NFC South: Carolina Panthers

Examining the Carolina Panthers' roster:

Quarterbacks (2)
Joe Webb was signed to simulate the things Newton did while the franchise quarterback recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Newton is healthy and general manager Dave Gettleman has the philosophy of keeping only two quarterbacks, so Webb likely will fall to the practice squad or off the team completely.

Running backs (5)

The top three are a given and Barner is the leading candidate to return kicks in addition to his running back duties. Gaffney isn't safe, but the Panthers drafted him in the sixth round because they are high on his ability to block. He is part of the future.

Receivers (5)

I'm still not convinced Underwood is safe. While the Panthers love his speed, he has a tendency to drop passes. King also isn't a shoo-in. Don't be surprised if Brenton Bersin, Kealoha Pilares or Marvin McNutt are a part of the final picture.

Tight ends (5)

Normally I would say four players here, but the Panthers plan to run a lot of two-tight-end sets and Brockel also doubles as a fullback. Williams is the wild card. He's shown flashes and if he continues to impress in training camp he could be almost like an extra wide receiver.

Offensive linemen (9)

The key here is flexibility. Williams and Chandler can play tackle or guard. Turner can play guard and backup center. While the Panthers may like to keep a 10th player here, using that spot for a fifth tight end makes more sense.

Defensive line (10)

I'd be nervous if I were Alexander. He's been suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and the Panthers drafted end Ealy in the second round. Keeping 10 defensive linemen may be a reach, and there is solid depth at end.

Linebackers (5)

Again, flexibility is key and why I went with five linebackers instead of six. Blackburn can step in and replace Kuechly if he ever had to come off the field. If the Panthers decide to go with six here, look for Ben Jacobs or D.J. Smith to figure into the mix.

Cornerbacks (5)

The wild card here is Godfrey as he returns from an Achilles injury and moves from safety to corner. The Panthers restructured his contract to keep him on the roster and really love his leadership. If he is good to go, there will be some tough cuts with Norman and James Dockery. Going back to the defensive line, Carolina could keep one more here and go with nine there.

Safeties (4)

The good thing about having Godfrey at cornerback is he could move back to safety if healthy and an injury occurs here. The decision will come in whether to keep fourth-round pick Tre Boston and go with five safeties over an additional defensive lineman.

Specialists (3)

These positions are set barring an injury.

Camp preview: Carolina Panthers

July, 17, 2014
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 NFL Nation's David Newton examines the three biggest issues facing the Carolina Panthers heading into training camp.

Offensive line: In many ways, the success of the Panthers comes down to how well this revamped group comes together. With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, there's a chance only center Ryan Kalil returns to the position he started at the end of last season. It's not as dire as many think, though. The Panthers are high on starting right tackle Byron Bell or right guard Nate Chandler moving into Gross' spot to protect Cam Newton's blind side. The loser of that battle probably will start on the right side. Carolina also has veteran Garry Williams, coming off an ACL injury, ready to play either tackle or guard. The Panthers love rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott has experience there if needed. Amini Silatolu had won the starting left guard spot last season before suffering a knee injury in the fourth game. He has 18 career starts, so he's solid. It all comes down to chemistry for a team that wants to rely on the run and give Newton freedom to improvise as he does so well.

Wide receivers: No position has drawn more scrutiny during the offseason at Carolina with the top-four receivers from 2013 gone. The biggest reason was the decision to let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go. When Carolina didn't sign a big-time name to replace Smith, the naysayers became more outspoken. But here's my take. The Panthers are better at receiver than they were a year ago. Nothing against Smith, but at 35 he was no better than a No. 2 receiver and at the end of his career. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon really weren't big losses when you look at it closely. Hixon wouldn't have been a loss at all were it not for the game-winning touchdown against New Orleans. The key here will be chemistry, but first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks like a red zone beast at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Free agent signees Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are solid possession receivers, and more dependable than the players they replaced. Who steps up as the fourth receiver will be the biggest question, whether it's free agent Tiquan Underwood or one of the young receivers. The Panthers plan to run a lot more two tight-end sets makes that less critical.

Cam Newton: I was going to go with the secondary here. The Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. But that position is as good or better than it was this time last season, so I'm going with the franchise quarterback here. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. The diagnosis is the ankle will be better than ever, which makes him even more of a threat as a runner since he'll be pain free for the first time since college. I mention Newton here not because of the ankle, but because his ability to take his game to another level will be more important than ever with changes to the line and receiving corps. The leadership and consistency he showed last season will be called upon even more. Just because of the changes he can't be lulled into thinking he has to do it all as he did his first two seasons. But as former left tackle Jordan Gross said last season, as Newton goes so goes the Panthers.
Nate ChandlerAP Photo/Nell RedmondNate Chandler, a third-year player, is competing for the Panthers' starting left tackle position.
Nate Chandler has a chance to be one of the feel-good stories of the upcoming NFL season.

Or a bust.

If he's the former, the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers have a chance to follow one feel-good season with another.

Let me explain. Left tackle is one of the most important positions on an NFL roster because that player protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side. Elite left tackles earn around $10 million a year. They are top targets in the draft and free agency.

Teams don't typically take chances there.

Carolina did.

Meet Chandler.

An undrafted defensive lineman out of UCLA in 2012, he's trying to defy the odds. Once considered a dark horse to replace retired left tackle Jordan Gross, Chandler is at least even money to win the job based on offseason workouts.

Chandler, 25, isn't lacking for confidence. "My goal is to be a starting offensive tackle and win the Super Bowl and go down fighting and prove everybody wrong," he said.

If he loses his left tackle competition with Byron Bell, Chandler almost assuredly will start on the right side.

Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater has a strong opinion on where Chandler should play.

"There's no doubt in my mind he's a top left tackle," said Slater, who spent time working with Chandler over the past two summers.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder first sought out Slater last year, after Carolina moved Chandler to the offensive line in an effort to keep him on the roster. Chandler -- a former UCLA teammate of Slater's son Matthew, who is now with the New England Patriots -- had heard the elder Slater trained NFL prospects in the Los Angeles area.

So he spent a week with Slater, making an immediate impression with his work ethic and determination. He made a bigger impression after returning this summer, following a season in which he started six games at right guard and two at right tackle.

[+] EnlargeNate Chandler
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelOnce a defensive lineman, Nate Chandler (far right), covets his role on the Panthers' O-line.
"The thing that many underestimate is the tenacity of this individual," said Slater, the offensive line coach at Azusa Pacific University.

Slater, if you're too young to remember, spent 20 years playing tackle for the Rams (1976–95). He was named to seven Pro Bowls and blocked for seven different 1,000-yard rushers. So he knows a thing or two about the offensive line -- and he is impressed with Chandler's ability to learn the nuances of the position.

"He superseded things that were meat and potatoes and went straight to some of the cutting-edge things it takes to be a dominant football player," Slater said.

The Panthers like what they've seen as well. Coach Ron Rivera reiterated throughout offseason workouts that the left tackle job remains up for grabs between Bell and Chandler.

At the end of a June minicamp, Carolina signed Chandler to a three-year extension worth $5.12 million. That will be a bargain if he starts at either tackle spot.

"The kid wants it," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "He's completely bought in [to playing offensive line] and he's talented enough to get it done."

The Panthers saw the need to move Chandler after selecting defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft. Too many people and not enough vacant spots.

So with a little prodding from offensive line coach John Matsko, who'd already noticed something in Chandler that he liked, Rivera made the switch.

"I'm telling you right now, it's hard for me to imagine there is anybody out there more physically gifted to play -- you name the position [on the line] -- than this young man," said Slater, who raved about Chandler's quickness.

Chandler, because of his athletic ability, is more like Gross than Bell. That he has some of that nasty streak that comes from being a former defensive lineman doesn't hurt either.

"If you're going to replace a guy like Jordan Gross, you've got to replace him with a guy who at the very least is on par with him athletically," Slater said. "He's got to have that comfortable athleticism to deal with the animals that are playing [opposite him]."

Chandler won't face many opponents better than teammates Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, the defensive ends he'll square off against in practice.

He can benefit the way Slater did practicing against Rams teammates Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer and Kevin Greene.

"I told Nate to relish and cherish the relationship with those guys and learn from them as they compete, because they will make him better," Slater said.

Slater has no doubt Chandler will continue to improve.

"He's mentally equipped to solve problems, and that's what you have to do to play offensive tackle in this league," Slater said. "He's going to be a good offensive lineman in the National Football League for a very long time."

The only thing better than a feel-good story is a long-term one.
Steve SmithAlbert Dickson/Sporting News/Icon SMI 
Score: Panthers 29, Rams 23, 2 OT
Date: Jan. 10, 2004. Site: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis

It's hard to argue with the voters on this one. Steve Smith's 69-yard touchdown catch from Jake Delhomme on the first play of the second overtime ended one of the most exciting playoff games not only in Carolina history but in NFL history.

The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit to force overtime, and both teams blew opportunities to win in the first extra period. I actually went to the sideline with an early story filed, awaiting the final score with Carolina leading 23-12. I've never felt so helpless. With no cell phone coverage and not being allowed to return to the press box, I had no way to rewrite the drama as it unfolded. And there was plenty.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Panthers' history?

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One could argue the most memorable play came from cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. a few plays before Smith's catch. The Rams had a first down at the Carolina 38 and appeared poised to win before Manning ripped an apparent catch from the hands of wide receiver Torry Holt for an interception. Were it not for that play, Smith's catch never would have happened. But because Smith's play won the game and sent Carolina to the NFC Championship Game and ultimately the Super Bowl, it is the one etched in the minds of most fans.

The scene at the Edward Jones Dome went from complete pandemonium to stunned silence as Smith caught the pass in stride over the middle between two defenders and raced untouched into the end zone. In a matter of seconds, St. Louis' 14-game home winning streak was over.

"I've never seen a game quite like that," then-Carolina coach John Fox said afterward.

There haven't been many like it since. As much as I'd say linebacker Sam Mills intercepting a shovel pass and returning it for a touchdown to secure Carolina's first franchise victory in 1995 was more memorable, that play or any other really isn't close when you consider what Smith's catch meant and the emotion it brought.

Panthers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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Three words. Salary cap management.

Gettleman
The Carolina Panthers were $16 million over the cap when general manager Dave Gettleman was hired in February 2013. They had little wiggle room to improve a team that had not made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2008. Between tough cuts, renegotiations and finding bargain players who have performed, he put the team more than $15 million under the cap.

Carolina still is not completely cap healthy. Huge contracts given to running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, as well as defensive end Charles Johnson, by former management will force Gettleman to remain somewhat frugal through 2015. But he's at least put the team in position to sign key players such as quarterback Cam Newton, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and defensive end Greg Hardy to long-term deals.

The key to maintaining the success started with a 12-4 2013 season is keeping the star players under contract and being smart about signing the role-players around them. It's the same formula Seattle used to win the Super Bowl this past season.

With Newton and Kuechly in particular, the Panthers have anchors -- and leaders -- on both sides of the ball that should help them remain competitive for years to come. They'll make it easier to sign bargain free agents because players will want to come to Carolina to play with them. The closer Gettleman gets the Panthers to a cap-healthy state, the more flexibility he will have in bringing in those players. But the priority will be to continue to draft young stars, as Carolina has the past three years, and have the money to keep them after their rookie contracts expire.

The key will be to not overspend as past management did, making it tougher to keep the solid nucleus that Gettleman has solidified.
Steve SmithAlbert Dickson/Sporting News/Icon SMI 
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Carolina Panthers' history. Also featured are DeShaun Foster's amazing 1-yard touchdown run in the NFC Championship Game that sent the Panthers to the Super Bowl during the 2003 season and John Kasay's out-of-bounds kickoff that set up New England's game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl that season. Please vote for your choice as the Panthers' most memorable play.

Score: Panthers 29, Rams 23, 2 OT
Date: Jan. 10, 2004 Site: Edward Jones Dome

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Which is the most memorable play in Panthers' history?

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On the first play of double overtime, quarterback Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith over the middle for a 69-yard touchdown pass that ended this thriller and sent the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game. "I braced myself for the big hit, but it never came," Smith said. "And when I took off, I knew I was gone." This play is on the list not only because of the dramatic fashion in which it ended the game, but because of the emotional roller-coaster fans were on leading to it. Carolina led 23-12 with three minutes remaining in regulation. Had the late Don Meredith been alive, he would have begun singing, "Turn out the lights, the party's over."

But the party was just beginning. The Rams, thanks to a porous defense and onsides kick, tied the game with four seconds left on a field goal by Jeff Wilkins. It remained tied during the first overtime even though both teams had chances to win. The Panthers had a delay of game penalty that negated a game-winning kick by John Kasay, and two plays later Kasay missed from 45 yards. Wilkins, who made five field goals during regulation, had a 53-yarder barely fall short on the Rams' first possession of overtime. St. Louis looked poised to get in position for another game-winning kick late in the first overtime with first-and-10 at the Carolina 38. But cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. ripped the ball out of Tory Holt's hands on an apparent catch for arguably the biggest interception in franchise history. After two plays for minus-4 yards, on third-and-14 from his own 31, Delhomme unleashed the pass to Smith that sent Carolina fans that made the trip into a frenzy and silenced the home crowd that had seen its team win 14 straight games in the dome. "I've never seen a game quite like that," then-Carolina coach John Fox said. That's because there haven't been many like it.
DeShaun FosterJamie Squire/Getty Images 
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This is the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Carolina Panthers' history. Also featured are: John Kasay's out-of-bounds kickoff that set up New England's game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl that concluded the 2003 season and Steve Smith's 69-yard game-winning catch in double-overtime of the NFC Divisional playoff game that year. Please vote for your choice as the Panthers' most memorable play.

Score: Panthers 14, Eagles 3
Date: Jan. 18, 2004 Site: Lincoln Financial Field

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Which is the most memorable play in Panthers' history?

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Description: It may have been the most spectacular -- and longest in terms of time off the clock -- 1-yard touchdown run in playoff history. DeShaun Foster broke four tackles and sidestepped two more, finishing the play going backwards with his right arm and ball stretched over the pylon for the touchdown. That gave Carolina a 14-3 lead with 4:11 left in the third quarter. With quarterback Donovan McNabb watching on the sideline with a rib injury suffered earlier in the game and the Carolina defense playing at a high level, that was the play that sent the Panthers to their first and only Super Bowl. Few plays in team history have been more eloquent, powerful and poetic than Foster's run. He basically had no blocking as he took the pitch from quarterback Jake Delhomme. This was all him. He avoided hard-charging and diving free safety Brian Dawkins at the 5. He was hit by middle linebacker Mark Simoneau two yards behind the line of scrimmage. He twisted out of that and took on linebacker Nate Wayne, in perfect position, at the two in a violent collision. Strong safety Michael Lewis hit both from the side. With a little help from fullback Brad Hoover, Foster continued to twist and churn his powerful legs. Simoneau came back for a second try as Foster was falling backward toward the pylon. He wouldn't be denied.

"It was blocked up fairly well," Foster said. "Dawkins made a real good play. He made me cut it up. From there it was just a fight to get into the end zone." Running in slow motion you'd swear the play took five minutes. It left the Eagles' crowd that had seen their team lose in the NFC Championship Game the year before in stunned silence. It showed the heart and strength that had been so prevalent in Carolina throughout the year. "We have a bunch of strong-willed guys, and they keep swinging their sword until they get it done," then-coach John Fox said. "They aren't going to be denied." Foster certainly wasn't on this play.

 
John KasayAndy Lyons/Getty Images 
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This is the first of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Carolina Panthers history. In the next two days, we’ll feature: DeShaun Foster's amazing 1-yard touchdown run in the NFC Championship Game that sent the Panthers to the Super Bowl during the 2003 season and Steve Smith's game-winning, 69-yard touchdown pass in double-overtime of the NFC divisional playoff game that season. Please vote for your choice as the Panthers' most memorable play.

Score: Patriots 32, Panthers 29
Date: February 1, 2004 Site: Reliant Stadium

With just more than a minute remaining in Super Bowl XXXVIII and the score tied at 29-29, John Kasay sent the kickoff out of bounds to give New England possession at the 40. Six plays and 37 yards later, Adam Vinatieri made a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left to end the dream of Carolina owner Jerry Richardson to win a Super Bowl in the team's first 10 years.

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While some may argue this play is forgettable, there is no denying it is memorable. Had Kasay done what he'd done on 77 of his 78 regular-season kickoffs and all of his kickoffs in the Super Bowl prior to this one, the Patriots -- at least according to the averages -- would have started from the 27. They would have begun at the 20 had Kasay sent the kick into the end zone.

It was so out of character that it has made many lists as the biggest blunder in Super Bowl history. Ironically, four days before the game, Kasay provided this insight: "I really think it will come down to which team will have the ball last. That will be the difference in winning or losing."

Perhaps it wouldn't have changed things. Perhaps Tom Brady and the Patriots still would have gotten in position for the winning kick. The thing is, nobody knows. In the minds of Carolina fans, that was the kick that denied them their championship. Vinatieri already had missed two other field goals. Who's to say he wouldn't have missed another had the kick been from 50 yards or farther?

"They were kind of reeling, to be honest with you," then-Carolina wide receiver Ricky Proehl said at the time. "I felt like if it goes into overtime, we could win this game. Then John kicked it out of bounds. ... I'm still sick."

To Kasay's credit, he stayed and answered every question afterward with class. But you get only so many chances to win a Super Bowl, and that's what makes this play so memorable.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton may have been slowed on the field by offseason ankle surgery, but he's moving pretty fast in the category of respect.

The two-time Pro Bowl selection came in at No. 24 on the NFL Network's list of the league's top 100 players voted on by his peers. That's up 22 spots from last season.

Among the quarterbacks Newton ranked ahead of were Indianapolis' Andrew Luck (30) and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (81).

Newton joined Carolina center Ryan Kalil (93) and defensive end Greg Hardy (53) on the list. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, has a chance to be the highest ranked Carolina player as the network reveals its top 20 players over the next two weeks.

Newton is coming off surgery on his left ankle that kept him out of most of the offseason workout program. His most extensive action came in last Thursday's minicamp finale when he completed 8-of-15 pass attempts in 7-on-7 drills.

Newton tweeted Wednesday that he had been cleared medically to work out fully:

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

June, 26, 2014
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The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was trying to explain what he liked about offseason workouts as a group of kids surrounded coach Ron Rivera chanting, "We love coach!''

Gettleman smiled as he glanced at the scene that nearly drowned out his voice.

But it's not just Rivera that makes Gettleman believe the Panthers have a chance to record consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It's also the attitude of the players.

"I think they feel they have unfinished business," he said. "It's been since they walked in the door back in April. They've worked very, very hard. They've been very diligent. They're focused."

Rivera has had something to with that. Instilling work ethic starts at the top and filters down. Rivera learned a long time ago as a player with the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears what it takes to be successful.

Creating good competition at every position has helped. Players fighting to win -- or keep -- a job tend to work harder than ones that feel they are secure.

That the critics believe the Panthers will take a hard tumble from last season's 12-4 record also is a factor. It has created a chip on shoulders to prove them wrong.

Rivera seems to relish in Carolina being overlooked as a playoff contender. He had sergeant first class Cedric King, who lost both of his legs in duty, speak to the team before breaking for vacation.

"He talked about ... that a lot of people have written you off, a lot of people aren't expecting much of you, then think last year was a bolt of lightning and it won't strike twice,'' said Rivera, who has had King speak to the team before. "It was neat to have him give these guys a little parting shot in terms of 'let's go out and defy a lot of people.' ''

Neither Gettleman nor Rivera would grade the offseason or make predictions other than for Gettleman to say he likes where the team is -- now.

But a lot remains to be determined between now and the opener at Tampa Bay. So with players and coaches headed for a break before reporting for training camp on July 24, here are a few final observations from offseason workouts:

Most important competition: This hasn't changed since offseason workouts began. It's finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler are the primary contenders, with Garry Williams expected to figure in as well.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Kelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Nell RedmondFirst-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin has been impressive at receiver during offseason work.
"One of the blessings we have is these pass-rushing defensive ends that we've got," Gettleman said of Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and rookie Kony Ealy. "The toughest days for these [tackles] is going to be Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We've talked to them about helping each other, with the tackles talking to the ends and the ends talking to the tackles. ... You just let nature take its course."

Bell appears to have the upper hand, but don't rule out Chandler. A former defensive lineman, the Panthers signed him to a three-year extension this week worth close to $8 million. Like he did last year, Chandler will spend a few weeks with Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater between now and camp.

Chandler got to know Slater through his son, Matt, at UCLA.

As Gettleman reminded, "the kids wants it.''

Once the Panthers solidify who will protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side, the talent is there on the rest of the line to be solid.

Toughest cut: That likely will come at tight end, where there are five legitimate candidates to make the roster. Greg Olsen is a given. So is Ed Dickson, signed from Baltimore. Those give Newton two solid targets. Former basketball player Brandon Williams continues to impress as well. Free-agent acquisition Mike McNeill should be kept as a blocking tight end, and Richie Brockel has the flexibility to play tight end and fullback. I could see the Panthers keeping one less wide receiver -- or somebody from another position -- on the final 53-man roster to keep all of these players.

Good to see: You could name several players here, beginning with Newton. The team's franchise quarterback took snaps in seven-on-seven drills in Thursday's final minicamp practice, putting him about a month ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation for March ankle surgery. But the player I'll go with is outside linebacker Thomas Davis. He wasn't wearing a knee brace on Thursday, and looks faster than ever -- and he looked pretty fast last season with the brace. After becoming the first known NFL player to come back from three ACL surgeries on the same knee, an extra step for Davis will only make the NFL's No. 2 defense from last season stronger.

The beast: You'll probably get tired of reading this, but first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin really is a beast. The 6-5, 240-pound wide receiver made yet another unbelievable catch on Thursday, reaching over the cornerback in the left corner of the end zone and literally snatching the ball from the defender's hands while falling backwards and staying inbounds. Benjamin began OTAs going high over the middle between two defenders to snatch a pass so high many couldn't reach. The play made Gettleman go to his knees and grab his heart. If this carries over into the season, there will be "Steve Smith Who?'' T-shirts all over town.

The roster: I won't give you the full depth chart right now, but I'll give you the starters as I see them going into camp. And I'm going with a three wide receiver set on offense, although you'll see a lot of two tight end sets.

Offense: Quarterback -- Cam Newton; WR -- Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Kelvin Benjamin; TE -- Greg Olsen; LT -- Nate Chandler; LG -- Amini Silatolu; C -- Ryan Kalil; RG -- Trai Turner (R); RT -- Byron Bell; RB -- DeAngelo Williams.

Defense: DE -- Charles Johnson; DT -- Colin Cole; DT -- Star Lotulelei; DE -- Greg Hardy; MLB Luke Kuechly; OLB -- Thomas Davis; OLB -- Chase Blackburn; CB -- Melvin White; CB -- Antoine Cason; FS -- Thomas DeCoud; SS -- Roman Harper.

Kick returner: Kenjon Barner

Punt returner: Kenjon Barner

Punter: Brad Nortman

Placekicker: Graham Gano

Keep in mind Charles Godfrey, moving from safety to cornerback, will figure in as a nickel back or possibly every down corner when he returns in full from an Achilles injury. And I went with Chandler at left tackle just because I have a hunch he will come out of this competition with the job.

Stay tuned.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers don't have a LeBron James when it come to their wide receivers -- at least not yet -- but they may have a Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills.

Maybe even a Kawhi Leonard.

"The one thing I love about football is it's a team game," veteran wide receiver Jason Avant said on Tuesday, the first of a three-day mandatory minicamp. "I know a lot of people worry about big names, but ask the Spurs about that."

Avant isn't predicting the Panthers will win the Super Bowl like the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title by beating James and the superstar-laden Miami Heat four games to one.

But he is suggesting Carolina shouldn't be overlooked because it lost its top four wide receivers from last season and didn't replace them with big names.

"You look at Seattle last year," Avant said of the reigning Super Bowl champions. "They didn't have a whole bunch of receivers that everybody knew. They had [Percy] Harvin, who played basically one game [the Super Bowl]. It doesn't matter.

"You look at all of the Patriots teams. Can you remember all the receivers? They had David Givens out there, so it doesn't matter."

Givens, for the record, had 59 catches in 2005, 56 in 2004 and 34 in 2003. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2003 against the Panthers and in 2004 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Avant, who joined the Eagles in 2006, never had a season with more than 53 catches.

So Avant wasn't taking a shot at Givens.

"No, he's not a bad player," the 31-year-old said. "They just had guys out there that you don't remember their names, you know?"

The Panthers have a lot of no-names themselves. Outside of free-agent acquisitions Jerricho Cotchery and Avant, and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, the next most recognizable name might be Tiquan Underwood.

And more people know him for his high-top fade hairstyle than anything he's done on the field.

The rest of this group, the same group that quarterback Cam Newton said the rest of the NFL world refers to as the "sorriest receivers," includes Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, De'Andre Presley and Brenton Bersin.

No Carolina receivers has the reputation of 35-year-old Steve Smith, the team's all-time leading receiver who was released during the offseason and picked up by Baltimore, but as a group they may be more talented.

Just don't ask Avant to evaluate them.

"I'm not in evaluation mode, but I think the guys are doing a great job," he said. "They're doing what they're asked. That's the only thing you can do. So we're looking forward to it. We're trying to be the best we can for our team."

That's not always a bad thing. Just ask the Spurs.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Clayton Gring turned to his wife during the Carolina Panthers' minicamp on Tuesday and yelled, "Hey, Katherine, watch this!"

Out on the practice field was their 6-year-old son George, in a smaller version of the gold Under Armour high top cleats that quarterback Cam Newton wears, taking the snap in a red No. 2 jersey like the red No. 1 Newton wears.

Lined up as a receiver was Newton, still limited from the ankle surgery he had in March, but not so much that he couldn't help fulfill George's wish.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
David Newton/ESPN.comGeorge Gring, age 6, of Houston spent a day with QB Cam Newton and the Panthers. George will also be the team's "Keep Pounding" drummer before the August 17 exhibition against Kansas City.
"Anytime as a player, as a role model, as whoever, you get a chance to give back and make somebody's day, man, I'm all for it," Newton said after the first of the three-day camp. "He lightened my day up for it to be such a monotonous process for me coming out and pretty much doing nothing.

"I was excited today, because of my man, G-square."

Waiting until training camp in late July to participate fully in practice might be monotonous for Newton, but it seems like such a small sacrifice when you consider what George has endured.

In November, a few days before Thanksgiving, a lump the size of a grapefruit was discovered in stomach area of the 4-foot-2 kid from Houston. It was diagnosed as Burkitt's Lymphoma, an intestinal-based cancer.

After two surgeries and five rounds of chemotherapy, doctors pronounced the cancer was in recession.

During the treatment, George became associated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His wish was to be a member of the Carolina Panthers and play with Newton.

On Tuesday, that wish came true.

The Panthers signed George to a complicated deal that included a bonus of Skittles and KitKat bars, fitted him with a locker that included his jersey and cleats that Newton had special ordered, and put him on the practice field with the entire team.

The whole experience will be a part of a "My Wish" television series on ESPN in July. Newton was touched by it.

"The impact I had puts into perspective how much people really actually watch you," Newton said. "Even though he's hundreds of miles away from where we are on the East coast, it still makes an impact being in this NFL.

"It also puts stress on you to let you know you have to be mindful of what you do and what you say as well."

Newton isn't feeling any stress to rush back from the ankle surgery. He's on schedule to be ready for camp, which opens on July 24. Other than being limited in quarterback runs -- a big part of his game -- he is expected to be full-go during the preseason.

That he took three- and five-step drops on Tuesday was another good sign.

"His timing is probably the most important thing as far as their running the routes and him releasing the ball," coach Ron Rivera said as he looked ahead to training camp. "That's probably the biggest thing he's got to get into focus. I'm not concerned with him running now, because that comes very natural for him."

Making George feel special came natural, too. Asked who his favorite player was, there was no hesitation from the kid with the big smile.

"Cam Newton," George said.

Newton probably would like George's enthusiasm during the formal news conference held after practice. Asked how he thought the Panthers would do this season, George said, "They might win the Super Bowl."

He also did a good job of avoiding the hard questions like, "Who are your favorite role models?"

"I don't know what that means," he said.

George did seem a bit puzzled when he was asked if he ate his Fruit Loops for breakfast with a spoon. Guess he hasn't familiarized himself with defensive end Greg Hardy and his alter persona, "The Kraken."

George was a good reminder for a team many are expecting to take a hard fall from last season's 12-4 record that dealing with the hot, muggy conditions in June isn't so bad.

He was a good reminder for Newton that as monotonous as his recovery has been, it's just a minor setback.

But this journey isn't over. George will return to Charlotte and be the team's Keep Pounding drummer before the August 17 preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Maybe by then he will have his timing down on passes to Newton.

"It was pretty good," Newton said of George's pass that he had to stretch hard for. "We've got to coach him up and get better at things, but so do I."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers begin a three-day minicamp on Tuesday, their final tune-up before reporting for training camp on July 24.

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

  • Cam Newton -- The fourth-year quarterback and coach Ron Rivera left open the possibility last week that Newton will be cleared medically to fully participate. Don't count on it. There is no real reason for Newton to risk a setback with the left ankle that required surgery in March for just three days of practice. Experts say it typically takes four months for the ankle to be completely recovered, which would end the rehabilitation in mid-July. Newton may be feeling good enough to throw and dance -- as we've seen him at some off-the-field functions -- but as he reminded, he'll step on a rock walking to the stadium and be reminded there's still healing to be done. My guess is you'll see him out there throwing some with his new receivers, but not in full team drills. It's not worth it at this point.
  • [+] EnlargeNate Chandler and Byron Bell
    Bob Leverone/AP PhotoCarolina Panthers offensive tackle Nate Chandler (left) holds a blocking pad as teammate Byron Bell extends his arms during drills on June 11.
    Left tackle -- I easily could have said the entire offensive line here since there is a complete overhaul other than center, where Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil is set. But finding a replacement for retired left tackle Jordan Gross is the most critical since that player is responsible for protecting Newton's blind side. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler split the role during organized team activities, and this will be a rehash of what they've learned. The real battle won't start until training camp when they put the pads on. Most believe Bell, moving from starting right tackle, has the inside track on the position. He was the first to work at left tackle during OTAs. But Chandler was working out at tackle before injuries last season forced him to move to right guard, where he started the final eight regular-season games. A former defensive tackle, he has solid footwork and the size (6-4, 310) to play the position. He just doesn't have experience. Working against defensive end Greg Hardy, who led the team in sacks last season with 15, will tell a lot. If you can hold your own against Hardy, then you can hold your own against most in the NFL. It's the same trial by fire Gross got with former Panther Julius Peppers across from him.
  • Wide receiver pairings -- Free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin were paired a lot in OTAs when the Panthers went to three-receiver sets. The next grouping I noticed a lot included Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Brenton Bersin. Trimming the wide receivers corps to six will be the toughest of any position. Outside the top combination, the rest are trying to earn a spot and prove worthy. You'll see a lot of King, Marvin McNutt, Toney Clemons, Kealoha Pilares and Philly Brown as the Panthers try to replace their top four receivers from last season. Cotchery and Avant provide experience, and Benjamin provides a big target (6-5, 240) that will be tough to keep off the field. Underwood is the most likely to round out the top four. But one of the reasons the Panthers let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go was to give the young receivers a chance to prove themselves that they otherwise wouldn't have with Smith taking most of the repetitions. This is their chance.
  • Rookies -- Four rookies have a legitimate shot to make major contributions this season, with two possibly starting. As mentioned above, you can pencil Benjamin into the top three at wide receiver. He'll especially be a big target inside the red zone. Second-round pick Kony Ealy, a defensive end out of Missouri, won't get to show how his pass-rushing abilities translate into the NFL for real until he gets in pads. He won't start, but the Panthers hope he's a regular in the rotation at end, as well as tackle. Third-round pick Trai Turner spent much of OTAs as the starting right guard with veteran Chris Scott dealing with conditioning and -- as Rivera said last week -- health issues. If he can hold his own against Carolina's big tackles, he has a chance to be a steal. The fourth rookie to make a big impression thus far is fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere, a cornerback out of San Jose State. He already may be the front-runner for the nickel spot, but his real competition won't be there until training camp when Charles Godfrey is expected to return fully from an Achilles injury that ended his season in the second game last season. Godfrey is making the transition from safety back to corner, where he started most of his college year.
  • Secondary -- You could just say cornerback here. The safeties appear to be set with veteran free-agent acquisitions Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud. Finding a replacement for cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who signed with Minnesota, and possibly upgrade on the other side where undrafted rookie Melvin White started most of last season, will be key. Free agent Antoine Cason has experience in this system from his days at San Diego, where the defensive coordinator was Rivera. But Cason couldn't make the starting lineup at Arizona last season, so he still has a lot to prove. Josh Norman has made some spectacular plays in practice, just as he did the past two seasons in practice and preseason games, but he's yet to translate that into games on a regular basis. Rookie Benwikere has impressed in OTAs at the nickel spot, so don't rule him out. But like the offensive line and other areas in question, this won't be completely ironed out until training camp when Godfrey (as mentioned above) gets into the mix. Regardless, the Panthers are ahead of last season at this point at least in terms of experience.
  • Bonus watch: The heat. With temperatures expected in the mid-90s and high humidity, Rivera moved practices from midday-early afternoon to 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. ET. It was a smart move to avoid heat-related injuries in June. It'll be plenty hot at camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney began his career as a radio talk show host on Monday by interviewing the person he hired to coach the team that fired him.

Carolina's Ron Rivera.

"Ron, and I will say, this is really weird sitting here asking you questions," Hurney said halfway through the interview on Charlotte's ESPN 730 (WZGV-AM).

[+] EnlargeMarty Hurney
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesMarty Hurney was fired after a 1-5 start to the 2012 season.
Hurney and former Charlotte WBT-AM (1110) morning host Al Gardner will host the "Hurney and Gardner" show weekdays from 1-3 p.m. ET, and Monday was the debut. Listen to the interview here.

And it was weird listening to Hurney ask Rivera questions about a team he helped build.

"How's Marty doing so far?" Gardner asked Rivera, putting the pressure on immediately.

Hurney interrupted, "Be nice, Ron. We're playing nice today."

Said Rivera, "He's doing well. You know, the best part is now he can just show everybody he has all the answers."

Replied Hurney, "Hey, always did, right?"

Hurney began the interview by complimenting Rivera for adjusting this week's minicamp (Tuesday-Thursday) practices from midday to morning because of the heat that is expected to be in the mid-90s.

From there, he asked about the wide receivers Carolina brought in to replace the top four that are gone from last season. There was no debate about whether the team made the right decision in releasing Steve Smith.

Rivera reminded it goes back to when Hurney and he drafted Cam Newton as the franchise quarterback in 2011 and how the next step in the process was to put playmakers around him.

Hurney never got to see that part play out. He was fired by the Panthers in October 2012 after the team started 1-5 under Rivera. He's laid low the past couple of years, but resurfaced in March to serve as a guest analyst on ESPN's "NFL Insiders."

Being a part of the media is nothing new for Hurney, who hired Rivera in 2011 and many of the players that contributed to this past season's 12-4 record. He was a sportswriter for the The Washington Times before moving to the team side first with the Washington Redskins and then the San Diego Chargers with general manager Bobby Beathard.

Hurney joined the personnel department at Carolina in 1998 and was promoted to general manager in 2002. The Panthers went to the Super Bowl in 2003.

Rivera was named the NFL Coach of the Year three years after Hurney hired him.

Hurney was always intense but never openly critical as a general manager. It'll be interesting to hear his take on the Panthers moving forwrad, whether he'll be critical of bad moves or game decisions.

As he told Rivera on Monday, they were "playing nice today."

It also was a nice start for Hurney as he begins another journey.

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