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Preseason Power Rankings No. 10: Carolina Panthers

Dave Gettleman, Ron Rivera AP

There were points last season when it appeared time to start writing the obituary for Panthers coach Ron Rivera and the team built by former General Manager Marty Hurney.

Then Rivera’s team did a funny thing — they forgot how to lose.

The Panthers won 11 of their final 12 games last year, and only a loss to the 49ers in the playoffs spoiled an unpredictable run built on defense and a singular talent at quarterback.

Of course, they spent the offseason subtracting more than they added, cutting past fat into meat and bone to try to keep a good roster intact.

But that’s what they’re going to have to do for another year or so (when it’s time to pay the next wave of young stars), and they’ve done it well.

Strengths.

In quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have perhaps the best bail-out-a-play guy in the NFL.

It seems no play is over for Newton, who has matured as a passer while remaining dangerous as a runner. His ability in short-yardage helped spark last year’s belief that they could win, and his growth as a passer helped him make plenty of big plays through the air as well.

Newton will need to be incredible, because they took away most of his help (more on that in a moment). But he is incredible, and looks comfortable running an offense which is far from cutting-edge.

It doesn’t need to be complex it if works, and he’s reached what appears to be a good relationship with play-caller Mike Shula.

They also have what might be the best defensive front seven in the NFL.

They have a pair (for a year anyway) of double-digit sack ends, which only required using more than 20 percent of their cap to keep them.

Greg Hardy got the franchise tag after an impressive salary drive (7.0 of his 15.0 sacks came in the final two games), while overpaid-but-productive veteran Charles Johnson has been a steady presence (44.0 sacks the last four season) against the run and pass.

Paired with a interior that included 2013 top picks Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and a group of linebackers led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers can match personnel with anyone in the league.

It’s a front designed to take the pressure off a suspect back, but it did just that a year ago, succeeding without much pedigreed talent in the secondary.

Weaknesses.

As long as you spend so much on defensive ends, you’ve got to scrimp somewhere. So the fact they’re using temps in the secondary is nearly a non-issue.

What they’re doing without on offense is alarming.

The Panthers lost two of the five or six best players in franchise history when Steve Smith was cut and Jordan Gross retired.

Smith was cut for reasons that exceeded age and production, as all the wideouts who caught a pass last year are gone. If he wasn’t so much of a grouch, they’d have possibly let him ride off into the sunset next year, but they wanted to let Newton take control of the locker room as well as the huddle.

Instead, they signed just-a-guys Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to play stable-pony for first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin.

A good running game (everybody’s healthy for a change) and tight end Greg Olsen take some of the pressure off this odd lot of guys to perform. Which is good, because that seems unlikely.

But for all the consternation about the receivers, what happened to their offensive line is worse.

They needed an upgrade from right tackle Byron Bell, but instead they’re letting him compete for the left tackle job along with converted defensive tackle Nate Chandler. They made a run at former Bengals tackle Anthony Collins in free agency, but otherwise did nothing to improve the team’s most glaring weakness in a post-Gross environment. They’ll find out in a hurry how much they miss Gross, which might make management re-think squeezing veterans into dramatic pay cuts in the future.

The middle of the line could be OK, with center Ryan Kalil there to help along a young group. If former second-rounder Amini Silatolu plays to his pre-injury form, they have a chance. Third-rounder Trai Turner is going to have a chance to win the right guard job, and might have the quickest path to the starting lineup of any of their rookies.

Changes.

Perhaps the biggest change for the Panthers was in Rivera himself.

Once a guy with a 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, Rivera started rolling the dice and it kept working.

It wasn’t just going for fourth downs (but that’s easier when you have a giant quarterback and a big fat fullback such as Mike Tolbert), there was a different air about the Panthers last season.

They went from playing to unfulfilled potential and bloated salaries to playing like a team with something to prove.

In fact, they did have plenty to prove, as a losing record last season might have triggered a huge house-cleaning by new G.M. Dave Gettleman.

He’s talked for two years about the cap issues created by the previous administration (the cost of owner Jerry Richardson spending none of the money before his lockout, and then spending it all at once afterward). Gettleman’s done a good job of filling in the blanks with day laborers, and appears to have done so again.

Losing players such as Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn shouldn’t sting as much, considering they were a minimum-wage free agent and a seventh-round pick. He found spare parts before, and has again, with cornerback Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud in line to be this year’s beneficiaries of a pass rush.

Camp Battles.

The Panthers need to find a pair of starting wideouts, and it would be swell if Benjamin would grow into the job in a hurry. Beyond that, they have a bunch of unproven receivers who will be angling for significant roles, from journeyman haircut Tiquan Underwood to kids including Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King.

There’s also some shuffling among the offensive line jobs and in the secondary, with plenty of roles to fill.

One guy who might need to win a job is former starting safety Charles Godfrey, who tore his Achilles last year and then was forced into a pay cut just to have a chance. Godfrey could end up playing as their nickel, and he has some corner skills from his college days. Whether he can run remains to be seen.

Prospects.

It’s hard to not expect regression, considering the way the Panthers exceeded every reasonable expectation last year.

Their defense and Newton gives them a solid base to build upon, but it will only get harder from here.

They’re built to beat the best teams in the conference, and might have played the Seahawks tougher than anyone in Week One (before anybody realized they were any good).

If they find two dependable tackles and can get something — anything — from their receiving corps, they have a chance to pull off the first back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history.

But it’s hard to consider either of those feats a given, which makes this a team which could still play well, but win far fewer games.

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Knowshon Moreno says he’s four weeks away from returning

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When Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno suffered a dislocated elbow in Week Two against the Bills, the timetable for his return was set at four weeks.

That would have put him in position to return after this week’s bye for the Week Six date with the Packers, but it doesn’t look like that timetable has held up. Moreno said on Wednesday that it is looking more like Week Eight for his return to field.

“I probably got like four more weeks,” Moreno said, via the Palm Beach Post. “About four more weeks and I’ll be good.”

The absence of Moreno, who had a big game when the Dolphins knocked off the Patriots in the season opener, is a bit less painful after Lamar Miller’s strong outings in Weeks Three and Four. With the Bears and Jaguars following the Packers on the schedule, there should be running room for Miller in the coming weeks if the line can hold up its end of the bargain.

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Murphy says Washington name has been discussed “at the league level”

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Supplanted of late by other controversies, the debate regarding the Washington name lingers.  On Tuesday, Packers CEO Mark Murphy acknowledged that the debate also has migrated to the upper reaches of the NFL.

There have been discussions at the league level,” Murphy said Tuesday at Marquette Law School, via Bob Wolfley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  “We have had some discussions at owners’ meetings. Dan [Snyder] has made presentations.  Quite honestly, I think with all the issues we are facing, with domestic violence and concussions, it’s probably not at the top of the list.”

He’s right, but eventually it will be.

Murphy added that he’s “very sensitive” tp the subject, given Green Bay’s proximity to the Oneida Nation.  Murphy pointed out that, while serving as Athletic Director at Colgate, he presided over the change of the team’s nickname from the Red Raiders to the Raiders.

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Jonathan Stewart, Thomas Davis return to practice

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The Panthers probably aren’t going to have running back DeAngelo Williams on the field against the Bears this Sunday and they definitely won’t have Mike Tolbert, but the backfield may not be totally devoid of veteran presence.

Jonathan Stewart was in full pads at Wednesday’s practice, a few days after he missed the team’s loss to the Ravens with a knee injury. That’s a good sign for his chances of keeping the Panthers from relying on Darrin Reaves, Chris Ogbonnaya and Fozzy Whittaker, who didn’t practice Wednesday, for their ground attack as they try to avoid a third straight loss after a 2-0 start to the season.

Stewart wasn’t the only player back at practice on Wednesday after missing Sunday’s loss. Linebacker Thomas Davis’s hamstring was feeling well enough for him to suit up for the session, raising hopes that the Panthers will have one of their defensive leaders back in place against the Bears.

Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards also sat out Wednesday’s practice for Carolina.

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Bears sign speedster Teddy Williams to play corner

Atlanta Falcons v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Bears shuffled the deck and added some speed.

The team announced they signed cornerback Teddy Williams off the Arizona practice squad, and released linebacker Terrell Manning.

Williams is a fascinating player because of his pure speed, which has caused teams to try him at wide receiver as well.

He’s played in 10 games over two seasons with the Colts and the Cardinals. He spent parts of 2010 and 2011 on the Cowboys practice squad.

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Calvin Johnson feeling better, ready to face off with Jim Schwartz

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Lions receiver Calvin Johnson was held to just two catches for 12 yards in Sunday’s game against the Jets, as a sprained ankle had him at far less than 100 percent. But Johnson says this week is different.

Johnson told Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press he’s feeling “definitely better than at this time last week.” Johnson will, from all accounts, be ready to go on Sunday against the Bills.

And when the Bills come to town, that means the return of Jim Schwartz, the Buffalo defensive coordinator who was Detroit’s head coach for the last five years. Johnson said he and Schwartz frequently discussed how Schwartz would cover Megatron if Schwartz had to devise a game plan to stop him. Schwartz told Johnson double coverage would always be Schwartz’s strategy.

On Sunday we’ll get to see if Schwartz, who coached Johnson when he set the all-time NFL record for receiving yards in a season in 2012, can come up with a plan to slow Johnson down.

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Owners overseeing Mueller investigation aren’t talking about it

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On Tuesday, Packers CEO Mark Murphy said there was “hope” the Robert Mueller investigation would be completed by next week. The two owners charged with overseeing the Mueller investigation would not confirm that. Or deny that. Or say anything else about it.

Steelers and Giants spokesman tell PFT that Steelers president Art Rooney II and Giants co-owner John Mara, respectively, have no comment about the status or timetable of the Mueller investigation.

And so at a time when the NFL has vowed to utilize more transparency regarding domestic violence allegations, the league isn’t even opting for translucency when addressing the simplest of topics regarding perhaps the most important internal investigation the league ever has conducted.

While none of it will matter once Mueller issues his findings and the media begins scrutinizing every word he has written, persistent talk of change has yet to become action when it comes to the question of whether the process of generating a public report will be an equally open book.

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Cardinals bring back veteran linebacker Desmond Bishop

Desmond Bishop, Marion Grice AP

The Cardinals took a look at veteran linebacker Desmond Bishop in the preseason.

And after a month of regular season, they decided they wanted him back.

The team announced Bishop had been re-signed, filling the roster spot created by the release of linebacker Victor Butler.

The Cardinals are largely healthy now, but that’s after free agency, injuries and suspensions ravaged their defense. Losing Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby among others left them thin.

Plugging a solid pro like Bishop makes sense, especially since he’s had more time to recover from last year’s torn ACL with the Vikings.

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Bill Belichick says Patriots are “on to Cincinnati,” repeatedly

Belichick Getty Images

Bill Belichick never hides his disdain for the media, typically approaching the process of answering questions like a bad ventriloquist.  Even at times when perhaps it would be a good idea to curry the favor of the folks who are in position to heap criticism on the man who has presided over the erosion of the New England roster, Belichick continues to display condescension and irritation when dealing with reporters.

To his credit, Belichick is consistent.  He’s unwilling to cooperate when things are going well, and he’s unwilling to cooperate when they aren’t.

Case in point:  His Wednesday press conference, with memories still fresh of Monday night’s debacle at Arrowhead Stadium.  Here’s the relevant exchange, from the transcript provided by the team.

Q: Your team has been successful for so long. How difficult is it to adjust to the adversity of Monday night’s game and get back on track? This team and organization hasn’t had these sort of issues in the past.

Belichick: We’re on to Cincinnati.

Q: You mentioned Tom Brady’s age at the draft –

Belichick: We’re on to Cincinnati.

Q: Do you think having a 37-year old –

Belichick: We’re on to Cincinnati. It’s nothing about the past, nothing about the future. Right now we’re preparing for Cincinnati.

Q: Do you think the talent you have here is good?

BB: We’re getting ready for Cincinnati.

Q: Do you think you’ve done enough to help Tom Brady?

Belichick: We’re getting ready for Cincinnati. That’s what we’re doing.

It was ultimately a useless exchange. The answers suggest that the reporters were trying to get Belichick to focus on what went wrong against the Chiefs. The questions actually focused more on the future, with a 37-year-old quarterback, real concerns about the quality of the roster, and real questions about Belichick’s personnel decision.

At least he didn’t say, “I’m trying to be a good teammate.”

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Nick Novak wins AFC special teams player of week

Nick Novak AP

Few teams in the NFL have been as consistently sharp as the Chargers this year.

And few Chargers are as consistently sharp as Nick Novak.

The veteran kicker earned AFC special teams player of the week honors for his perfect day against the Jaguars last week, which included four field goals.

Novak’s a clean 89-of-101 on field goals as a Charger, the highest percentage (88.1) in franchise history.

This season, he’s tied with Adam Vinatieri for the league scoring lead (40 points), and is part of a Chargers team that plays smart, efficient football.

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Aaron Rodgers has no word of the week

Rodgers Getty Images

Last week, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers offered up a five-letter word in an effort to calm down the then-curdling Cheeseheads:  R-E-L-A-X.

So what’s the word of the week as the Packers prepare to face the Vikings?  The word is there is no word.

I don’t have one,” Rodgers said Wednesday, via Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.  “I bring stuff like that up when necessary, but the key to those type of deals is you can’t overdo it.  So last week we needed to relax a little bit.  The fans needed to relax.  Now 2-2, we need to get to 3-2.”

Rodgers could be uttering a few four-letter words on Thursday night, given his performance in past years against defenses led by first-year Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.

“I’ve played against Coach Zimmer a couple of times,” Rodgers said, “and I have a lot of respect for him and the job he does.  He always has been well prepared, and I’m very confused at times with their schemes.  I think his defense is improving, and it’s going to be one of the top defenses when it’s said and done.”

Last year, Rodgers completed 26 of 43 passes for 244 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions in a 34-30 loss to Zimmer’s Bengals at Lambeau Field.  Four years earlier, Rodgers completed 21 of 39 for 261 yards and a touchdown in a 31-24 loss in Cincinnati.

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PFT Live: Lamar Miller, Coaching hot seat

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The Dolphins capped a somewhat tumultuous week with a victory over the Raiders last Sunday and now they’ve got a week off to savor it.

Running back Lamar Miller will spend some of his free time with Mike Florio on Wednesday’s edition of PFT Live. We will talk to Miller about last week’s quarterback hemming and hawing by coach Joe Philbin, how he thinks things will work in the backfield once Knowshon Moreno returns to action and his impressions of playing a game in front of the London crowd.

We’ll also take our weekly look at the coaching hot seat. Dennis Allen became the first coach fired this season when the Raiders relieved him of his duties on Tuesday and we’ll discuss whether he’ll have any company on the unemployment line before the year is out.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Big Monday night makes Jamaal Charles the AFC offensive player of the week

New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

The Chiefs were able to beat the Dolphins in Week Three despite the absence of running back Jamaal Charles.

Charles came back in a major way on Monday night. He ran for 92 yards and a touchdown and caught two other touchdown passes as the Chiefs overwhelmed the Patriots for a 41-14 victory at Arrowhead Stadium.

That was good enough to make Charles this week’s choice as the AFC offensive player of the week.

The best news for the Chiefs may not have been Charles’s robust return to the lineup. After watching Charles play an outsize role in the offense last season, the Chiefs got big games from tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and running back Knile Davis to go with Charles’s effort against New England. While Charles may remain the big dog in Kansas City for the foreseeable future, the presence of helping hands should be a big boost to the team’s quest for a second straight playoff berth.

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DeAngelo Williams has a cast on his right foot

DeAngelo Williams AP

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday that running back DeAngelo Williams was doubtful to play this week because of a sprained ankle.

A picture that Williams posted on Twitter on Wednesday seems to make doubtful an optimistic read on his chances of playing against the Bears this weekend. Williams sent out a picture of a little girl signing a pink cast on his lower right leg and the presence of that cast suggests that Williams is going to miss that game and possibly others as he tries to recover.

If so, the Panthers’ running back depth is going to continue to be tested for quite a while. Mike Tolbert is on injured reserve/return and Jonathan Stewart is battling a knee injury that kept him out of last week’s game.

Rivera has expressed hope that Stewart will be able to play this weekend, but his injury history makes it incumbent on the team to prepare to go with Fozzy Whittaker, Darrin Reaves and the newly signed Chris Ogbonnaya.

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Sproles gets his second player of the week award this season

sproles AP

Darren Sproles is on pace to win eight NFC player of the week awards for the 2014 season.

Sproles, who was previously named the NFC offensive player of the week after a big day as a receiver out of the backfield in a win in Indianapolis, has now been named the NFC special teams player of the week after a big day as a returner in a loss in San Francisco.

In Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, Sproles had an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 21-10 second-quarter lead. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, that was a lead their offense and defense couldn’t hold.

Sproles is leading the league with 200 punt return yards and his 519 all-purpose yards put him on pace to top 2,000 this year for the fifth time in his career.

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AFC defensive player of the week goes to J.J. Watt

J.J. Watt AP

There are plenty of people who predicted before the season that Texans defensive end J.J. Watt would take home his second Defensive Player of the Year award in the last three seasons.

That argument got more fuel last Sunday against the Bills. Watt added to his lengthy highlight reel by reading Buffalo’s intention to throw a screen pass, jumping up to intercept that pass and then returning it 80 yards for a touchdown that left the other 21 players on the field and plenty of people at home wondering how a defensive end could pull off a play like that.

It didn’t leave the NFL with much reason to wonder about who the AFC defensive player of the week would be, however. Watt took home the honor after what we imagine was a limited discussion about other possibilities.

It was Watt’s first regular season interception, he also returned one for a touchdown in the playoffs during his rookie season, and his second touchdown of the season. His other came on a reception after lining up as a tight end and a few more trips to the end zone would likely lead to serious MVP consideration for Watt when the year comes to an end.

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