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Monday, July 28, 2014

Camp Observations

I'm just a guy, I don't go to practice.  So this is, essentially, from others' eyes, so take it for what it's worth.


*Kelvin Benjamin's been tearing it up.  That's a great sign - of course, plenty of big guys have ripped it up in camp.  But, Benjamin's no Walter Young.  I feel like, if he can contribute, he can really take advantage of the (apparently once a decade) refocus on pass interference and defensive holding calls.

With that said, I might have to revise what I think Benjamin can do, from a contribution standpoint. Most WRs don't break 700 snaps as a rookie, and most of those are first rounders. So far, KB has been running with the ones, and they appear ready to plug him in.

*The Tyler Gaffney thing is a bit short of heartbreaking.  Carolina can find other backs like that, absolutely, so it's not as if they stole a star.  But, it's nice to have someone who can pass block, play special teams, and carry a load as a runner and receiver.  Within the next two years, all of the players ahead of Gaffney other than Kenjon Barner will be gone, and Barner is a contributor, not a workhorse.  Carolina just doesn't have the easy margins of being able to throw away productive future players, so this hurts.

It has enough past picks into rededicating picks to previous blown picks (DT, WR, QB being its biggest, but RB has five picks since 2009 the year after they'd spent a 2nd #1 in three years - only Barner of the recent picks is on the roster), picks that could've been used on filling future needs instead of past ones (I don't think it's totally missed that DT, WR, QB have a sunnier disposition immediately after drafting #1s for each - I guess RB will need another high pick in two years or less; luckily, the 1st round RB is essentially extinct).

Relatedly, Carolina screwed up.  They picked up Fozzy Whitaker to replace him, but by not holding Gaffney until cuts, they lost him.  Unnecessarily so. Is Tom Nelson going to make the roster? Maybe. Whitaker?  Who knows.  They picked up a DT and it's not worth learning his name, they have 5 guys for 4 spots.  Truthfully, none of the players picked up around Gaffney's waiving were good enough.  Could've held onto the kid for a few weeks and not had this happen.

Dave Gettleman was the pro personnel guy in New York when this happened with Jake Ballard.  Ballard was essentially done, Gettleman had players at TE and didn't have to have Ballard, but still, it was a lesson to learn.

*Jonathan Stewart is a valuable commodity.  If he can show that soon, great.  But, without anything changing at all, it's hard to view his minor hamstring issue any better after losing Gaffney outright. If Stewart doesn't provide much, it's hard to see the sacrifice of Gaffney as having any good side at all.  I guess you can't blame Stewart, who trains hard and has more talent than any 2nd RB ever should, but it's been a while for anything positive and we're getting more Barry Foster out of this guy lately than Stephen Davis.  It's easy to be frustrated when that contributes to losing to a guy who could've taken over for him.

*I'm really starting to like essentially all the pickups from this offseason.  Benjamin's apparently ahead of schedule, Kony Ealy's showing fight, Trai Turner is starting, for what could be a pretty good top 3 in that draft.

But the vets?  Ed Dickson's getting very high marks. Thomas Decoud seems to be vocal off and on the field. Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery, and Tiquan Underwood aren't showing anything of concern, when the timing gets right, they should all be good contributors.

Still waiting to see much of Roman Harper.  Antoine Cason is apparently a starter, as he should be, and I guess it's good he's been quiet?  Don't know.  I think both have plenty to offer, however.


RB's A Mess; Gaffney's A Patriot

Tyler Gaffney's tenure as a Panther was short.

He didn't practice before camp because Stanford's on a quarter system instead of semester; why that matters, I don't know.  But, he finally got on the field for Fan Fest (held at the beginning of camp, not as a game-warmup a week ahead of preseason as normal), apparently tore his meniscus on his first play.

Season done.

So, in one of the dumber rules of the NFL, players have to be put through waivers when they're intended to go on injured reserve.

And the Patriots claimed him.  To keep his rights, they have to roster him; if they waive him, Carolina could reclaim him, but for now, consider him done.  And consider Bill Belichick a rotten prick, within the rules or not.


So, with Gaffney now a Pat, and Jonathan Stewart nursing a hamstring, Carolina has the exact backs it did last year.

Technically that's not fully true - they signed RB Fozzy Whitaker. 5'10, 200, Whitaker had 2 TDs for the Browns last year; he started 2 of 11 games with 28 carries (2.8 avg) and 21 rec (7.4 avg and the two scores).  Undrafted in 2012, he was on the Cardinals practice squad a few games and spent a few moments with the Chargers in '13 before the Browns.  Whitaker is fast, and when healthy for the Texas Longhorns, provided impact.   In 2011, he had a 42 yard average on kick returns.

But, I don't know that he's more than a scatback type, and I'll be damned if we didn't have a guy with a lot of talent not carrying the ball from scrimmage, so who knows.  Either way, no Stewart for a few weeks (minimum) and no Gaffney forever, that fairly well blows.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Stewart Laid Up, But Kugbila's Over

Camp reporting happened today, Thursday.  In a way, football season is upon us.

Cam Newton was cleared, and is ready; Amini Silatolu's ACL and Charles Godfrey's Achilles injury have been cleared, too.  But the good news ends there.


Jonathan Stewart injured his hamstring and is to be out a few weeks; it looks like he might not play the first preseason game, if I were to guess.  Tre Boston and De'Andre Pressley will start the season on the PUP list.
2013 4th rounder Ed Kugbila, however, needs back surgery; later today, he was released.   Seemingly chronically hurt, I imagine Dave Gettleman was just willing to be rid of the wait for him to be ready.

Kugbila's the first Gettleman pick to get the axe in any form, though that's a small sample size of two years (and smaller still given the number of picks he inherited).  The newcomers on the OL, Velasco and Matthews, both seem to have a shot at the roster now; it also makes sense that the team mentioned Velasco at guard.

The team suggested Garry Williams to be in the mix at tackle, where he should be (in my opinion).   That seems to set the depth chart as:

LT: Chandler/Bell/Williams
LG: Silatolu, Velasco
C: Kalil, Folkerts/Matthews
RG: Turner, (Chandler/Bell/Williams)
RT: Chandler/Bell/Williams

To that end, I'm suggesting the top two tackles will start, and the third will be in the mix at RG depending on the Trai Turner readiness.  Or, Garry Williams remains a contingency, just with a shot at OT.

Otherwise (if that wasn't enough for you), nothing much is happening.  But, things are happening.  It's time for football.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who Are These Panthers?

Every team has to find an identity. Last year's team had to find its
confidence, and in their own words, become relevant.

The offense has to build from the run, obviously. The toughness needed
for those yards inside were there greater than before, and Carolina gets
more pieces to make that work. You have to hope for Jonathan Stewart to
be available, Amini Silatolu is around again; rook Trai Turner looks
like the best RG Carolina's fielded in many years (since before Jeremy
Bridges went nuts on strippers). It has some issues at OT, mostly
unknowns. That's my issue right now, the spot I wish I could solve.

I know plenty of people are worried about receiver.

Those people don't know this team. The way last year's guys were used,
it looks like improvement to me. You have a whole group of receivers
competing for less money than just what Steve Smith would've cost - much
less adding the deals that Ted Ginn Jr and Brandon LaFell got. This
team could've spent twice what it did, to get no better.

Did they, in fact, get better with their current moves? That's to be
seen. Monetarily, the cost is lower; based on 2013 production, the cost
per TD and yard is lower, but production is up. Jerricho Cotchery won't
catch 10 TD this year, but he's still got a lot of value. Tiquan
Underwood had a strong '13 for a guy with no quarterback; 24/440/4 TD
from a specialist is pretty good. Jason Avant didn't fit the '13 Eagles
O, but there's no doubting him as a player in the slot. Kelvin Benjamin
appears, as raw as he is, to have the makings of a touchdown machine.

Related to the metrics and value, it appears Carolina bought low on
every player. Benjamin had some questions that brought him lower than
his talent; Cotchery was just a matter of age, I guess. Avant was used
poorly in an offense that seemed to provide a boost to every one else.
Underwood's year might'be been much greater with good QB play.

This is the part where I mention that Carolina was 30th in attempts, and
that the greatest amount of targets went to a returning player, TE Greg
Olsen. Olsen deserves his targets. Ron Rivera put up the sabermetric
argument about only needing 10 catches a game, underlining the idea that
Carolina doesn't ask a ton of their receivers.

What they needed was more of their attempts to become fruitful. By
running a good route and fitting the offense, and catching the ball when
it got there. Outside Benjamin, they have that, and I don't feel they
would've picked Benjamin if the drops (mostly off catch-and-run where he
didn't secure it) were a problem.

So, offensively, they're underdogs. Unsung heroes. The Unappreciated.
Greg Olsen, too, based on some recent comments. It's amazing nowadays
you can have a 75 catch TE fly under the radar. Please, please, please
sleep on this Carolina offense. With worse players last year, they
still put up 30 points on a number of teams before settling into a heck
of a Time Of Possession spree.


Defensively, you can't play the disrespect card. This is a unit that's
gotta have discipline - they have the talent, and the experience.
Discipline is the only hole I'm concerned with.

It's going to be a big year for pass interference, and so it's going to
be a big year for WRs. Seattle ruined the party - and refs let them
hold throughout the full season only to decide that 2014 was a new day.
So the new set of DBs - where, somehow and suddenly 2nd year Melvin
White is the incumbent player in the secondary who isn't new or moving
to a new role - have to have that discipline to not hold, no illegal
contact, no pass interference.

Otherwise, that identity is in place. Carolina is certain that you will
not run on them - or, you won't want to. You can pass, and you'll have
to pass, but they'll want to hurt you for that, too. Being 2nd in
defense might be a motivator, but most years, this is a team that
would've been first in run, pass, and scoring defense.


I would have a little concern about leadership - no Jordan Gross means
that Cam Newton, Greg Olsen have to be more vocal to match Ryan Kalil.
But that's OK. And honestly, without Gross, you also get no Steve
Smith, nobody on Carolina pulling that dirty nonsense we all loved, but
to be truthful as much heart as that provided, it was a distraction,
too.

So, I feel a bit of heart coming on. An identity of toughness, of
breaking wills that are unfortunate enough to be wrapped in enemy
colors. I just hope it comes early enough.

Two New Hog Mollies

Carolina added a pair of offensive linemen on the eve of training camp.

Fernando Velasco and Kevin Matthews add a bit of experience and possible
depth; the pair could be fighting for the backup center job or Velasco
could back guard.

Both have center experience - Velasco started 11 at center last year
after losing Marukice Pouncey; Velasco himself tore his Achilles after.
A 2008 grad of Georgia and former teammate of Charles Johnson, he played
from 08-12 with the Titans and has started 30 career games.

Matthews, son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, brother of top rookie
Jake Matthews, and related to the various Clay Matthews and rookie TE
Troy Niklaus (that's not all, there's another one, Mike, that's still at
Tx A&M), was an undrafted of the Titans through 2010, where his father
was line coach. Though he spent some time in camp with the Redskins in
'13, he bounced around the Titans roster the end of the year. He's
started 3 games and appeared in just under 20, some of which was backing
Velasco.

To make room, the team dropped backup center Jared Wheeler and LB Billy
Boyko.


The way I see this?

It could be an effort to push Brian Folkerts. The fourth best C in camp
last year, Folkerts was a Panther all year; when they dropped Geoff
Hangartner last year in camp, they lost their best backup at C. They
had to press Jeff Byers into service at RG, and Byers got hurt in record
time - honestly, I never even knew he was in the game, and then he was
gone. Folkerts isn't bad, but he isn't experienced.

There's also guard depth issues. Right about this time in the year is
when camp starts, obviously; there's generally a correlation between
that happening, and Chris Scott being well overweight. Scott played RG
for a time last year, and has struggled with conditioning; he wasn't
good when he played, but he has talent.

If I had to guess based on nothing but concern, Ed Kugbila might or
might not be ready, either. Amini Silatolu over at LG has been good
when healthy, but has finished on IR both of his years; so that leaves
Garry Williams, who's needed at both G and T for depth (and got hurt in
camp last year), and rookie Trai Turner. You can see why they dropped
a 3rd on Turner, when you see the potential of him being the last man
standing; that's without mentioning the three retirements from the line
(including Byers, Wharton, and Geoff Hangartner).

A stable set of backups at G and C are pretty essential as the last few
years have shown, but they would also allow Garry Williams to back or
compete at OT, where I believe he should be if Turner can provide a
solid RG and Silatolu can be durable.

Velasco, as a veteran, can add that. Starting 27 games in a row across
Tennessee and Pittsburgh, he has the ability to stabilize some things in
the middle when needed. I imagine the first shot at various jobs will
go to Silatolu and Turner or Williams, but he could be plugged in at G
and not lose a lot.

Matthews hasn't shown the ability to make a team as often, arguably with
family help in his corner. This could be his first opportunity to work
outside that family help in a while. But he has some starts under his
belt, and that has value.

These are back-of-the-roster moves (~50th best, not 80th - felt that
needed clarification since the team has all these camp hands). Either
could make the roster, neither should start in an ideal world, but you
have to have at least one guy like this, just in case.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Rookies

I'm not huge on prediction, so I'm still feeling out how to do this
part.

I've been pondering the rookies - since, to a point, the rookies have
been the best way of improving this team for years now (I can't remember
the last free agent that got a deal more than two years out of this
team, excepting voidables). They're the great x-factor, the unknown.
They're arguably the most exciting part of the team, year after year.
And this year might not have quite the impact as the prior years,
because of circumstance, in that rookie year. Last year, Star Lotulelei
and Kawann Short greatly improved the middle of the defense and each
provided 60% of snaps (even after Ron Rivera suggested 30% for each),
and AJ Klein provided about 600 total snaps including special teams,
with UDFAs pitching in greatly (Melvin White, Robert Lester, Wes Horton
leading the way). This year there may be fewer snaps to go around.


Kelvin Benjamin

I've been preaching patience with this kid. He's raw. There's no way
around it. Receivers start slow anyway, and this one's all puppy. He
has two years real experience, and though he has maturity (partially
because he's an old rookie), it's still going to be a while before he a
while before you just assume he'll be pulling a lot of wagon. There's a
natural talent for him, that bit about grabbing it out of thin air on
one play and out of a defender's hands on the next. Some of that is
going to be his own fault early on, when he lets a smaller man get
position on him or he doesn't put up a great route but the ball is still
coming.

I've stated this so much now on Benjamin versus the other big receivers
- they're efficient, and he's not. He offers this other thing. That's
how I see him possibly starting out as a specialist, a 3rd down guy and
goal type guy. I don't see him playing 1000 snaps. I see the
suggestions of him getting 700 yards/10 TD and I just can't buy. He's
possibly going to have high TD numbers given that he's essentially a
shoe-in to play on goal, but on the average second down, I don't know.
I think the average rookie is going to have a hard time getting playing
time with these receivers.

That might be a nutty concept to some. Absolutely, in the grand scheme
of things, Benjamin is a player with limitless potential and Jerricho
Cotchery and Jason Avant are short-term rentals. Some believe these two
to be third receivers at best, and Benjamin a potential star. The thing
is, the experience is the part that Cam Newton hasn't had. Outside
Steve Smith, the average Carolina receiver has been marginally more
experienced than he is. His most efficient time included a 3rd and 4th
with starting experience, although Ted Ginn isn't a high percentage
player.

These guys do the little things right in the same breath that Benjamin
is working on getting some of the big things right. And that's OK.
There's still plenty of room for him to contribute, plenty of need for
him to fill. He could surprise, and beating on CBs that will soon be
UPS drivers can't hurt (nor can being a TE-sized WR with the NFL's
apparent once-a-decade crackdown on pass interference) to start off
with. But Benjamin just isn't an out of the box #1 receiver. That's
foolish. Arguably, Sammy Watkins might be, Keenan Allen exceeded my
already heightened expectations last year, but I go back to AJ Green
before I really find another immediate workhorse.

I don't know. What I see from Benjamin is about 400-450 snaps, maybe 30
receptions, and I feel like I have to throw 4 TD at him. Next year, I
expect him to start. But for this year, I anticipate him as a guy who
plays a box-out isolation route on 3rd downs (maybe 2nd and long), plays
at the goal, and otherwise mimics anything the coaching staff sees on
tape from Jimmy Graham in the slot.


Kony Ealy

It's early on the Greg Hardy thing. Some sources say he won't see a
suspension until it clears a jury trial, some consider the jury trial an
appeal and the NFL doesn't hold things for appeals (you'd just appeal
for years). I see Ealy playing about 400 snaps as well - he can play
about 10 snaps a game inside, 10 outside, and I'll throw in that he'll
start a game when a guy gets nicked up. Assume 30 extra snaps per game
Hardy is hurt. I could see about 20 tackles, 5 sacks, arbitrarily
I'll throw in a batted ball or two and 2 FF. He's obviously primed to
start for next year but 400 snaps is pretty good given the ends Carolina
currently has.

Trai Turner

1000 snaps, full on starter. Carolina needed this guy, a mauler with
attitude, at RG and we were (are?) focused on the issues at OT instead.
RG was a complete disaster last year and that was including absorbing
the LG issue with Travelle Wharton. Turner will learn to clean it up as
the season goes along. They've never been shy throwing a ready rookie
at the OL. Turner should improve the run game and they'll deal with his
pass snaps same as Amini Silatolu.

Tre Boston

I guess he's going to be ready for the start of camp with the sports
hernia issue, but hard to say. They have Thomas Decoud, and they've
been pushing Colin Jones to be ready as well. I see them keeping Boston
active for special teams , and that's a ton of snaps, but I don't know
that he plays safety this year unless something happens ahead of him.
He can flip to SS as well, but they have Robert Lester backing that.

Bene Benwikere

Right now, I see him concentrating on just nickel, and that's plenty for
a rookie. It might be dependent on Charles Godfrey's achilles, but
Benwikere has this job longterm. I see him logging 200 snaps minimum,
and if he fill that role all year, it's 600+. I'll throw 25 tackles
and 2 picks at him, since I am just guessing Godfrey starts the season
slow.

Tyler Gaffney

I'm essentially expecting he's just waiting for his moment on offense,
and should be a workhorse in preseason. 250 special teams snaps to
start with, and maybe 30 carries total through the year. But eventually
they'll need him and he could pop out a few surprises on you at that
point.

UDFAs

I don't see anyone making the roster, but the opportunity's greatest for
Denicos Allen, the short-stack LB from Michigan State. I don't know if
he'll ever be more than a special teamer, but he should be fantastic
there, and if there's a place you can succeed as a 5'11 LB, it's behind
this front. Maybe David Foucalt makes the practice squad despite being
a pretty raw OT.




So? I see one starter, three specialists, and two special teamers.
Carolina didn't have a ton of jobs open, and you could argue they
neglected one. This should be a solid draft class once 2015 hits and at
least two more are starters, but for now, your rookies are going to have
to scrap to find playing time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The City Of Angels And Its Football Ghosts

I saw that the league was considering forcing the hand of The LA Issue by possibly pushing itself into the stadium business.  It makes some sense, since they're determined to have a franchise there.

The NFL from a business sense can do much more than any single franchise.  The problem becomes, does the NFL landlord treat that team differently than the other 31?   Does this become, to a point, a league-owned franchise?

It makes sense to have an NFL facility in the LA area, past the franchise, too. Super Bowls, for instance.  Another college bowl game. Maybe steal a Major Conference championship, like the Pac-12, steal a couple major concerts from the Hollywood Bowl.  I'm sure they'll try to force the Pro Bowl in there, if this stadium exists.

LA?  I get it.  Compared to, say, New York (whose teams play in Jersey, but hey, that West Side stadium idea was terrible; Brooklyn or Queens might've made some sense, but I'm drifting away from a point), which is a quite compact fanbase with two teams, LA is both geographically and sentimentally a massive area.  

But geographical fan-ships seem less important than in the past.  I started following Carolina because it was somewhat local, and starting around the time I truly threw my own shoulder into football a bit.  Older fans always had that Redskins/Dolphins thing, I guess, allegiances because of the same things that unwittingly force a person to choose loyalty to a brand of liquor, truck, or cigarette (or, put gently, dog whistle) because Daddy or Granddaddy did the same.   In retrospect, being a fan because you live in an area isn't much less archaic, but here I am.

Nonetheless, getting LA a team (or anywhere in Europe) is about providing a new fan something to call his/her own.  No more and no less.  But for those same reasons, it's so much easier to be a fan of something anywhere.  When I started following Carolina, the mechanations of the hows and whys of their team building came from the local newspapers. That's what you had.  Occasionally a national magazine would touch on something specific to your team or otherwise touch your interest.  For example, coinciding with Carolina's 1996 success, Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z did a series on a 1997 franchise startover that caused me to spend weeks on my own, thanks to this new nonsense called the internet.  Once I realized there was draft info on the internet, the whole thing got easier.  You could follow teams not near you, you could learn about players you'd never seen.

And that was before there was a league TV station, and a billion ESPN/Fox, and so on, regional channels.

It's easy enough now that, had it all existed in 1995, it might've been as easy to follow Buffalo.

Of course, the league's been trying to shoehorn someone into LA since the Rams and Raiders left.   Carolina even put that feeler out as bait to get Charlotte to throw some cash at them for needed renovations (truth be told, Charlotte got an NFL stadium for, up to that point, just tax breaks.  They didn't throw out any of the supposed $360 million needed for a private stadium or franchise fee, they didn't do anything else, compared to the two full stadiums they've built for the NBA), but more famously, the Jaguars and Vikings have been rumored hard.  After Ralph Wilson passed, it's been speculated hard about Buffalo.  In a few years, I'm sure, the Titans and Ravens, two teams to move since Carolina finished its stadium, will be on deck to push for new money or else.

Not coincidentally, the Vikings have gotten a new stadium, and a Super Bowl.  It follows of course, that over time the NFL would push a future Super Bowl to teams who help secure a new stadium, which of course throws Buffalo overboard.


I assumed, incorrectly at this point, that the easiest suitor was Oakland.  Al Davis was dead, and it made sense.  Hue Jackson even went off the rails and traded for USC and Fresno's own Carson Palmer.  Son Mark Davis, I guess, is the thing that'll keep that from happening.  

But, LA's lost three teams already (including the Chargers).  In an age where you can follow anyone anywhere, what does it matter?