The Sports Xchange

NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT

While a lot of noise was made in the offseason about the loss of mighty-mite receiver Steve Smith and surgery on quarterback Cam Newton's ankle, the Carolina Panthers could be better than expected when they begin training camp practice July 25 at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

Reports indicate Newton's ankle is well ahead of schedule and he should be ready for action. And while the 5-foot-9, 185 pound Smith is now toiling for the Baltimore Ravens, Newton may think it is even easier to find his new target -- 6-foot-5, 240 pound Kelvin Benjamin, the team's first-round draft choice out of Florida State who literally grabbed attention with numerous great catches during OTAs and minicamp.

Still, wide receiver is considered the team's weakest position until the Panthers prove otherwise. Despite Newton' optimistic pronouncements, the Panthers really do not have a proven No. 1 or No. 2 receiver.

Benjamin clearly has the most talent, but he will likely have growing pains throughout his rookie season. Veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood provide a solid presence, but it is hard to see them as more than a trio of No. 3 receivers. More names include Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Brenton Bersin, but no one knows if any will emerge as legit options.

So, while the Newton-to-Benjamin, et al, tries to get in synch, here are a few other issues the Panthers will be watching in camp:

KEY POSITION BATTLE

Left tackle: Nate Chandler vs. Byron Bell. Chandler, a converted defensive tackle who started eight games at guard last season, and Bell, who started the last three seasons at right tackle, alternated between left and right tackle throughout OTA practices.

Despite the importance, this is not considered a high-level combat. Bell admitted he has heard the doubts, but he claimed not to be bothered.

"We're going to be one of the top duo, undrafted tackles in the league," he insisted. "People are going to underestimate us. I don't care. As long as my mother loves me and God loves me, I'm good."

PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE

--Byron Bell, T: Carolina's staff has been trying to sell Bell's potential move to left tackle to the fan base all offseason. They still have not bought it. After Bell struggled at right tackle for three years, most think a shift to an even more important role equals impending doom.

But the coaches argue the lefty is a more natural fit on the left side, and Bell, who went undrafted out of New Mexico, has been proving doubters wrong for a while.

BEST LONGSHOT ROOKIE

--Corey "Philly" Brown, WR, Ohio State, undrafted rookie: This OSU criminology major may be the evidence in a theft by the Panthers. He impressed throughout the spring, especially with his quickness. For a team needing more targets for quarterback Cam Newton, Brown seems to be a good candidate to help out.

Brown's size is his most obvious disadvantage, at 5-foot-11 3/8, 182 pounds. His best 40-yard time was 4.46 seconds at the combine (announced time was 4.51), but his dazzling footwork makes him appear to play quicker than his clock time. (NFLDraftScout.com's Dane Brugler said he has "electric feet.") Brown was OSU's top receiver the last three seasons as he also matured into a team leader. He caught 63 passes for 771 yards, with 10 touchdowns in 2013.

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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES