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The Biggest Winners and Losers of Carolina Panthers Camp, Preseason so Far

Stephen FenechCorrespondent IAugust 14, 2012

The Biggest Winners and Losers of Carolina Panthers Camp, Preseason so Far

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    As training camp comes to an end for the Carolina Panthers, players are fighting for roster spots and playing time in hopes of proving themselves ready for the rigors of NFL competition. 

    Unfortunately for the current roster, only 53 men will be on the team's opening day roster, meaning that quite a few cuts will have to be made. 

    For the players that make the cut, their dream is realized and they have a chance to help the team moving forward. Football isn't even almost predictable, so one never knows who will step up at what moment. 

    Think you have a good handle on how this season will pan out?

    Think again, because injuries and the natural cycle of the NFL will throw everyone for a myriad of loops before the Vince Lombardi Trophy is awarded in February. 

    The Panthers have a lot to be excited about because last year's first overall pick, Cam Newton, proved to be a superstar from his very first snap in blue and black. Newton will without a doubt lead an explosive offensive attack, so it will be on the defense to improve on last year's poor performance. 

Winners on Offense

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    Jonathan Stewart- Stewart is a big winner due to the five-year $36 million contract he signed with the team, despite the apprehension that NFL team's now have about signing running backs to long-term expensive contracts.

    Since the Carolina Panthers already have DeAngelo Williams and signed Mike Tolbert in the offseason, some viewed Stewart as expendable. 

    However, GM Marty Hurney felt differently, thus the contract offer. According to USA Today, Hurney never even considered dealing Stewart as he said the following. 

    "We didn't even consider it," Hurney said. "He's a valuable player for us. All you have to do is look at his production. I think you look at it as if you try to add as many weapons as possible on offense, regardless of position. And Jonathan and DeAngelo have proven to be a solid 1-2 punch for us. They have been a proven commodity, and we wanted to make sure we didn't lose Jonathan."

    Stewart is one of the big winners across the entire NFL thus far in the preseason, because he has secured financial stability with the team that drafted him. 

    The carries will without a doubt be split between Stewart, Williams and Tolbert, but that trio will lead what could be the most explosive rushing attack in the NFC.

     

     

    Brandon LaFell- LaFell has all but sown up the number two receiver slot as most expected him to do. That being said, we could create an endless list of players who were supposed to continue to progress and failed to do so. 

    According to ESPN.com, LaFell has separated himself from Louis Murphy and David Gettis and will start the season hoping to be a beneficiary of  the attention Steve Smith demands. 

    If you think that LaFell is a winner now, just wait until he gets to play a full season as Newton's second wideout. In his second season, Newton is expected to continue to progress as a passer and LaFell will be crucial in that development. 

    The relationship between a quarterback and wide receiver is a two-way street, as they must completely trust their team mate to make the right decisions on a consistent basis. If the trust isn't present, then defenses will have a better chance in slowing down Carolina's offense. 

    Although LaFell was shutout in the preseason opener against the Houston Texans, he has proven that he is the second best wide receiver on the team. 

    As he enters his third season, LaFell will be expected to put up big numbers as the Panthers chase a playoff berth. So far so good for the 25-year-old wideout, but no one will remember his performance in August if he doesn't produce when it counts. 

Winners on Defense

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    Luke Kuechly- Kuechly is the best interior linebacker to come out of college in a few years, so the Carolina Panthers aptly selected him with the ninth overall pick in April's draft despite the presence of perennial Pro Bowler Jon Beason. 

    While some were confused as to why they took Kuechly rather than a player at a need position, the Panthers front office made the right decision. 

    At Boston College, Kuechly was a tackling machine. In fact, that isn't enough praise, as he left the ACC as the league's all-time leading tackler. In three seasons at BC, Kuechly compiled an amazing 533 tackles and had over 100 solo-tackles in each of the last two seasons. 

    How did Kuechly do in the team's first preseason game? 

    Well, he forced Arian Foster to fumble and made three tackles on the team's first drive. Not so bad for a rookie. 

    The Panthers finished 25th in rush defense last season, a ranking that Kuechly will help improve this season Simply put, Carolina couldn't pass on such a talented football player and he has done nothing to make us think that he won't be a perennial Pro Bowler in the years to come.

    Kuechly is on this list because he is living up to the hype thus far. Which is all an organization in the top ten can hope for when investing that high of a selection on an interior linebacker. 

     

     

    Josh Norman- Before you kill me for including Norman as a winner thus far, think about the entire situation and today's practice in which he picked off four passes. We also shouldn't forget that Norman was impressive in mini-camps earlier this summer.  

    Granted, the hamstring injury that had plagued him through the majority of training camp severely hampered his ability to prove himself on the field.

    However, there is a reason that Norman is still in contention for the second cornerback position. The guy can play and was overlooked because he played his college ball at Coastal Carolina.

    He is currently in a battle with Captain Munnerlyn and Brandon Hogan for the starting corner spot opposite Chris Gamble.

    Norman is a winner thus far because he is still in contention despite his ability to stay on the practice field consistently, which speaks volumes about how highly the coaches think of him.

    It appears as if the team would prefer to move Munnerlyn to nickel back, a position he played last season, and put either Hogan or Norman on the outside.

    If he is able to stay healthy, then we may be praising the Panthers front office for finding a gem in the fifth round.

Losers on Offense

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    Jimmy Clausen- This isn't how Clausen thought his NFL career would unfold. While at Notre Dame, he looked like a first-round draft pick the majority of the time, but scouts didn't think he was a first-round talent and look to have been proven right. 

    Clausen is the third-string quarterback and was sacked five times during the preseason opener against the Houston Texans. Granted, the Panthers did have the rest of third-team in, but so did the Texans.

    At some point, the Panthers are going to say enough is enough. With the arrival of Derek Anderson, and his strong play against Houston, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.

    With the emergence of Cam Newton, Clausen was forgotten by the majority of the NFL because it made him even more expendable. 

    When head coach Ron Rivera was asked about Clausen's play against the Texans, he said the following according to Tom Sorenson of Charlotteobserver.com

    “It was disappointing because we’ve got to get him protected to get him an opportunity,” Panther head coach Ron Rivera said Monday after practice. “Now he ate the ball a couple times on his own accord. You’d like to tell Jimmy just get that out and throw it away.”

    Time is running out on Clausen's NFL career, but his chances at getting a legitimate second chance dwindle every time he takes the field.

     

     

    Mike Pollak- The Panthers signed Mike Pollak to compete with Amini Silatolu, who the team took in the second round of April's draft at guard.

    Thus far, Pollak has been very impressive and ESPN's Pat Yasinskas doesn't even know if he will make the roster.

    While it isn't totally uncommon for a team to release a player that they had just signed in the previous offseason, most expected Pollak to compete for a starting job at guard. 

    At this point, the word compete and Pollak shouldn't be used in the same sentence but he does have some time to prove that he can be a quality backup. 

    There aren't any other Panthers who have earned the dishonor of being an offensive loser. The rest of the offense deserves a little more time to get back into football shape both physically and mentally. 

    If the Panthers first-team doesn't improve on their first preseason game, something no one is expecting to happen, then this slide would be loaded with players next time. 

Losers on Defense

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    Brandon Hogan- Similar to Josh Norman, Hogan has been suffering with an injury that has kept him off the practice field far too often. The problem for Hogan is that the injury happened over two years ago, and he still hasn't fully recovered. 

    While the Panthers will need as many competent corners on the roster as possible—they are in the NFC South after all—until Hogan manages to regain his college form, he may wind up being more of a liability. 

    If he doesn't trust his knee, even subconsciously, then he will have a very hard time covering NFL wideouts. The speed of the game today demands for defensive backs to play at their peak at all times, and at this point, we don't even know if Hogan will be able to reach his peak in his second season.

    It's always a shame to see a promising young player struggle with injuries, even more so when that player could really help his team.  

    Hopefully there will be a day in which Hogan will be fully recovered and will have the chance to prove that he was worthy of the being selected in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft. 

    Thus far, Hogan has only perpetuated the truth that teams should be wary of picking up players who have suffered serious knee injuries, especially with players who are constantly forced to change directions. 

    At this point, the rest of the defense has looked solid for the most part and haven't been losers in camp. 

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