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Training camp preview: Can Panthers stay atop NFC?

Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.

Today, we take a look at the Carolina Panthers. Click on the tabs above to see previews for the rest of the NFC South. For the rest of the NFL, click here.

Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 27.

Training camp location: Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Offseason in a nutshell: The Panthers are an interesting test case in 2016 in the scheme vs. talent debate. Theoretically, if a coaching staff did as good a job with Josh Norman as the Panthers did, they would be furious to see all of their time and effort hurled out the window. However, GM Dave Gettleman is one of the best, and his perception of value must be based on what we do not know about the players currently on Carolina's roster and what they're asked to do. We saw a similar exodus in Seattle after the Seahawks began tearing up offenses but also a moderately stable performance level week in and week out.

Player to watch: Zack Sanchez. With the increasing number of teams focusing on the slot for advantages in the passing game, starting a rookie at nickel can have disastrous consequences. But so far, Zack Sanchez has put himself in play while putting the Panthers defensive staff at ease. The versatility of linebackers Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson should help negate some of the inexperience, but Sanchez will be put through the fire early in camp. Gettleman showed that he's not afraid to pluck veteran talent when the current roster isn't good enough.


1. Could Stephen Hill become the ultimate reclamation project?

It was heading that way last year before a knee injury derailed a comeback, but behind the scenes, Panthers wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl has been raving about Hill's work ethic. After being discarded from the Jets -- a team that never had the offensive stability or time to invest in his raw ability -- the Panthers stashed him on their practice squad and went to work. Hill was overjoyed when he was claimed by the Panthers and despite his injury a year ago, is relentlessly positive about cracking the lineup. ESPN's David Newton floated the idea that Hill's continued progress could make Ted Ginn "expendable," and while that may be a bit of a stretch, Hill could go a long way toward adding another dimension to this powerful offense.

2. Will we see more of the younger backs?

At their core, the Panthers are a run-first football team with a starting running back who just hit 29 and has plenty of miles. We saw some nice moments from Cameron Artis-Payne and are wondering if there will be a clear effort to give him more touches this summer. Our guess is that the Panthers would also like to limit the amount of times Cam Newton calls his own number on inside dive or fake plays, and that can be solved by a dependable back end rotation.

3. Does Devin Funchess take off during training camp?

We all can agree that the light came on for 2015 second-round pick Devin Funchess toward the end of last season, which gave Carolina even higher hopes for their vertical offense in 2016, now that Kelvin Benjamin is healthy as well. It was always the dream to pair Newton with rangy receivers who have a seemingly limitless catch radius, and now they have potentially created a three-headed monster -- along with Greg Olsen -- that will be difficult to stop. But Funchess is the key here -- he can take this offense from great to unstoppable in a hurry.

Way-too-early season prediction: My "Irresponsible July Prediction" had the Panthers missing the playoffs, something no Super Bowl losing team has done since the 2006 and 2007 seasons. But the more I look at their supposed defects -- rookie starters at corner, the loss of some stabilizing veterans, a slightly more difficult schedule -- the more I think that the team is good enough to overcome them. After all, they have the best defensive line and linebacking corps in the sport. The Panthers could easily be 6-0 (Broncos, 49ers, Vikings, Falcons, Bucs, Saints) heading into a matchup with the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 30, and the return of Kelvin Benjamin makes their offense worlds better. Missing the playoffs would take a regression by Cam Newton unlike anything we've seen in recent NFL history, and his coaches feel the No. 1 player in the league is just getting warmed up.

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