The NFL season is inching closer. Through July, Shutdown Corner will examine three big questions for each NFL team as it heads to training camp.
Report date: July 25
Where: Spartanburg, S.C.
1. Cam Newton. What’s the story?
No player suffered a sharper drop in rep last year than Newton, the 2015 MVP-turned-2016 afterthought. Newton wasn’t the only reason the Super Bowl-level Panthers couldn’t even reach the playoffs in 2016, but he was the most visible, and shouldered most of the blame. And hey, speaking of shoulders: Newton injured his in a late-season game against the Chargers, and then, for some inexplicable reason, kept playing in the season’s final three games. After the season, the Panthers discovered that Newton’s shoulder required surgery; he’s expected to recover from his March date with the knife by the start of training camp, but for now, all we’re left with is strange locker room throwing session videos.
The Panthers need Newton to be at full strength to start their season, but even if he’s not, they’ll be implementing a new offensive scheme that’s designed to keep him upright and intact. Newton has taken hit after vicious hit in his NFL career, and Carolina wants to minimize that by giving him more checkdown opportunities and more options beyond just run-or-sling-it. The hope of the entire franchise rests on Newton’s shoulder, and we won’t know until next week whether it’s up to the challenge.
2. What will Christian McCaffrey bring to Carolina?
When Carolina selected Christian McCaffrey in the first round, the Panthers signaled that they believe the Stanford running back can be a franchise cornerstone. (Put aside the reports that the Panthers tried to trade up to get Leonard Fournette. This is a weird franchise, made slightly less weird with the departure of GM Dave Gettleman.)
McCaffrey certainly has all the tools to step into a starting role immediately: speed, hands, receiving talent, and the ability to generate yards after contact. The Panthers’ new offensive philosophy ought to open up opportunities for McCaffrey in the open field, and if McCaffrey is able to carve into Jonathan Stewart’s touches, this could be a special season. Either way, get used to the idea of taking McCaffrey early in fantasy drafts for the next five to seven years.
3. Will Luke Kuechly be healthy enough for a whole season?
Luke Kuechly, along with Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, forms the nucleus of one of the finest linebacker corps in the NFL … provided, of course, that everyone’s healthy. And with Kuechly, that’s no longer a sure bet. Kuechly suffered his second major concussion in as many seasons in 2016, and it was a scary one that left Kuechly sobbing on the field. Kuechly is only 25, so in theory he’s got many years ahead to spend running down quarterbacks. But what if he ends up with another severe concussion? He’s said he’s through talking about what-ifs like CTE and the like, but another concussion would take that conversation out of his control.
That makes Kuechly’s backup role an important one. It’ll be like a backup quarterback: probably not needed, but if the time comes, it’s Code Red. A.J. Klein, the Panthers’ primary backup linebacker across all three slots, moved on to New Orleans. That means backup duties likely fall to David Mayo, who’s never started a game in Carolina. Bottom line: Kuechly is an invaluable asset in Carolina, and if he’s out, so too are the Panthers’ defensive hopes.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.