CHARLOTTE — Bradley Bozeman said there was “no doubt” he’d return from an ankle injury in time for the Panthers’ Week 1 matchup with Cleveland.
At least not from his perspective.
“I’ve always been one of those guys – you tape it up, you can get ready to roll,” Bozeman said Monday. “Whether it’s ready or not, I’ll be ready.”
Bozeman grinned while discussing his return to the field after falling injured just less than two weeks ago during joint practices with New England, the kind of joy palpable from a player who was excited to return to work.
“I was out for two weeks, (so I’m) trying to get back into the swing of things,” Bozeman said. “Trying to really get my footwork and hand placements back down. You lose those things pretty quickly.
“But I’m working my butt off. I was getting my mental reps when we were out there last week, just trying to stay with it, stay engaged. I didn’t feel like I was too far off-base, but (there are) definitely some things to work on.”
Bozeman had tweaked his ankle during joint practice with the Patriots on Aug. 16, but he wasn’t going to let it hold him back from returning to build more chemistry with Carolina’s new-look offensive line for 2022.
Bozeman is just one piece of the new-found depth across this year’s line. The starting lineup includes rookie Ikem Ekwonu at left tackle, along with league veteran and first-year Panther Austin Corbettat right guard. Second-year lineman Brady Christensen has apparently solidified his role at left guard, and right tackle mainstay Taylor Motonrounds out the group.
“I think we continue to grow and continue to mesh as a team, especially the offensive line,” Bozeman said. “We’ve been continuing to work together, getting our combinations right, changing a little footwork here and there, seeing what best fits everyone, just getting to work and really meshing together. I think it’s been a really good transition so far. We’re just continuing to grow as a group and a unit.”
Bozeman, who spent four years with the Ravens before signing a one-year contract with the Panthers, is one of those new pieces working on building chemistry.
The 27-year-old from Alabama started 16 games at center in Baltimore last year, and he had been competing with Pat Elfleinfor the starting center job throughout camp and into the preseason.
Elflein officially took over all of the first-team reps when Bozeman was injured. Now, the 6-foot-5, 325-pound lineman is back in action, looking to prove himself.
“I think I’ve had a pretty solid camp,” Bozeman said. “I think I’ve played pretty well, been gelling with guys pretty well. . . . Trying to prove – to myself and to everyone – what I’m about and who I am.”
— PJ Walker hasn’t been explicitly told he’s the backup quarterback, even though he’s the only healthy one on the roster at the moment behind Baker Mayfield.
So Walker is going to do what he’s done for years — stay ready.
Last year’s backup watched the Panthers draft a guy who would ostensibly replace him in Matt Corral, then traded for Mayfield to bump him another slot down the depth chart behind Sam Darnold. Then Corral was lost to a season-ending foot injury, and Darnold suffered an ankle injury Friday night which has complicated things.
It’s a lot to digest, but Walker’s been in unusual situations before. He was with the Colts when Andrew Luck abruptly retired after training camp in 2019, so this is practically conventional.
“It’s not that; it’s definitely not that,” Walker said with a laugh when reminded of his Indianapolis experience. “For me, being in Indy taught me to always be ready. Being in that room, to stay prepared, they told me to be prepared to be the backup. And that was my mindset, and I brought it with me here, and even in the XFL (when he started and was that league’s best quarterback). That’s the mindset you’ve got to have. . . .
“This is a league of roles. You’ve got guys that are the main guys, the guys that are starters. But you’ve also got to have guys that know their role as well. Everything I can do to help the team get better, that’s my job, what I personally want to do.”
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said they hadn’t made any final decisions at the position, leading into tomorrow’s initial cuts, but at the moment, the offensive staff likes what Walker has done through the offseason, so his familiarity is a plus.
— Rhule didn’t have a lot of specifics on the injuries from last week’s game but said kicker Zane Gonzalez was seeing a specialist to determine if he’d need surgery on his injured groin. Gonzalez was hurt while warming up on the sidelines Friday night.
The Panthers worked out a group of kickers Monday, and will continue to over the next few days.
Rhule also said his expectation was that Darnold would miss “at least four weeks,” but they’re still awaiting more tests on his ankle to see the extent of time he could miss. That makes carrying him on the 53-man roster until Wednesday and then placing him on short-term IR a possibility.
— Other than that, Rhule seemed optimistic about the injury status of most of the other players on the sidelines, indicating that tight end Giovanni Ricci’s groin injury from Friday wasn’t the kind of thing that would cost him time in the regular season.
— Defensive end Brian Burns got the assistant coach treatment during Monday’s practice, helping out from the side as he got a day off. Rhule said Burns was dealing with some “soreness,” but said this was the time of year he wanted to taper some of the reps some players were taking anyway.
— The Panthers had a couple of high-profile linebackers on the field with them Monday, with former Panthers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at practice. They’re around on a fairly regular basis anyway, and Kuechly will be part of the team’s radio broadcast at seven games this year.
— Wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. had one of the plays of practice, bringing in a deep ball down the sidelines from Mayfield. Marshall has been in and out of practice recently, but has looked good when he’s out there.
Also notable Monday was offensive line James Campen working on the side with Ekwonu. Campen was down on all fours, holding Ekwonu’s foot to the ground as he took pass sets, emphasizing the fine points of technique. It was detailed work, for sure, and Campen (a former NFL lineman himself and longtime coach) isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.