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NFC South camp preview: Panthers hope to advance further in playoffs

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — After making back-to-back playoff trips for the first time, the Carolina Panthers will be extremely disappointed with anything less than a third straight postseason appearance. And even that comes with a caveat.

Carolina believes it’s good enough to go deeper than the divisional round, where each of its last two seasons finished. This season isn’t necessarily NFC Championship or bust, but it’s time for the Panthers to prove they can beat the conference’s big boys.

The roster may not be good enough to win a Super Bowl, but there’s no question it’s better than last year’s roster, which featured a renovated receiving corps, offensive line and secondary.

“We’re not in the situation where we had to remake three positions,” general manager Dave Gettleman said when asked what excited him the most ahead of this week’s training camp kickoff. “We addressed all our stuff through free-agent signings and the draft and we had a real solid spring. We’re healthy going in, so we feel like we’re ready to go.”

When the Panthers arrive in Spartanburg later this week, they’ll have a healthy, $100 million quarterback, not one still rehabbing from ankle surgery. Cam Newton also has more receiving weapons and an offensive line with better depth.

Defensively, the Panthers still boast one of the strongest front sevens in the league, and Josh Norman could be a rising star in the secondary. Plus, Carolina’s offseason was a breeze compared to all the work their NFC South rivals had done.

Yet it’s not like a third straight division title is a given. The Panthers still have plenty of question marks. Who can take over the load at running back if something happens to Jonathan Stewart? Is the offensive line truly that much better than it was a year ago? Does anyone want to start at defensive end across from Charles Johnson? What happens if the latest batch of Band-Aids in the defensive backfield doesn’t hold?

“I’m not up nights worrying about position groups. I’m just not there,” Gettleman said. “I like our depth. I like the position battles we’re going to have. I feel really good about this team.”

But how good is this team? That’s the key question. It’s better, but by how much? Can it make a run to and perhaps even win the Super Bowl?

“We’re good enough to compete, absolutely,” Gettleman said. “You can plan, but you can’t foresee everything. There’s so many variables in this.

“Year in and year out you’re going to see teams that get into the playoffs and go further than all the brain surgeons that think they’re going to. Anything can happen.”

CAMP CALENDAR

July 30: Team reports

July 31: First practice

Aug. 19-20: Joint practices with Dolphins in Spartanburg

Aug. 20: Camp ends

–Team strength: Linebacker.

The addition of first-round pick Shaq Thompson confused many who didn’t see linebacker as a position of need for the Panthers. But he’ll eventually slide into a starting spot on the weak side and stay in to play a hybrid role in the nickel package. Thompson, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are arguably the most athletic linebacking corps in the league, and if the rookie can play, they could end up being the best of the bunch.

–Breakout player: Cornerback Josh Norman.

After finishing each of his first two seasons in head coach Ron Rivera’s doghouse, the light finally stayed on for Norman last year. He developed into the Panthers’ top corner, and while he doesn’t yet have a familiar name, he has talent and an attitude that could make him much more well known by the end of 2015.

–Work in progress: Defensive end.

The Panthers would prefer to find a full-time starter across from Charles Johnson, but they’re still having trouble getting a guy to step forward. Wes Horton, Kony Ealy and Mario Addison all had plenty of chances during Greg Hardy’s absence last year, yet none stood out. The trio was working in a rotation during OTAs, and again, no one was separating himself.

Frank Alexander may be the best and most versatile option, but he can’t stay on the field. A pair of suspensions cost him 15 games last year, and he missed minicamp after tweaking his groin in the final week of OTAs.


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