CHARLOTTE — You feel that? That’s football season in the air, filling your lungs and quickening your pulse.
Either that, or it’s a palpitation from all the mayonnaise you shoveled down your facehole last weekend when the college games were here.
Speaking of, that was a sight to behold, seeing the romping, stomping, old-school traditional football powerhouse dismantle their nearby non-conference rival, in a way that made clear which was the dominant force in the region and which was the helpless child in the woods. The Georgia-Clemson game wasn’t bad either.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule took it all in, watching three games in three days because he’s the kind of guy who can’t step away from the football. He digs it that much. Now, he’s in it for the next 12 weeks without a break, because the regular season is upon us, and there’s no bye week until December. Buckle up.
It’s also time to kick the mail truck back into gear. We’re going to park it here on Tuesdays during the regular season, so drop your gripes about the previous game, questions about strategy or personnel, or life in general right here. We’ll answer as many as we can, and give you your football fix on the the players’ day off in the regular-season work week.
That said, there’s plenty to get to since our last bag, so let’s get right into it.
The offensive line (especially the interior) is awful, in my opinion. What week can you see the Panthers making lineup changes and bringing in guys like Dennis Daley, Deonte Brown and/or Brady Christensen? Also, will this front office finally prioritize or solve the riddle of getting a long term answer at left tackle after this season? Easier said than done, I know, but please shed some positive light on this! — Jeff, Las Vegas
It’s a good thing Jeff lives in Vegas, because he’s obviously a seer, and clearly has become prosperous as a result.
His question hit the bag at 9:47 a.m. on Monday, a couple of hours before right guard John Miller went on the reserve/COIVD-19 list. Per Rhule, he’ll be out for 10 days (which tells you what you need to know about Miller’s vaccination status), meaning he’ll at least miss this week’s game against the Jets. Daley will replace him in the starting lineup, which means the answer to Jeff’s question is, . . . drum roll please, . . . Week 1!
Of course, that’s just me being obtuse, because I understand Jeff’s point. Awful seems strong, though. Cameron Erving has taken a lot of criticism this summer, but I think there’s at least a chance he plays better than expected (the coaches certainly think he will). The interior line did not look great against the Steelers’ backups in the preseason finale, and it’s up there on the list of concerns for the season. For one thing, Pat Elflein and Matt Paradis both look like centers, and one of them plays left guard. When the first line stands shoulder-to-shoulder, those two spots look like a comb with a few teeth missing, because they’re noticeably smaller than the guys they’re surrounded by. In a perfect world, you’d have a little more mass at guard, which allows you to get away with a smaller and more mobile guy in the middle.
This, in case you haven’t noticed, is not a perfect world. And the Panthers aren’t the only team scrambling to field a competent line. Our old friend Dave Gettleman is particularly scrambling to find the appropriate grade of mollies, hog or otherwise.
Elflein is not a favorite of the graders at PFF, and it will be interesting to see how he holds up against a talented Jets interior. But going into a season with so much on the line, and an extreme need for some early success, I understand why coaches will go with veterans over rookies. I don’t always agree with it, but I know why they do it, because coaches love a known commodity more than they love a whistle.
That’s also why Daley will get the first crack at replacing Miller for the short term. If he can stay healthy — which is always a question with Daley — he could potentially push Elflein at some point this season. Brown would be the next backup option at right guard behind Daley, though I suspect if the vacancy was on the left, Christensen might have been the choice there.
As for left tackles, half the league or more is looking for one. If you see one growing on a cactus, go ahead and pick it and send it back. The Panthers weren’t looking to spend Trent Williams money this offseason, so there wasn’t a Jordan Gross-level replacement in free agency. Then they made the conscious choice in the draft to trade back and eventually take wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., watching six tackles slide off the board before they chose Christensen. Marshall looks good so far. But every decision has a consequence, and time will tell if they regret waiting.
I heard coach say that Christian McCaffrey was going to be the most used player in terms of getting a large amount of carries and getting hit. Why don’t we use our other backs more? Or also more multiple back sets, so he’s fresh and healthier as the season progresses? — Kevin, Appleton, Wis.
Because he’s better than just about any running back in the league, and definitely the rest of this roster. So giving McCaffrey the most work makes sense if the goal is to gain yards and score points.
Of course, there’s a danger in that, and they found out last year what life’s like without him. But it’s hard to pin his 2020 injuries on attrition (people never give dumb luck enough credit for why things are the way they are), and no one wants McCaffrey to have a heavy workload more than McCaffrey himself.
Seeing Chuba Hubbard make some splash plays in the preseason was encouraging, but putting him on the field with McCaffrey means taking DJ Moore or Robby Anderson or Marshall off it, and I’m not sure that’s an economically wise proposition either.
They’re going to keep an eye on McCaffrey’s workload for sure, but the simplest answer is they have more weapons on the offense as a whole this year, so the hope is the not-beating-him-into-the-ground becomes organic.
Hey OG, now that Robby has a contract, do you think DJ will be around next year? Especially with the two budding rookie receivers pushing for playing time? — Andrew, Charleston, SC
Some people say my stories take too long, but that’s the curse of the thorough and the giving. We just want to share all the information we harvest with the reader. It’s not for us; it’s for you.
So the short answer is, “yes.” The longer answer is, “Oh my god, yes.”
Moore’s already under contract for 2022, after they picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal right after the draft. He’ll make a respectable $11.116 million next year, the first indication of that rookie contract matching the kind of big-play threat he represents.
And make no mistake, even after signing Anderson to a two-year extension which keeps him here through the 2023 season, and even after drafting the promising Marshall and Shi Smith, they absolutely want to keep Moore beyond his current deal.
Moore’s 24 and an emerging star in an offense that needs one, and home-grown guys also tend to get a bit of a bump from their own teams. It’s good business to keep your own, if only to show other guys that you will. That encourages work, and that’s the point here.
There will come a time when market forces begin to complicate things. The salary cap’s going to go back up again in 2022, but the real spike’s expected in 2023, when money starts flowing into the league from new media and gambling deals. Moore might prefer to negotiate against that backdrop a year down the road, or he might choose to try to extend sooner rather than wait and risk a significant payday. That’s a decision he and his agent will make. But the Panthers absolutely want to keep that guy around. He’s a lead dog, and you don’t let those go just because some cute puppies are bouncing around the yard.
With the release of Will Grier, do you think the Panthers front office would entertain the idea of adding a third quarterback in the form of Cam Newton? — Jay, Conneaut, Ohio
Why are they only going with two quarterbacks? I think that’s risky. — Joseph, Chicago
Me too. I’m a conservative investor.
I’m probably always going to lean toward keeping an extra quarterback as opposed to an extra tight end or safety or lineman, because I think people are just wired a certain way. Growing up in this area and seeing Joe Gibbs win with different quarterbacks in Washington because he always had a couple in the pipeline also leaves a psychological imprint on a person.
Last year, with the COVID-19 restrictions, it was essential to keep a third quarterback around in case of an outbreak and close contacts. Those rules are a little more flexible this year, and it’s easier to get a third one in town if need be. And realistically, if a team gets down to a third quarterback, the expectations change significantly anyway. That’s a roster spot for a developmental guy.
And apparently, they chose to develop young players at some other positions as opposed to Grier (they have 10 defensive linemen, five safeties, and five tight ends at the moment, though one of the tight ends is sort of a fullback). I think if the right quarterback were available, they wouldn’t hesitate to bring one in. But it would have to be someone they felt more strongly about.
Best regards from Germany! My question is: What is A.J. Bouye doing during the two-week suspension? What is he allowed to do? — Adam, Baden-Baden, Germany
First of all, I love getting mail from overseas. It reminds me of when I was a kid in Suburban Hickory, and a globe and a National Geographic magazine was as close as you got to seeing the world. We didn’t have the internet then. Then again, we also didn’t have as much access to ALL THE MALIGNANT CRAZY IN THE WORLD, either, so I’m not sure it was a bad trade-off.
As our way to thank our new pal from that well-known spa town in southwestern Germany’s Black Forest, near the border with France where they enjoy “the good-good life” (thanks internet, you’re good for some things), Adam is this week’s Ask The Old Guy Friend of the Mailbag. And as soon as we have merch, he’s getting the sixth piece of it behind me, Hal from Canada, Westray from Kershaw, Joseph formerly of Concord who’s moving away for some big fancy job with a desk, and Sunny from Houston. I should probably get on that.
As for Bouye, he served four weeks of a six-week suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances last year, when he was with the Broncos. He was prohibited from the team facility those four weeks. In recent years, the league has started offering a little leniency on the back half of suspensions, allowing some guys to be on the property while they wait to be eligible to play again.
Bouye’s out of the building this week, rehabbing on his own after the soft-tissue injury that cost him some time in training camp. Next week, he’ll be allowed to have some limited contact with the team in hopes of being ready to return in Week 3.
He can attend full team meetings and work one-on-one with a position coach, but can’t go to the smaller meetings of the defense or his position group. He cannot work on the field with the team during practice or partake in group lifting sessions, but he can use the weight room individually and work with a coach there.
In short, he gets to ease back into his eligibility. They’ll need him when he returns, as he adds the kind of experience they need to the secondary (At the moment, Donte Jackson is the only corner on the roster with an NFL start). Bouye’s a smart guy, who works the way they want guys to, and is slated to play nickel when he gets back.
Since they put the rookie long snapper Thomas Fletcher on season-ending injured reserve, does that mean he gets paid? Is he still part of the team? — Bill, Ladson. S.C.
Yes, and yes. Sort of.
Players on IR do get paid while recovering from the injuries that knocked them out for the year. In Fletcher’s case, that’s a hip impingement.
But some players have what they call “split contracts,” which allow the team to pay a reduced rate if those guys end up on IR. Those are generally for younger players, late-round picks, and undrafted rookies. Some veterans, particularly if they have injury histories, also have them negotiated into their deals.
The rookie minimum this year is $660,000, but the split amount is $415,000 for rookies.
That’s still a nice chunk of change for the sixth-rounder from Alabama (along with his $130,704 signing bonus) to not long snap this year. It provides a nice little cushion while he heals, learns, and tries to win a job next year.
I have seen it reported that both Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter put on weight during the off-season to make them more effective at the linebacker position. These changes aren’t reflected in the official Panthers roster. Have they bulked up and, if so, what are their new numbers? — Randy, Goose Creek, SC
Never ask your domestic life partner or your linebackers how much they weigh. That’s a terrible idea, because they can both kill you if they choose. And they might. And @pantherstatsguy knows that and isn’t taking any chances.
Actually, Shaq and Jermaine are OK talking about it, because both put on some pounds this offseason at the request of the coaching staff.
Thompson went from 225-ish to the 235-237-pound range this offseason. He said earlier this summer that some fan read about it on Panthers.com, and rolled up on him at Harris Teeter.
“And some guy walks up and like ‘Shaq?’ And I turned around and he said: ‘You put on 10 pounds?’ I’m like, what the hell, you don’t talk to people like that,” Thompson said with a laugh. “At least ask how I’m doing first.”
Thompson wasn’t able to lift as much last year as he dealt with some shoulder injuries. Carter just packed on an extra 10 or 12 to get to 230, because they like their inside linebackers a little bigger.
Linebackers coach Mike Siravo explained it earlier this year, saying it helped on the field and in terms of durability.
“It’s going to help him be more stout inside the tackle box, and it’s going to allow him to play longer throughout the year, just better endurance, physically,” Siravo said. “There’s a lot of shots you give and take on your body out there, so you need to have some size.
“We kind of detail up every position. You want that guy to be low-end 225, up to whatever he can go at if they can move and carry it. You have to cover backs, track down backs, track down wideouts, but also get your hands on offensive linemen and tight ends and be physical, so you need that size.”
I have watched Royce Freeman for years. What is the chances Freeman makes it to number two running back? — Steve, Rock Hill, SC
It’s not inconceivable, at least in the short term.
Rhule mentioned earlier this week that Freeman’s experience would be a benefit, especially early in the year.
As talented as Hubbard is, learning pass protection and blitz pickup is often a years-long process. So while the 50-yard runs in the preseason were nice, they don’t help if he gets Sam Darnold hit during the regular season.
Freeman’s also a different kind of back, with a listed weight of 238 that makes him the big fella in the room. Hubbard left some meat on the bone in a few goal-line chances in the preseason, so having that a bigger back could help.
But again, it’s almost a moot point. That McCaffrey guy is going to get most of the carries, as he should.
How do the Panthers schedule who bangs the “Keep Pounding” drum? Do they plan it through the season, or is it already planned for all the home dates? I would love that honor one day. — Reginald, Philadelphia
That would be awesome, yes. Because who doesn’t want to play a gigantic musical instrument? Especially since it invokes the famous words of the late Sam Mills, who inspires the franchise to this day.
It’s a combination of several factors. Certain drummers are there as part of league initiatives such as Salute To Service or Crucial Catch, and have a tie to the programs being honored. Sometimes a current or former player gets the honor. Famous local athletes such as Steph Curry and Corey Seager have done it. At the last game in the preseason, it was a pair of gold medalists from the recent Olympics — Randolph Ross Jr. and Trevor Stewart from North Carolina A&T.
And as it says here on the website: “Keep Pounding Drummers come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, but all have overcome a great trial or adversity that has not only made them strong, but also pushes them to make others around them stronger.”
That’s a goal to aspire to, whether you ever get to hit the drum or not.
That’ll take care of us for this week. Stay tuned, because things are about to ramp up, as the regular season starts and all these abstract concepts we’ve been talking about for months become tangible and real.