CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers begin training camp Thursday and Kawann Short will be there.
Short wants a long-term deal, but won’t hold out and will report to Spartanburg, S.C., with the rest of the team on Wednesday.
“It’s definitely great to have KK back. We know how important he is to this football team,” linebacker Thomas Davis said when Short showed up to the June minicamp after skipping the voluntary workouts. “Hopefully soon they get something worked out because he’s a guy who’s definitely deserving of everything that’s about to happen for him. He played tremendously for us last year and made our job easier as linebackers. We definitely want him here.
“We understand there’s two sides to this game. There’s actually going out and playing the game and there’s the business aspect of it. If you’re producing and you’re doing the things you’re supposed to do, they’re going to reward you. If not, like any other business, they’ll get rid of you.”
Short had 11 sacks last season to lead all NFC defensive tackles and Panthers coach Ron Rivera said it was good to have him at the minicamp. As for any contract talks, Rivera said he is not involved.
“I stay in my lane,” Rivera said in June.
The Panthers don’t want to be in the same situation next year as they were with Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman this spring. Norman had a breakout season while playing in the final year of his four-year, $2.3 million rookie contract. After initially giving him the franchise tag, the Panthers rescinded it and he signed with the Washington Redskins.
Short, who is in the final year of his rookie contract and will earn just over $1 million this year, isn’t the only player Rivera is excited about having in camp. He’s also anxious to see how the wide receiver competition will play out with Carolina’s deep group that includes top receiver Kelvin Benjamin and fifth-year wideout Stephen Hill back from injuries.
“There are a lot of young guys out there and they’re creating competition,” Rivera said. “They’re all going to have an opportunity to contribute. At the end of the day, we’ve got to pick the best ones and that’s why I like that they have created some good competition.”
Also in the mix is a “bigger” Damiere Byrd, who has improved his route running and did a better job of “attacking” the ball during organized team activities and minicamp.
“That’s exciting and you see him growing into the position,” Rivera said before adding that Devin Funchess has also improved immensely following his rookie season.
“I think it can be very dynamic,” Rivera said of Carolina’s wide receiver group. “You throw in Teddy Ginn with that speed going vertical. You throw (Corey) Philly Brown or Damiere Byrd going underneath, we’ve got some guys who can make things happen as a unit. It’s a good group. You throw (Brenton) Bersin into the mix. You throw Kevin Norwood into the mix and you’ve got possession-type guys and the game changes.
“Again, you’ve got vertical threats, you’ve got guys who have the ability to go up and catch the ball, you’ve got quickness. It’s what you want. It’s going to help across the board. It’s going to help with the tight end. It’s going to help with the running game. It’s a good situation for us to be in.”
Funchess appreciated his coach’s praise, but admitted it just makes him want to work harder to deserve it. Funchess caught just 31 passes for 473 yards and five scores last season, but had eight grabs for 120 yards in the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay. Funchess then caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in Carolina’s Super Bowl run.
He said going deep into the playoffs last year helped his development as a rookie and “everything clicked” at the end of the season.
The Panthers may not have won Super Bowl 50, but they did see one of their third-year players break out for the best game of his career. Defensive end Kony Ealy had three sacks to go with a forced fumble and interception against Denver.
“My job is the same,” Ealy said of the upcoming season. “Be consistent, do the little things right and get to the quarterback. That’s my job.”
Carolina’s 2014 draft has been extremely fruitful. Not only did the Panthers get Ealy from Missouri in the second round, they got Benjamin in the first round, Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner in the third, safety Tre Boston in the fourth, starting cornerback Bene Benwikere in the fifth, and signed undrafted players like wide receiver Corey Brown and starting left guard Andrew Norwell.
“We spend so much time together and we have no choice but to get to know one another,” Ealy said of his third-year teammates. “There’s a relationship that grows and a bond that can’t be broken. That doesn’t separate us whether we’re out on the field or in public. That’s how tight we are.”
The Panthers hope they have similar success with their 2016 draft class, which was led by defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round. They went cornerback with their next three picks with Samford’s James Bradberry, West Virginia’s Daryl Worley and Oklahoma’s Zack Sanchez after Norman’s departure, and selected Montana tight end Beau Sandland in the seventh round.
One undrafted player who is hoping to have a big impact is former Duke safety Jeremy Cash, who was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior after racking up 335 career tackles with 38 for loss and eight sacks to go with five interceptions and nine forced fumbles.
The Panthers have moved the 6-foot, 215-pound Cash to linebacker and he’s trying to stay positive about the move and said he “will do everything he can to make the ball club.”
The time to show what he can do is here and that’s what training camp is mostly about — making the 53-man roster.