What We've Learned About Every Positional Unit So Far in Panthers' Preseason
The preseason tends to provide a tool for teams and their coaches to gauge how effective or ineffective different players or positions are in game situations, identify strengths and weaknesses and to help determine roster cuts in order to put together a quality team. The preseason starts with training camp and ends with the final preseason game just prior to Week 1 of the regular season.
Each year there are questions about the teams and the different positional units. The preseason provides a way of learning which ones to be worried about and which ones will be the strong suit heading into the season. With the first preseason game in the books, the Carolina Panthers had some questions answered and identified certain areas which need to be further addressed.
Every unit from both sides of the ball and special teams have taught us a lot so far. This slideshow will take a look into each positional unit and reveal what we have learned at this stage of the preseason.
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There is no denying Cam Newton is the starting quarterback of this team. He has looked good in practice, and despite not making any big plays in Carolina's first preseason game, he did a couple of things that were a little uncharacteristic of his 2011 season.
For starters, he did not scramble as much and seemed to stay in the pocket longer to find an open receiver. While he did this last season, it seems he is making a more conscious effort to make the plays with his arm rather than with his feet. Another thing we learned about Newton is he seems to recognize his importance to the team, and after rushing for 15 yards, slid to avoid contact.
It is uncertain if this is Newton taking care of himself to avoid unnecessary risks and injury in the preseason or something he has been working on to carry into the regular season.
Derek Anderson will be a reliable backup, and despite not having the mobility possessed by Newton, has proved he can make the plays with his arm. There really shouldn't be too much concern if Anderson has to fill in for Newton, because the Panthers could do far worse.
Speaking of which, Jimmy Clausen has a "Jekyll and Hyde" aspect to him on the field. He seems to be in control and making good throws in practice, but when it comes to actual game situations he looks much like the same quarterback who played in 2010. While it was bad enough to watch him get sacked five times Saturday, he just didn't look comfortable.
In all fairness, the line needs to do a better job of protecting him so it should be interesting to see what improvements there are in the upcoming games.
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This unit is, without a doubt, one of the most talented and deepest in the league. The combined talents of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert make this part of the offense dangerous on any down. While there were no big plays from them (though Stewart had a nice 13-yard reception), a lot was learned about the two younger backs.
Josh Vaughn was not much of a factor, as his performance paled in comparison to that of the rookie Tauren Poole. Poole had a couple of nice runs in the game against Houston, including a strong run up the middle in the second quarter. If the Tennessee product can build upon his preseason, he could strengthen an already strong running back corps.
It should be noted that prior to Saturday's game, Stewart signed an extension to remain in Carolina. The question about his future with the Panthers has been answered and allowed both him and the team to focus solely on football.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
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The Panthers' receiving corps starts with Steve Smith. In past seasons, it has also ended with him, as he seemed to never have the necessary help to shake the constant double-teams. Brandon LaFell looks to have a hold on the second wide receiver spot, though it would have been nice to see him get a few more looks in the last game.
Louis Murphy has looked good in camp and he has solidified himself as a contender for the third wide receiver spot after a decent outing in the team's first preseason game. He could challenge David Gettis for the spot whenever he returns to action.
A wild card to win the last receiver spot is Seyi Ajirotutu. At times he has looked good in camp and others, he has struggled. He was targeted several times in Saturday's game but only had one catch to show for it.
It is difficult to determine where this unit stands in terms of effectiveness, but right now there really isn't anyone other than Smith who can make a huge impact in the passing game. LaFell may be close, but after him it's cloudy.
The tight ends on the team have yet to give a clear indication of what can be expected of them in 2012. Greg Olsen is expected to be a dependable target in the offense, and there is hope Gary Barnidge will make a quality No. 2 option.
Richie Brockel and Ben Hartsock will be expected to assist in the blocking game, though Brockel has show the ability to play fullback and even be involved in trick plays.
Regardless of who is on the field, the tight ends need to be able to make the play when their number is called and be able to provide quality blocking when needed.
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Whether or not the starting line from Saturday's game will be the one featured in the regular season is undetermined. Many feel this is the ideal setup with Jordan Gross, Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Geoff Hangartner and Byron Bell being put in charge of Newton's protection.
The line looked good at times, with Silatolu being instrumental in Newton's big run. It also looked bad, with Silatolu and Gross allowing a sack.
Bruce Campbell looked solid during his time on the field and if he doesn't earn a starting nod could be a quality backup.
The offensive line still has to get in sync and play at a high standard. With the veteran leadership of Kalil and Gross this unit should be one of the better ones on the team. Hopefully, they are able to correct their mistakes in camp and prevent giving up the big play. This unit gave up seven sacks against Houston, and even for a preseason game, that is too many.
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The Achilles heel of 2011 is not doing anything to make people forget about last season. The line is still giving up big plays and is having a difficult time stopping the run. However, there were a few positives to take away from the unit as well.
Charles Johnson, Ogemdi Nwagbuo, Antwan Applewhite, Thomas Keiser and Eric Norwood were able to get pressure on the quarterback, disrupting the play or causing turnovers. Keiser and Applewhite each had a sack.
It is still a mystery as to why the defensive line continues to struggle. Ron Edwards needs to lock down the interior and help mentor the youngsters, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, to become dominate defensive tackles. Greg Hardy needs to take advantage of his size and help Johnson wreak havoc in the backfield.
Fortunately, there is still time to make corrections and adjustments before the season officially gets under way.
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This unit's success will probably depend on the health and presence of Jon Beason. He was sorely missed last season with an injury and will be looking to return this year. The Panthers don't want to rush him or Thomas Davis back too soon, as to avoid any further setbacks. Fortunately, they have an insurance policy in the form of their top 2012 draft pick.
Luke Kuechly is as good as advertised. Everything he has been doing in practice has been carried over into the game. Where the ball goes, Kuechly is right there to help make a play. In his first game, he had four tackles and a forced fumble. Kuechly seems to have no problem taking up the leadership role on defense and he will provide a quality that was lacking in 2011.
In addition to Kuechly, there is reason to be optimistic about the backups, as Jason Phillips and Kenny Onatulu have looked good in the preseason. Phillips had an interception against the Texans Saturday which was caused by a good pass rush, and Onatulu had eight tackles and a sack.
While this unit could be extremely strong with Beason back in the fold, there are not nearly as many questions regarding its effectiveness. The biggest concerns rest in Beason's ability to be the same linebacker he was prior to his injury and if Davis can return and play an important role as a rotational player.
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The secondary was another unit that found itself overmatched in 2011. Chris Gamble still needs help on the other side of the field, and no one has yet to emerge in the second cornerback battle.
Some key players for the position have been dealing with injuries like Brandon Hogan and Josh Norman. Captain Munnerlyn may be called upon to play the position again. Nate Ness has looked good in camp since his arrival, but after he was hurt in the first preseason game his status is uncertain.
While it was nothing to be excited about, Josh Thomas did make a big play in the game Saturday to prevent a touchdown. He was able to knock away a pass for an incompletion, thus keeping the score from becoming too one-sided.
The safeties have been looking good in camp, but no one has really stood out to claim a starting spot. Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura played well Saturday, but neither did anything of note. The competitions for the starting jobs are far from over with Reggie Smith and Sherrod Martin still in the mix.
It is still too early to determine how improved this unit will be, but hopefully the next two weeks will shed some light on who will start and what can be expected of the secondary this year.
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The Panthers have featured a kicking battle in camp this year between Olindo Mare and Justin Medlock. Medlock has been lights out in practice, and while Mare hasn't exactly kept pace, both were able to successfully execute their attempts in Saturday's game. Medlock connected from 48 yards and Mare from 33. It is still too early to determine who will win this battle, but Medlock is giving Mare a good run.
The kick return unit has yet to do much in terms of excitement. Kealoha Pilares, Armanti Edwards, Mike Avila and rookie Joe Adams took turns returning kicks. Avila had the longest return at 32 yards, but none of them really stood out as a favorite. However, punt returns could be a different story.
Adams had one return, and he made it count with some nice footwork that show him reverse his field and gain 34 yards. What was impressive with the return was he was able to turn nothing into something. It will be fun to watch him over the next couple of weeks.
Another rookie, Brad Nortman, made the most of his time on the field by punting three times and averaging 42 yards per punt. His longest punt was 57 yards, and he was able to put enough hang on each kick to afford his team enough time to get downfield. Coverage on the punt returns doesn't seem to be as problematic as it does on kickoffs.
Much like last year, the Carolina kickoff coverage team didn't fare too well, as they gave up a lot of yards. One kick was so short it resulted in a touchdown. Unless Mare or Medlock can kick the ball to the back of the end zone, the coverage team will need to do a better job of containment.
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While it can be argued that this is the preseason and the games are meaningless, this is the best time to see how well your players stack up against other teams. This is especially true when it comes to the young rookies.
The offense has looked good in practice, but it was out of sync in its first game. The talent is there and they should get back on track in the coming days. There is more to worry about with the defense and special teams than anything else.
The defense needs to stop the run and find a way to get stronger up the middle. If Beason's return can help solve some of these problems, then the Panthers will be in good shape. However, Ron Edwards, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua all need to step up. Kuechly is going to be a welcome addition. The secondary needs to give Gamble some help and make the pass defense more formidable.
The only concern on special teams should be the lack of coverage on kickoffs. The special teams will not be doing the defense any favors by allowing their opponents to have excellent field position on each series.
There are still many things to address, and the preseason is still young. If mistakes are to be made, they need to be made here. Right now, we know that this team needs to vastly improve before there can be any talk about playoffs or division championships. Carolina has a good team, and they should be drastically improved when they begin their season in Tampa Bay.