Training Camp Tour: Panthers LB Luke Kuechly only getting better
The Panthers got lucky with the weather, practicing for the entire session in overcast conditions before the sun broke through just as things wrapped up. The humidity was incredibly high and field conditions were damp, leading to some iffy ball security and handling, but they escaped the worst of the heat.
Luke Kuechly is only getting better
One thing that holds true everywhere we go on this tour is that the truly special players stand out almost immediately. Panthers LB Luke Kuechly is fast, athletic, and strong, and even if he was as dumb as a box of rocks (he’s not), he’d have a shot to be a decent enough NFL linebacker—but he may have some of the game’s best football smarts, to top it all off.
A lot of linebackers are expected to help get the defense aligned correctly and in the right position, but Kuechly was calling out routes to the young cornerbacks and giving them specific things to watch for before the snap.
“A lot of that is formation recognition, understanding situations, and studying tape,” Kuechly told us after practice. “You can pick a lot of stuff up on tape, and that’s the biggest thing. If you can realize down and distance what’s going on, and situations in game, you can match those up with what you saw on tape—you can be pretty good.”
Kuechly has improved every season of his career thus far, and has been the top-graded ILB in the NFL for the past two years, but he’s still trying to improve on his game yet again entering the 2016 season, looking now to his pass-rush as the area that can use the biggest focus.
“You guys got it kind of figured out,” Kuechly said. “There’s three phases to playing linebacker: pass, run, and can you cover. Two of those things I’ve been improving on, and the third one is pass-rush that I really need to work on, and I’m trying to get better there this year.”
It’s maybe worth noting in light of that focus that RB Jonathan Stewart stoned Kuechly dead in one-on-one pass rushing drills at one point with a great rep.
Young corners getting plenty of reps
As soon as the Panthers pulled the franchise tag from Josh Norman, the team needed cornerback help, and needed it badly. They knew that only too well, and spent three of their first four picks on the position, with one or two of those rookies figuring to see major playing time right off the bat.
Bené Benwikere is going to be one starter, but the other spots are all up for grabs, and at times, the first-team defense on Monday featured all three rookies on the field, with Sanchez typically the one to man the slot. You can at least see what the team likes in James Bradberry (Samford), the highest pick of the group, and the one they will be most heavily leaning on to make an immediate impact.
Bradberry was playing left corner all day—typically the more targeted spot reserved for a team’s No.1 guy—and that saw him even matching up with TE Greg Olsen when split out wide. Olsen got him at least once on a dig route, but Bradberry was at least contesting the catch and in close attendance on the play.
Daryl Worley (West Virginia) and Zack Sanchez (Oklahoma) are guys that we do have some data on in terms of PFF grading, and the information isn’t necessarily great.
Worley was the 31st-ranked CB in the nation last season, and Sanchez was 88th, but both are obviously physically talented, and the Panthers are hoping that they provide more upside than either showed in 2015.
It looks like, whatever happens, that we are going to get plenty of chances to see these rookies on the field in 2016.
Unusual QB situation
With Cam Newton coming off an MVP season, he is obviously the unquestioned starter, and in Monday’s practice, at least, he took the Deion Sanders’ approach to warming up: he did little beyond dance and have a good time as the rest of the team stretched to begin the session. Newton, in person, is every bit as impressive and imposing as he is on tape. He made some good throws, worked through reads, and just looks like a man amongst boys from a size standpoint.
Derek Anderson is the primary backup, and although he has had success coming in for limited snaps in the past, he had an ugly practice session, throwing a couple of interceptions, one of which was a “never on” kind of ball deep against a cover-3 corner with good position.
Joe Webb is the third QB, and spent all day tossing the ball around when he wasn’t doing anything else to keep his arm in rhythm. He also saw some reps returning kicks, which provided us with the odd sight of a red, no-contact jersey fielding and returning kicks.
Other camp notes
– Rookie Jeremy Cash (Duke) began the day well, winning his first rep in one-on-one pass-rush drills by using an inside move and winning with speed, but that was the high-water mark of his performance. He was erased on the next rep when he tried to engage his blocker, which is something that, at 215 pounds, he just can’t do at this level. He was working primarily as the second linebacker in nickel defense with the backups, but did little to stand out in team drills.
– Carolina’s blocking schemes are fantastically old school for today’s NFL. They run a lot of power and inside zone-lead, and even when they fold in the option to those concepts, the basics remain the same. They are hitting the blocking sled every day of practice, according to OT Daryl Williams, and they hope that will set them up to be able to smash teams right in the mouth in the run game.
– DE Ryan Delaire showed up during one-on-one pass-rush drills. He won his first rep against OT David Foucault with an outside move after swatting away the big tackle’s punch, and was winning on his reps when the group was practicing stunts and twists, too.