With the NFL offseason drawing closer to its end, the Carolina Panthers have had some serious winners and losers. While it's always important to impress the coaching staff, playing time is not secured during mini-camps.
That isn't to say that a young player cannot show strides of improvement, but rather that they must demonstrate their progression once the regular season draws closer.
With concerns at wide receiver, along the offensive line and in the secondary, the Panthers need unproven players to step up this season. If the majority of Carolina's fringe players fail to make a difference, the Panthers will have an up-hill battle in regards to competing for a playoff berth this season.
This is the time to be optimistic, but the Panthers will need a few breaks in order to satiate the expectations of the fanbase.
Whether it was a strong performance at OTAs or an injury that is keeping a player on the sidelines, there have been plenty of intriguing storylines for Panthers fans.
After floundering as a wide receiver since being drafted in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins, Ted Ginn Jr. has stumbled upon another opportunity to play wideout.
The Carolina Panthers are counting on consistent performances from Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, but who will emerge behind them is still a mystery.
Once training camp gets underway, Ginn will be battling with Domenik Hixon, David Gettis and Armanti Edwards for playing time as the slot receiver.
According to Jonathan Jones of the CharlotteObserver.com, head coach Ron Rivera said the following about Ginn at OTAs:
You hear things from the outside about players. But then when you see him for yourself, and you sit there and you go, ‘Wow.’ Watching Ted’s speed, his quickness, his route-running – and he’s catching everything right now. So we’re real excited about that, and his potential as far as a return man.
While it's certainly too early to call a winner in that race, Ginn will certainly get a fair chance in practice to earn playing time on Sundays.
After being used as a return specialist for the San Francisco 49ers for the past three seasons, Ginn must be chomping at the bit to contribute to the Panthers' offense.
Jonathan Stewart agreed to re-negotiate his contract during the offseason to help out the cash-strapped Carolina Panthers. Of course, if he refused to restructure GM David Gettleman may have had no choice but to make a tough decision regarding his running backs as a whole.
After rushing for 1,969 yards during his first two seasons with the team, Stewart compiled 1,867 yards over the next three. While the arrival of Cam Newton and the change in system can be partially attributed, Stewart's shaky health in 2012 is cause for concern.
According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, there is a possibility that Stewart might not be ready for the start of training camp. Stewart, who underwent surgery on both ankles this offseason, is still recovering from the procedures and shouldn't be rushed back.
History has shown that running backs that miss the majority of camp are susceptible for down seasons, as it can be difficult to get in game shape without such intense practice. Just look at Maurice Jones-Drew last season, as he struggled through the campaign with various injuries.
Stewart missing the beginning of camp isn't optimal, but hopefully he will be able to recover quickly in order to get some carries in before the regular season kicks off.
After emerging as one of the best linebackers in the league, injuries have limited Jon Beason to just five games over the past two seasons. If the University of Miami product is able to stay healthy, the Carolina Panthers have a legitimate chance to have the best linebacking corp in the league.
After Luke Kuechly's dominant rookie season, Beason will not return to his native middle linebacker positon. Instead, the depth charts at OurLad.com have Beason starting at weak-side linebacker with Thomas Davis slated to start on the strong-side.
If the current trio can remain healthy, then they along with the Panthers' defensive line could form the best front-seven in the NFL. While it's difficult to confidently predict both Beason and Davis avoiding injury, the combined presence of Jordan Senn, A. J. Klein and Chase Blackburn ensures that Carolina will have adequate backups in case of injury.
According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, Ron Rivera said the following about Beason's health:
I think he is. They passed him on the physical, so I’m assuming he is 100 percent. He’s moving around like he is. He made some plays. You really see the energy coming back. You see the quickness.
It's encouraging to hear that Beason is feeling well physically, but it won't really matter until the games start counting. Hopefully one of the best linebackers in free agent history will be able to remain healthy; so far, so good.
When the Carolina Panthers drafted Edmund Kugbila in the fourth round of this year's draft, the move was looked at as a risk-reward action.
At 6'4" and 315 pounds, Kugbila has the potential to develop into a physically dominant guard. That journey won't be done with ease though, as the big guard played his collegiate ball at Division II school Valdosta State.
There will be a steep learning curve for Kugbila to climb this year, which makes every minute of practice time valuable. Unfortunately for both the young rookie and the Panthers, a left leg injury has kept Kugbila from participating in OTAs.
According to Jonathan Jones of CharlotteObserver.com, Kugbila has been forced to take mental reps. At least Kugbila wasn't alone though, as three-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil was also forced to miss actual practice due to injury.
Rivera said the following when asked about Kugbila missing OTAs:
It’s tough because it’s really about learning the techniques more than anything else. He’s a bright kid, a smart young man. He seems to be picking the things up well, but until you get to apply what you’re learning, it’s hard to tell where he is.”
Although some wanted Kugbila to push challenge incumbent guard Geoff Hangartner in training camp, the ex-Division II player will have to do so without any reps prior to training camp.
The Carolina Panthers' starting strong safety is yet to be decided, as the combination of Haruki Nakamura and D. J. Campbell struggled a season ago. Rookie GM David Gettleman didn't address the position in the draft, choosing instead to sign undrafted free agent Robert Lester afterwards.
During his time playing collegiate ball at Alabama, Lester won two National Titles as a part of an elite defense. That being said, Lester going undrafted certainly raises red flags.
The primary concern surrounding Lester is his coverage skills, as he may have a hard time staying with the NFL's bevy of speedy wide receivers. Even though OTAs should be taken with a grain of salt, Lester appears to have impressed the coaching staff thus far.
According to Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, Lester has already earned snaps with the first team during OTAs.
While it's impossible to tell the future, Lester will likely have an opportunity to compete for the starting strong safety position once camp gets underway. Although he will be competing against veterans, Lester's youth and potential could aid in the coaching staffs' decision to start Lester.
Since being drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers, Armanti Edwards has only managed to record five receptions for 121 yards. While he has also contributed as a returner, Edwards certainly has lived up to what the team expected of him when they took him out of Appalachian State.
With players like Joe Adams, Ted Ginn Jr. and Kealoha Pilares on the roster, Edwards could potentially miss the Panthers' final 53-man roster.
In order to ensure that he remains with the team this season, Edwards needs to develop as a wide receiver. Fortunately for him, he will have the opportunity to earn playing time with the offense if he continues to make strides as a wideout.
So far so good for Edwards, as he appears to be attacking the current situation aggressively.
Ron Rivera said the following after the final mini-camp session according to Jonathan Jones of CharlotteObserver.com:
Probably the guy who’s really improved the most during these OTAs and mini-camp has been Armanti. He made a couple really nice plays, I know you guys saw today he made a couple big catches. His development has been really key for us as well.
While playing time isn't won in OTAs, it can be used as an event to make strides and to impress the coaching staff.