The 5 Biggest Takeaways from Carolina Panthers Rookie Minicamp
Rookie mini camp is a preliminary workout to assess the incoming rookie class and allow coaches to work with them independently before the veterans show up later for mandatory OTAs and training camp.
The Carolina Panthers were able to work out their rookies for the first time over the weekend during the annual rookie mini camp. While the weekend was to give the coaching staff an idea of what they would be working with going into the summer, it also provided some positives regarding their rookies.
There has been a lot of attention geared towards the draft picks, especially the first- and second-round selections, but others who went undrafted have earned their share of praise over the weekend. It is still early to see how well these young men will pan out, and the real test will come later in the summer when the veterans report.
However, here are some of the noteworthy takeaways from the Panthers' rookie camp this year.
Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short Impress Coaches
There is no mistaking the heaviest scrutiny in camp and later this year will be on the Panthers' first two draft picks. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have a lot to prove in their rookie campaigns and so far have started strong.
Head coach Ron Rivera likes what he sees early on and hasn't been shy about his feelings:
"That's a very good tandem. I'm excited about who they can become."
It's not unreasonable to blame him for thinking like this, as the Carolina defense has been inconsistent on the defensive interior over the past couple of seasons. Lotutlelei and Short will provide the Panthers with a great inside unit that should propel the Panthers to be one of the best defenses in the league.
Rivera likes what having two highly regarded rookie defensive tackles means for the team's future:
When you draft guys there you have an opportunity to keep them together for a long time – six, seven, eight years down the line, they'll develop that rapport that you see when a group has been together a while. They also can lean on each other.
If these two can earn a few Pro Bowl nods and help the pass rush off the edge and make the linebacker corps a force, Carolina's first two picks of the 2013 NFL Draft will be highly regarded in years to come.
Undrafted Rookies Making Noise in Secondary
Robert Lester and Melvin White both went undrafted this past April and later signed with the Carolina Panthers. While most undrafted free agents don't generate a lot of buzz, these two have been making some splashes over the past weekend.
There is a lot to like about Lester, who brings a championship swagger with him from playing with Alabama the past four seasons. He knows how to win and believes he can do his part in helping the Panthers defense be successful.
I was disappointed that I wasn't drafted, but that just puts a chip on my shoulder to play even harder and prove that I can play. This is a top-10 defense. I paid attention to them this year. I realized that they do need help in the secondary, and I'm more than willing to come in and help and try to contribute.
Carolina's secondary cannot get any worse as they will bring back most of last year's starters, sans Chris Gamble, but having competition in the unit should motivate a higher level of play. Lester could very well have a good chance at making the final 53-man roster and perhaps lock down a starting role at safety.
White played his ball at Louisiana-Lafayette and was versatile enough to play both safety and cornerback for the Ragin' Cajuns. He did enough in his last two years to catch the attention of many teams but in the end, he wasn't drafted and later signed with the Panthers.
"The Panthers were the only team that had a private workout with me, and I talked to them throughout the draft."
There will be many other position battles taking place in camp this year but the ones to watch closely will be in the secondary. Lester and White will be challenging veterans, and each of them has a strong chance at locking down a starting spot.
A.J. Klein Determined to Establish Himself with Panthers
While A.J. Klein was taken in the fifth round of the draft, there is no guarantee he has a spot on the roster. The Carolina Panthers have a formidable linebacker unit if everyone stays healthy and Klein can be another piece of the effective puzzle as a backup in addition to veteran Chase Blackburn.
There is still a long way to go from mini camp to the preseason games, but Klein is driven to succeed at the next level. His work ethic has been compared to Carolina's 2012 first-round selection, Luke Kuechly, which isn't a bad thing considering he took home AP Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
I want to show that I'm a hard worker and that I'm here for a reason, and that's to play good football. I'm just looking forward to being able to showcase that.
It's unlikely he will be named a starter when the season opens, but if the injury bug returns and causes either Jon Beason, Thomas Davis or both to miss playing time, Klein should be waiting in the wings, ready to go.
Look for Kenjon Barner to Represent Special Teams
The Carolina Panthers are need of a playmaker on special teams, and taking Oregon running back Kenjon Barner as their last draft pick may be the final solution. The coaching staff likes what Barner brings to the table and feel he can be an asset to one of the team's weakest units.
During rookie camp, Ron Rivera felt optimistic about Barner's abilities and the potential he has with the team moving forward.
He's got some quickness, and he's also a very smart young man, a fifth-year senior that graduated. He's shown that he has some ability. He's a guy we'll have to find a spot for. If he continues to grow and improve and flash like he did, he's got a real good chance to help us.
There is still speculation about how long before Barner will appear in Carolina's backfield as the future of DeAngelo Williams seems uncertain, but he could see some playing time in the offense as a backup throughout the season.
Colby Cameron Could Secure Backup QB Position Behind Newton, Anderson
While this is mere speculation (being unable to watch rookie camp has disadvantages), it shouldn't be far-fetched to think Colby Cameron can challenge for the third backup spot at quarterback. Jimmy Clausen is the only one to challenge for the spot, and considering this could be his last year in a Panthers uniform, the time could be now to see a changing of the guard.
Cameron showed flashes of potential at Louisiana Tech and has the intelligence to smart decision making to be a decent backup later down the road. His overall makeup allows him to be the ideal backup to Cam Newton even after Derek Anderson leaves. He has quick feet and toughness for the position, and the Panthers shouldn't have to adjust their playbook too much if he were called upon to take a few snaps.
Right now, Cameron is showing what he can do with his fellow rookies. The real test will come when the veterans report and Cameron will go against an experienced defense. If he maintains a strong pocket presence, makes good throws and shows an ability to stand tall in the pocket, he could make the roster as an inactive third-string quarterback.