Carolina Panthers: Predicting the 2-Deep Depth Chart Pre-Training Camp
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The Carolina Panthers have yet to release their depth chart for the 2012 NFL season as they enter the final two days of mandatory minicamps, but is there any doubt that Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Ryan Kalil will all be opening-game starters?
Barring serious injury or a last-minute players strike and replacement players from the CFL, the answer is a resounding no.
However, several positions in nearly every unit are up for grabs, or at least serious competition.
With training camp getting underway in less than two months, here is a prediction of the Carolina Panthers' two-deep depth chart as it will look on September 9, 2012 when the Panthers visit Raymond James Stadium to take on their NFC South rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Quarterbacks and Running Backs
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Quarterback: Cam Newton
Cam Newton is the new face of the Panthers after his record-setting rookie season that earned him 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
Newton is expected to avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump" that has plagued many second-year quarterbacks after solid rookie seasons, primarily because his first year was so off-the-charts good and because he did so without the benefit of offseason mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities) due to last year's NFL players strike.
The former No. 1 overall draft pick, Heisman Trophy winner and two-time collegiate national champion is being counted on to lead the Panthers back to their winning ways.
Running Backs: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart
DeAngleo Williams is among just a handful of NFL players who have averaged over five yards per carry over the course of his career with 5.1 yards per carry.
Williams is a speedy, slashing runner who regained the form he displayed in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (2008, 2009) last year after spending most of the 2010 season sidelined by injury.
Williams is a game-breaker and a threat to reach the end zone from anywhere on the field.
If Williams is the Panthers' No. 1 running back, Jonathan Stewart is No. 1A.
The other half of Carolina's lethal "Double Trouble" tailback tandem is a bruiser entering his free-agent season who averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2011.
The Panthers will have a run-heavy offense in 2012, and Stewart could easily rush for over 1,000 yards for the second time in his career.
Fullback: Mike Tolbert
The Panthers love his versatility and playmaking ability, and they will also count on him to open running lanes for Newton, Williams and Stewart.
Tolbert was acquired by the Panthers in March 2012, and he is the only player listed as a fullback on the Panthers' current roster.
Quarterback: Derek Anderson
Derek Anderson is a former Pro Bowl quarterback from his one breakout season with the Cleveland Browns in 2008 when he passed for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Anderson is a strong-armed quarterback who can come in and run the Panthers' offense in a pinch, but he lacks Newton's mobility. Ge may not be the long-term backup solution if Carolina looks for a mobile quarterback in the future who can emulate Newton's style if "Super Cam" ever goes down.
Running Backs: Mike Tolbert, Tauren Poole (R), Josh Vaughan
Mike Tolbert is the Panthers' starting fullback, but he has experience playing the running back position with the Chargers, and he has a real nose for the end zone, accumulating 19 rushing touchdowns in his last two seasons in San Diego.
He will likely line up at running back at times this season, and he is the next best proven NFL runner on the team if Williams or Stewart are out or need a breather.
Tauren Poole is an undrafted rookie free agent running back from the University of Tennessee who has a solid shot at making the team as a backup running back and special teamer.
Poole ran for 1,034 yards in 2010, his junior season at Tennessee.
Josh Vaughan also has a shot to make the team as a special teamer and backup running back.
Fullback: Richie Brockel
Richie Brockel is listed as a tight end, but he showed versatility by lining up in the backfield on occasion in 2011.
Brockel scored a touchdown from the fullback position against the Houston Texans last season on the famous "fumblerooskie" play.
Receivers and Tight Ends
Steve "Mighty Mouse" Smith
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No. 1 Wide Receiver: Steve Smith
No explanation needed here, but I will do it anyway.
Steve Smith is the Panthers' all-time leading receiver and the NFL's best receiver under six feet.
Smith was also a Pro Bowler last season, and I do not see any reason for him to regress in his second year playing with Cam Newton.
No. 2 Receiver: Brandon LaFell
Brandon LaFell is a solid possession receiver who has the ability to gain yards after the catch (YAC), and he emerged late last season as a viable No. 2 receiver in the Carolina Panthers' lineup.
LaFell is the leading candidate to replace Legedu Naanee, who the Panthers cut in the offseason, as Newton's No. 2 downfield target, but he will have to show that he is the man to take the starting spot ahead of David Gettis.
For now, though, LaFell is the leader in the clubhouse for a spot in the opening game lineup.
Slot Receiver: David Gettis
David Gettis is looking to return to the Panthers' starting lineup after tearing his ACL in training camp last season.
Gettis actually outperformed Brandon LaFell in 2010, both players' rookie seasons, but he will have to show that he is 100 percent healthy and back to full speed before returning to the field on a full-time basis.
Gettis will primarily be used in three-receiver sets early in the season, but he has the speed to emerge as a second deep-threat receiver across from Steve Smith.
Tight End: Greg Olsen
Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey served as Cam Newton's security blankets last season, with Olsen having a slight edge in production.
Shockey is not currently on the Panthers' roster, and he is not expected to play in Carolina this season, so the top tight end job is solidly Olsen's.
Olsen led the Panthers' tight ends in 2011 with 540 receiving yards and five touchdowns, and I expect him to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2012.
No. 1 Wide Receiver: Kealoha Pilares
Kealoha Pilares is a breakout player waiting to happen who reminds me a lot of the New York Giants' Victor Cruz.
PIlares is also the Panthers' kick returner, but I expect him to play his way onto the field at receiver at some point this season.
Look for him to make a splash in preseason action again this year, and expect to hear pleas from the Carolina faithful to work Pilares into the offense, especially if either Gettis or LaFell gets off to a slow start.
No. 2 Wide Receiver: Nelson Rosario (R)
Nelson Rosario is a big (6' 5", 225 lbs) undrafted free agent out of UCLA with great hands and a real chance to make the Panthers' final roster.
Rosario is UCLA's all-time fifth-leading receiver, and he could be a solid red-zone threat with his ability to go up over smaller cornerbacks in jump ball situations.
Slot Receiver: Joe Adams (R)
Joe Adams is likely to make his biggest splash this season on special teams as Carolina's punt returner.
Adams is a fast and elusive target for Cam Newton, and he could move into the starting slot receiver position later in the season as he develops chemistry with Newton, particularly if Gettis moves up to the No. 2 receiver spot ahead of LaFell.
Tight End: Gary Barnidge
Gary Barnidge last played a game for the Panthers in 2010, but he was in the midst of a solid training camp in 2011 before breaking his ankle.
With Jeremy Shockey unsigned and not on the Panthers' roster, Barnidge will be the Panthers' No. 2 tight end, and he will be on the field often when Carolina goes to a two tight end set.
Though Olsen will get most of the tight end targets in 2012, Barnidge is capable of having a 30-catch season.
Jordan Gross (69)
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Center: Ryan Kalil
Ryan Kalil, a second-team All-Pro in 2011, is Carolina's best offensive lineman.
Kalil joined Cam Newton and Steve Smith as Pro Bowl-ing Panthers in 2011, and he is generally considered one of the NFL's top centers.
Guards: Geoff Hangartner, Amini Silatolu
Geoff Hangartner started all 16 games for the Carolina Panthers in 2011, and his starting position was solidified when the Panthers released Travelle Wharton to free up salary cap space this offseason.
Amini Silatolu was Carolina's second-round draft pick whom no one had ever heard of prior to day two of the 2012 NFL Draft.
Though he played at Division II Midwestern State, Silatolu is a mean player with a nasty streak whose punishing style should fit in well with the Panthers' running game, so long as he is able to digest offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's massive play book.
Tackles: Jordan Gross, Jeff Otah
Former Pro Bowler Jordan Gross is the Panthers' second-best offensive lineman, and he will protect Cam Newton's blind side again in 2012 as Carolina's starting left tackle.
However, right tackle Jeff Otah could be on a short leash after having knee problems again this summer and showing up overweight to OTAs in May.
Otah is a talented offensive tackle, and he could be a dominant blocker in the NFL if he can stay healthy for an entire season, or at least most of one.
Center: Geogg Hangartner
Hangartner will start at guard for the Panthers, but he is able to slide down a spot to the center position if Kalil ever gets the wind knocked out of his sails or needs a bathroom break.
Otherwise, it will take a major injury to Kalil to see anyone else snap the ball to Newton this season.
Guards: Mike Pollak, Will Blackwell (R)
Will Blackwell is an undrafted rookie free-agent and an All-American lineman out of Louisiana State.
Blackwell's most recent game was for the Tigers in the BCS Championship game, and he will continue his legacy of playing for a team named after a big cat again in 2012.
Tackles: Byron Bell, Garry Williams
Byron Bell started 12 games at right tackle for the Panthers in 2011 as undrafted rookie free-agent, and he could very well end up being the starter again this season if Otah is unable to stay on the field.
Bell can also play offensive guard, and he will find his way into back into the Panthers' starting lineup at some point this season.
Garry Williams started 11 games for Otah in 2010, but he missed the entire 2011 season with a broken ankle.
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Defensive Ends: Charles Johnson, Frank Alexander (R)
Charles Johnson, who led the Panthers in sacks each of the last two seasons with 11.5 and 9.0 in 2010 and 2011, was the NFL's highest paid player last year.
For the Panthers' pass rush to improve and for him to earn his salary in 2012, Johnson needs to have a monster season in which he comes close to his total for the previous two seasons.
Frank Alexander, drafted in the fourth-round of the 2012 NFL Draft, was the Big 12's co-defensive player of the year with 8.5 sacks for the Oklahoma Sooners last season, and he will provide a better pass-rushing threat than last year's starter, Greg Hardy.
Defensive Tackles: Ron Edwards, Andre Neblett
Twelve-year veteran Ron Edwards would have been a starter on the Carolina interior line last season had he not been bitten by the injury bug in his first training camp practice with the Panthers.
Andre Neblett came on strong as a starter late in the season after Sione Fua and Terrell McClain were lost for the season in Week 12 against the Indianapolis Colts, and he will retain his starting spot.
Defensive Ends: Greg Hardy, Thomas Keiser
Greg Hardy is solid against the run, but he only had four sacks in 16 games as a starting defensive end in 2011.
Second-year player Thomas Keiser matched Hardy's sack total in half as many games with zero starts last season.
Keiser (6'3", 261 lbs.) is an undersized defensive end, but he has a big motor and figures to mix into the rotation.
Defensive Tackles: Sione Fua, Frank Kearse
Sione Fua started 11 games at defensive tackle last season before a hamstring injury ended his rookie season ahead of schedule.
Fua, who was often overmatched and out of position in his first professional season, should improve in his second NFL season as an important cog in the Panthers' defensive line rotation.
Frank Kearse found his way into Carolina's starting lineup with four games to go in 2011, and he helped improve the NFL's 25th-ranked run defense in the final month of the season.
Jon Beason (52)
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Middle Linebacker (Mike): Jon Beason
The Panthers lost the heart and soul of their defense when Jon Beason tore his Achilles in the first game of the season in 2011.
They also lost the eyes, the ears and the mouth that keep the Panthers' defensive line, linebackers and secondary on the same page.
Beason is back with a vengeance, and all signs point to a full recovery, so watch out for him to have a big season in 2012.
Weak Linebacker (Will): Luke Kuechly
Carolina used the No. 9 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft to pick all-world linebacker Luke Kuechly out of Boston College.
Kuechly led the nation with nearly 16 tackles per game last season and broke the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-time record for total tackles in just three seasons.
Kuechly reminds me a lot of Brian Urlacher, and he will be an impact player from the start.
Strong Linebacker (Sam): James Anderson
James Anderson came into his own as Carolina's leading tackler last season after Beason and Thomas Davis (ACL) went down with season-ending injuries in the first two games.
With Kuechly looking to take over the Will position and Davis' durability in question, Anderson will move to the Sam position and round out the strongest linebacker corps in the NFL.
Middle Linebacker (Mike): Jordan Senn
Jordan Senn was a warrior in the final six games of the season last year, recording 60 tackles during that span and a career-high 14 tackles against Arian Foster and the Houston Texans in Week 15.
Senn is a tough guy who can fill in when needed, though his main role this season will be on special teams.
Weak Linebacker (Will): Kenny Onatolu
Like Senn, Kenny Onatolu is a special-teams slobber knocker who the Panthers brought over from the Minnesota Vikings during the offseason.
Onatolu can do some things on defense as well, and he adds depth to a talented group.
Strong Linebacker (Sam): Thomas Davis
It feels strange to pencil in Thomas Davis as a backup, but the long-time Panthers star is attempting to become the first NFL player to ever come back from three ACL tears in the same knee.
Davis may not ever get back to the elite level at which he once performed, but if he regains confidence and stability in his shredded knee, he will see plenty of action in 2012.
Davis will be the first player back in the starting lineup if anything happens to Anderson, Beason or Kuechly or if Ron Rivera decides to switch to a 3-4 defense.
Cornerbacks and Safeties
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Cornerbacks: Chris Gamble, Brandon Hogan
As I discussed earlier this week, the Carolina Panthers need to make some serious changes in the secondary in 2012.
Chris Gamble was the lone bright spot for the Carolina secondary last year when he returned to form as a true shutdown corner.
Brandon Hogan is healthy for the first time as a Panther, and he will battle rookie fifth-round pick Josh Norman and last year's starter, Captain Munnerlyn, for the No. 2 cornerback position.
Hogan generally faced better collegiate competition than Norman did at FBS-school Coastal Carolina, and he has had a year around the pro game that will give him an edge as he fights for a starting position.
Safeties: Charles Godrey, Haruki Nakamura
Strong safety Charles Godfrey has big-play potential and a good nose for the football, but he needs to improve his tackling from last season, when he ranked 77th out of 88 eligible NFL safeties in tackling efficiency accoring to Pro Football Focus.
Haruki Nakamura was acquired from the Baltimore Ravens primarily to improve the Panthers' special teams coverage units. However, Ed Reed's former backup will get a chance to compete for a starting position in the Panthers' secondary.
In the end, Nakamura beats out Sherrod Martin at free safety.
Cornerbacks: Captain Munnerlyn, Josh Norman (R)
Captain Munnerlyn is a heck of a nickel back when he can hang back and react as plays unfold, but he was a liability at cornerback last season, allowing an NFL-worst 73.8-percent completion rate in 2011.
Josh Norman was an FBS All-American at Coastal Carolina whose time to play will come sooner rather than later.
Safeties: Sherrod Martin, Reggie Smith
Big-hitting Sherrod Martin was an even worse tackler than Godfrey in 2011, coming in 82nd out of 88 NFL safeties in tackling efficiency last season.
Martin is a limited pass defender, and he will have to improve greatly in training camp to have a shot at beating out Nakamura for the starting free-safety position.
Former San Francisco 49er Reggie Smith is with the Panthers to play special teams, but he will get a shot to compete for playing time at safety.
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Kicker: Olindo Mare
Olindo Mare was a do-it-all kicker for Carolina in 2011, and he will handle the kickoff and field-goal duties as the only kicker on the Panthers' roster in 2012.
Punter: Brad Nortman
Panthers rookie Brad Nortman (sixth-round draft pick out of Wisconsin) will battle veteran Nick Harris for a roster spot as the Carolina punter.
Harris is a 12-year veteran, but you do not draft a punter unless you plan on keeping him.
Kick Returner: Kealoha Pilares
Kealoha Pilares ranked eighth in the NFL in kickoff return average in 2011 with 25.7 yards per return.
He also had the Panthers' first kickoff return for a touchdown since Rod "He Hate Me" Smart in 2003.
Punt Returner: Joe Adams
Joe Adams led the NCAA with four punt returns for touchdowns as an Arkansas Razorback last season.
He will replace Armanti Edwards, who averaged an NFL-worst 5.5 yards per punt return in 2011.
Long Snapper: J.J. Jansen
J.J. Jansen has the best gig in football, if you can find it.
Dude throws a tight spiral between his legs.
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