Carolina Panthers: Sleepers to Watch in Training Camp

Stephen Fenech@Fenech2491Correspondent IAugust 6, 2012

Carolina Panthers: Sleepers to Watch in Training Camp

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    As the Carolina Panthers prepare for the upcoming season at Wofford College, some lesser-known players are fighting to expand their roles. 

    Players that are overlooked often emerge as solid contributors during training camp and often alter the outcome of their team's season. 

    Successful NFL teams need to be solid from top to bottom, meaning they need depth everywhere. The teams that perennially make the playoffs are the ones who can quickly replace an injured veteran. 
    The only certainty in the NFL is that every team will be bitten by the injury bug at some point, forcing underrated players to play at key moments. 

    Steve Smith was a sleeper entering the 2002 season, and he is now the best wide receiver in Carolina Panther history. In fact, Smith's spectacular performance during the 2003 postseason will never be forgotten by Panthers fans. 

    Is there another sleeper on this year's roster that could have a similar effect on the franchise? 
    There very well might be, and here is a handful of Panthers that are quietly on the rise. 

Kealoha Pilares

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    Kealoha Pilares was taken by the Carolina Panthers in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft after having an excellent senior season at Hawaii. 

    At this point in his career, Pilares is best known for setting a franchise record when he returned a kickoff 101 yards against the Chicago Bears last season. 

    However, Pilares aspires to be more than just a kickoff returner and has the size and skill set to be a slot receiver in the NFL. He has exceptional quickness and solid hands, which makes him a prime target to move the chains. 

    As Cam Newton continues to progress as a passer, he will become more comfortable throwing shorter timing routes. This progression will certainly start this season, and Pilares has the opportunity to become one of players that could reap the benefits of Newton's improvements.

    Even if Pilares isn't able to become a viable option as a receiver this season, he will remain a threat on kickoffs.

    While he isn't the fastest player on the field, he is very capable of evading potential tacklers. He also has solid field vision as evidenced by his 25.7 yards per return last season.  

    While kickoff returns aren't as important as they used to be, due to the NFL choosing to move the ball to the 35-yard line, big returns by Pilares could win the Panthers a couple games this season. 

Brandon Hogan

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    Brandon Hogan's rookie season was marred by an ACL injury that he suffered in his final college game at West Virginia. That injury didn't stop the Carolina Panthers from drafting him with the 98th overall selection in the 2011 NFL draft. 

    While Chris Gamble is locked into the team's first cornerback slot, Hogan will be fighting it out with Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman for the second spot. 

    Looking at the cornerback position as a whole, Panthers fans should be cautiously excited. They have enough young talent to have one of the best coverage units in the NFL, but it is possible to envision the unit struggling this season. 

    The unit did finish 25th in the league last year, but Hogan and Norman are being counted on to improve that ranking this year. The Panthers are a young team, and that isn't different in the defensive backfield. 

    In today's NFL, every team needs three solid cornerbacks due to the overwhelming amount of high-flying passing attacks. 

    At the very worst, expect Hogan to be the nickelback for the Panthers this season, which is almost as important as either cornerback spot. Especially when you play in a division with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons who will look to throw the ball all over the field. 

Greg Hardy

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    Greg Hardy is still a sleeper entering his third year in the NFL, and he must emerge this year if he wants to be a member of the Carolina Panthers moving forward.

    Last season Hardy started all 16 games but only compiled four sacks. That kind of production simply won't cut it in the NFL. Considering that Hardy is explosive off the snap, his poor performance last season was very disappointing. 

    The Panthers need another productive defensive end to help draw the constant double-teams away from Charles Johnson. If Hardy is unable to create more pressure early on this season, then pass-rushers like Thomas Keiser and Frank Alexander will start to see a lot of Hardy's snaps. 

    In the NFL, players aren't given three or four years to produce at a high level. Coaches are evaluated every year and need to win now. Ron Rivera won't continue to play Hardy if he doesn't give the team the best chance to win. 

    Hardy has the ability to complement Johnson and in turn form one of the best defensive end combinations in the entire NFL. 

    The Panthers need to rush the passer well in the pass-happy NFC South, so Hardy has to break out this season or he will be replaced. 

Thomas Keiser

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    Last season, Thomas Keiser surprised the NFL when he recorded four sacks after being activated from the practice squad after Week 10. 

    Keiser went undrafted but through determination and grit emerged to help the team over their final seven games. Over that span, the Panther went 4-3 and their performance created optimism that has spread throughout the entire fanbase. 

    If Greg Hardy is unable to improve his performance this season, then Keiser will see his fair share of snaps. In fact, based on Keiser's level of work and dedication it wouldn't surprise me to see him play more this season regardless of Hardy's performance. 

    Keiser is the type of player that sports fans want to root for, so hopefully his story as an undrafted free agent continues into the future.