepers this season? Well, here are my best pre-camp guesses.....
 
1. Damiere Byrd - WR South Carolina
While small in stature, Byrd has the physical gifts that the Panthers need, namely pure speed. During OTA's, Byrd connected with the Panthers backup quarterbacks for multiple long bomb touchdowns. This local kid has what it takes to shine in camp this year if given the opportunity. Given the uncertain future of Stephen Hill and his recent transgression, Byrd may just get that chance. 
2. Lee Ward - FB Stanford
I love me some Lee Ward. A bruising throwback fullback who punished his opponent as he lays waste. While not the most glamorous or highlight generating position, the pure blocking fullback is something I would love to see added to the Panthers arsenal. He would also aid in protecting Cam Newton given the unknown skill level of the Panthers 2015 left tackle Michael Oher. 
3. Dean Marlowe - S  James Madison
You haven't read much about Marlowe until now, but that could quickly change. If there is one position on the Panthers roster that an immediate impact could be made, it would be Safety. Marlowe saw plenty of snaps in OTA's and looked sharp. If he can also contribute in Special Teams he may be able to carve out a roster spot. Not an easy accomplishment for an undrafted free agent on this Panthers squad. 
 
So there are the top 3 young guys I am hoping can make an impact. Who are yours? 
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