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Panthers reset 2015: Protecting Newton’s blind side is key

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After once again playing beyond most expectations last season, the defending NFC South division champion Carolina Panthers believe they can improve in 2015 unless they get blind-sided.

That is a specific reference to offensive left tackle. The Panthers tried to address the position with the free agent acquisition Michael Oher, formerly of the Tennessee Titans and, more famously, the subject of the 2009 movie “The Blind Side.”

With quarterback Cam Newton’s battered body a constant concern, the Panthers signed Oher and rescued former Miami/San Francisco tackle Jonathon Martin off the waiver wire.

But Martin is probably best known as the alleged victim in the Dolphins infamous bullying scandal involving guard Richie Incognito. Martin was further brutalized in his stay with the 49ers, but that happened well within the confines of NFL rules on the field at the hands of defensive linemen, which is why he was cut.

The Panthers hoped to upgrade the tackle spot in the draft, but their target, Florida’s D.J. Humphries, a native of Charlotte, was taken No. 24 in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals, leaving the Panthers to take the next prospect on their list, Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson. He should add another dynamic to Carolina’s already talented linebacker unit.

Thompson can do several things for a Panthers’ defense that ranked in the top 10 each of the last three seasons and some believe that with him that Carolina has the with the best linebacker group in the league. Thompson joins Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to form a fast and flexible group.

“What it’ll do for us is allow us to keep three linebackers on the field when a team goes to 12 – a personnel group of two tight ends, and one of those tight ends is a Jimmy Graham-style football player,” Rivera explained. “You’ve got to be able to match up with those types of guys, and when you bring a defensive back in you create different types of match-up problems, or they do for you. This gives us an opportunity if we have to match a certain situation by personnel; we can do it.”

The Panthers finally addressed their need for a tackle in the fourth round, taking Oklahoma’s 6-foot-5, 327-pound Daryl Williams, who may get the chance to start on the right side.

But the point of focus is the left, or so-called blind side for a right handed quarterback, where Oher started 16 games for Baltimore in the 2009 when the Ravens won a Super Bowl.

“He’s very key,” coach Ron Rivera said of Oher. “We didn’t bring him in — and Dave wanted to make sure he signed a two-year deal — just to let him go. River was referring to general manager Dave Gettleman and Oher’ $7 million, two-year contract that included as $2.5 million signing bonus.

“Michael’s shown up and come in here and worked very hard,” Rivera continued. “He’s done a great job. I get the reports and look at the reports and look at what he’s done. Everything he’s done is telling us he wants to do the things he’s done in the past.”

Carolina did get further offensive help for Newton with the second-round selection of Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess, who, at 6-4, 232, should become a huge target in the Panthers’ passing game.

Carolina traded its third- and sixth-round selections to the St. Louis Rams to jump 16 spots to get Funchess with the 41st pick.

Just like their first pick Thompson, a 6-0, 223-pounder who some believe is undersized, Funchess’ scouting reports varied because his size/speed numbers appeared to scream tight end.

Gettleman was firm on both counts.

“He’s a wide receiver,” the general manager said of Funchess. “Shaq’s a linebacker. This kid is a wide receiver.”

Now if he could sound as confident about Oher at left tackle, the Panthers would be happy.

As the Panthers prepare for their rookie minicamp this weekend (May 8-10), here is an early look at how the team looks heading into the 2015 season.

2014 RECORD: 7-8-1, 1st in NFC South

COACH: Ron Rivera

5th season as Panthers/NFL head coach

33-33-1 overall; 1-2 postseason

2015 CAMP SCHEDULE

Rookie minicamp: May 8-10

OTA dates: May 26-28, June 2-4, June 8-11

Mandatory Minicamp: June 16-18

GRADING THE DRAFT — B-

Per Rob Rang, NFLDraftScpout.com

It is appropriate that former safety turned Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis was the man to introduce Shaq Thompson as Carolina’s pick, as there are similarities between the two. Call Thompson whatever you’d like, his athleticism, awareness and ball skills make him a true playmaker, just as Davis (a former safety at Georgia) proved to be for the Panthers. Carolina continued its untraditional approach in the second round with massive wideout Devin Funchess, who physically reminds a lot of the Panthers’ top pick last year, Kelvin Benjamin. While neither offer the elite agility or speed to fit every offense, both can high point passes with the best of them – giving the strong-armed but somewhat erratic Cam Newton massive targets. The Panthers seemingly build annually to their running back stable and found another underrated talent in Cameron Artis-Payne. Tackle Daryl Williams, however, could offer more immediate impact.

SCOUTING ALL DRAFT PICKS

–Round 1/25 – Shaq Thompson, LB, 6-0, 228, Washington

The Panthers hoped to pick either tackle D.J. Humphries or Thompson. When Arizona snagged Humphries at No. 24, Carolina was happy to land one of the most athletic and versatile defenders in the draft.

–Round 2/41 – Devin Funchess, WR, 6-4, 232, Michigan

General manager Dave Gettleman surprised many by trading up 16 spots to grab Funchess. But the move gives often-erratic quarterback Cam Newton another big target.

–Round 4/102 – Daryl Williams, T, 6-5, 327, Oklahoma

After giving up a third- and sixth-round pick to get Funchess, Gettleman gave up a fifth and seventh so he could get Williams. The Panthers had a third-round grade on a guy who could start at right tackle in Week 1.

–Round 5/169 – David Mayo, LB, 6-2, 228, Texas State

Racked up gaudy tackle numbers in the Sun Belt Conference, but a 13-stop per game average is impressive against anyone.

–Round 5/174 – Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, 5-10, 212, Auburn

“Bowling ball” back filled a need, but the Panthers will likely remain searching for backups behind Jonathan Stewart.

NOTABLE VETERANS ACQUIRED:

–WR Jarrett Boykin: Not tendered as RFA by Packers; $700,000/1 yr, $20,000 SB.

–S Kurt Coleman: UFA Chiefs; $2.8M/2 yrs; $600,000 SB.

–WR/PR Ted Ginn: FA Cardinals; $4.2M/2 yrs, $1.7M SB.

–T Jonathan Martin (waivers 49ers).

–T Michael Oher: FA Titans; $7M/2 yrs, $2.5M SB.

–CB Charles Tillman: UFA Bears; $1.75M./1 yr, $350,000 SB/$150,000 WO.

–RB Jordan Todman: Not tendered as RFA by Jaguars; $765,000/1 yr, $20,000 SB.

–LB Jason Trusnik: UFA Dolphins; $950,000/1 yr, $80,000 SB.

–CB Teddy Williams: Not tendered as RFA by Jaguars; $1.8M/2 yrs, $220,000 SB.

NOTABLE PLAYERS LOST:

–T Byron Bell: UFA Titans; terms unknown.

–CB James Dockery: UFA Raiders; terms unknown.

–S Thomas DeCoud (released).

–DE Greg Hardy: UFA Cowboys; $2.06M/1 yr, $1.3116M WO/$578,125 per-game RB.

–TE Mike McNeill (released).

–RB DeAngelo Williams (released/post-June 1 designation).

PRESEASON PEEK — Mark that calendar

All times Eastern

Aug. 14: at Buffalo (Fri.), 7:00

Aug. 22: MIAMI (Sat.), 7:00

Aug. 28: NEW ENGLAND (Fri.), 7:30

Sept. 3: at Pittsburgh (Thu.), 7:30


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