NFL training camps open; Darnold the key question mark for Panthers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 25, 2021

By Barry Wilner

AP Pro Football Writer

From players getting COVID-19 vaccinations to relaxed coronavirus protocols to lineup issues, particularly at quarterback, the NFL faces a multitude of questions as training camps open.

At least in 2021 there is the knowledge — and lessons learned — from completing last season during a pandemic. The league, whose most valuable person in 2020 probably was medical director Dr. Allen Sills, recognizes that while tremendous progress has been made in battling the virus, caution remains crucial.

“We’re seeing a lot of positive movements,” Sills said when seven teams were at 85% or more of vaccinated players, and approximately 70% of all players were vaccinated. “We’re pleased with that progress, but there’s still work to be done. And we’re going to work with our clubs and their medical staffs in partnership to get those numbers higher, but we’re off to a solid start and we’re optimistic we’ll see continued progress there.”

Players who haven’t been vaccinated must continue to get daily testing, wear masks and practice physical distancing. They won’t be allowed to eat meals with teammates; can’t participate in media or marketing activities while traveling; aren’t permitted to use the sauna or steam room; and may not leave the team hotel or interact with people outside the team while traveling.

Vaccinated players will not have any of those restrictions. And any coronavirus outbreak caused by nonvaccinated players could result in that team forfeiting a regular-season game.

“We feel like we know that in our country and around the league where and how things are improving, and to me there’s a direct correlation to people getting vaccinated,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said last month.

The preseason will include only three games for each team except for Dallas and Pittsburgh, who play four because they meet in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 5. The regular season  has been expanded by one match to 17.

Some things to look for:

QB QUERIES

Will 2020 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers report to the Packers, hold out, force a trade from Green Bay, or retire? It might pay to tune in to “Jeopardy!” for the solution.

• What will Deshaun Watson’s status be in Houston? Investigations continue after 22 women filed lawsuits alleging Watson sexually assaulted or harassed them.

• How healthy are the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, the Bengals Joe Burrow and the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo as they come off major injuries?

• Will Carson Wentz’s career be revitalized in Indianapolis? Can Sam Darnold prove himself in Carolina? Are the Rams right that Matt Stafford is the missing piece?

• Is Tom Brady ever going to get, uh, old?

NEW COACHES

There are seven of them: Robert Saleh (Jets), David Culley (Texans), Urban Meyer (Jaguars), Brandon Staley (Chargers), Nick Sirianni (Eagles), Dan Campbell (Lions) and Arthur Smith (Falcons). Meyer is the most intriguing, a winner everywhere in college, but seemingly plagued by wanderlust at all of those schools.

History tells us that other than Jimmy Johnson, very few college-trained coaches have had even remote success in the pros. Remember that Nick Saban flopped in Miami.

Meyer starts out with an improved roster over what Jacksonville used to go 1-15 and “earn” the top overall draft pick, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

INJURED STARS BACK

COVID-19 wasn’t the only health issue for players last year. Significant injuries sidelined stars. Idled were running backs Saquon Barkley (Giants), Christian McCaffrey (Panthers) and Joe Mixon (Bengals); receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (Browns) and Courtland Sutton (Broncos); tight end George Kittle (49ers); and lineman Mike Pouncey (Chargers).

 

Carolina Panthers (5-11 last season)

CAMP SITE: Spartanburg, South Carolina

LAST YEAR: The Panthers struggled under journeyman QB Teddy Bridgewater, repeatedly losing tight games late in fourth quarter prompting an offseason trade for Sam Darnold. Carolina’s 2019 All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey missed 13 games due to three separate injuries, limiting Carolina’s offensive potential. The team struggled at times with chemistry problems under first-year head coach Matt Rhule due to limited offseason practices because of the coronavirus pandemic. Although Carolina’s defense was young, DE Brian Burns and S Jeremy Chinn emerged as promising young stars.

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: QB Sam Darnold, DE Haason Reddick, LB Denzel Perryman, WR David Moore, TE Dan Arnold, OT Cam Erving, G Pat Elflin, DE Morgan Fox, DT DaQuan Jones, LB Frankie Luvu, CB Jaycee Horn, CB A.J. Bouye.

IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Curtis Samuel, QB Teddy Bridgewater, RB Mike Davis, DT Kawann Short, S Tre Boston, OT Russell Okung, DE Stephen Weatherly.

CAMP NEEDS: All eyes will be on Darnold. The Panthers will look to get the Jets castoff up to speed with coordinator Joe Brady’s offense quickly and give the fourth-year QB a boost of confidence. Darnold essentially has a two-year tryout with Carolina and a chance to claim its franchise QB spot after going 13-25 under center in New York. Darnold has plenty to work with on offense, including a now healthy McCaffrey, 1,000-yard WRs D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, and TE Dan Arnold. Rhule has gone out of the way not to put too much on Darnold, asking only that he gets better every day in practice.

KEY CAMP COMPETITIONS: Left tackle continues to be a huge question mark. The Panthers added LT Cam Erving in free agency, but as many as five players are in the mix for the job including Dennis Daley, Trent Scott, Greg Little and rookie third-round pick Brady Christensen from BYU. There is also the possibility the Panthers could move RT Taylor Moton to the left side after signing a four-year, $72 million contract extension. … Dan Arnold will compete with Ian Thomas for the No. 1 TE spot. … David Moore and rookie Terrace Marshall will look to replace Samuel’s big-time production as the No. 3 WR.

EXPECTATIONS: Carolina isn’t considered a title contender and right now sustained growth is the No. 1 goal in Rhule’s second season. Carolina remains one of the NFL’s youngest teams and owner David Tepper has the patience to trust in the process. Much of Carolina’s success will be dependent on how well Darnold acclimates to the system. Defensively, Carolina’s secondary should be better following the addition of first-round pick CB Jaycee Horn, but the team needs last year’s first-round draft pick DT Derrick Brown to take the next step. Nine wins would be considered a success.

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