The Carolina Panthers have a few positions that still present an air of uncertainty as the 2013 season draws closer and closer. Training camp will be the stage where players will be able to showcase their talents to the coaching staff to not only win a roster spot but claim a starting position as well.
When camp opens at the end of this month, the primary focus will be on the defensive secondary. However, there are a few other position battles for fans to take an interest in this year.
The talent level on the Carolina roster is pretty good, but turning that talent into on-field production depends on the health of a player and whether or not he is able to maintain the same level of play that earned him a roster spot during camp. The Panthers will have many veterans returning, and some of them, especially a few starters, will not be guaranteed their old spot on this year’s team.
Given the potential from the rookie class and the young players signed as undrafted free agents, the makings of some tight camp battles could be on the horizon.
Everyone knows the Carolina Panthers need considerable help at both safety and cornerback. The front office shored up both positions by bringing in veteran and rookie players via free agency. A couple of those rookies, Robert Lester and Melvin White, have left a very good first impression with the coaching staff during OTAs and the rookie minicamp.
Safety: Haruki Nakamura vs. Robert Lester vs. Colin Jones
This is a classic battle of two veterans pitted against an up-and-coming rookie. Nakamura was last year’s starter but some inconsistency on his part led to some big plays being made against the Panthers. Some could argue that one cost them a victory over a division rival.
While the winner will be named the starter, a consolation prize could be in order for the second-place finisher. That prize should be a roster spot.
Nakamura has the inside track on the position, as he is familiar with the defensive schemes and may want to prove himself with a better second season with Carolina. He has a lot of talent, and he can be an asset to the defense. However, he needs to make tackles and prevent opposing quarterbacks from completing the deep ball.
Robert Lester and Colin Jones both have the potential to help the Carolina defense move forward. Lester is the untested rookie, and Jones is the young veteran who will be entering his third season in the NFL.
If it weren’t for the success Lester had during the spring workouts, he may not be in the discussion for the position battle. He has done a lot of things right so far but has been overlooked by many people because he went undrafted.
There was a sharp decline in the number of interceptions he had as a sophomore.
He has the size and speed to be an NFL defender, according to NFL.com—which describes his strengths as having strong hands, good height and vertical ability to defend jump balls, and he can stop the run. On the flip side, he lacks hip flexibility to quickly bring down tacklers, lacks speed to the sidelines in Cover 2 and can be burned by faster receivers.
Lester can still surprise many people and establish himself as both a member of the 53-man roster and a starter. It’s a long shot for the rookie safety, but he has a reason for optimism early on.
Colin Jones played in 15 games last year, but he made little impact on the field. He accounted for 14 tackles, and that was the limit of his production during his first season with the Panthers. He is still young but will be challenged by Lester from day one.
Safety is up for grabs, and with the exception of Charles Godfrey, no one in the secondary has a direct path to the starting job. The camp battle and game situations featuring these three players should be fun to watch.
Captain Munnerlyn vs. D.J. Moore vs. Melvin White
Cornerback is another position in the secondary that could really use a boost. Captain Munnerlyn signed a one-year deal to remain with the Panthers and could potentially play his final season with them this year. His biggest competition could be D.J. Moore, because they both have experience playing the nickel-corner position.
Additionally, Moore is a five-year veteran and had some solid production as a member of the Chicago Bears. He is capable of picking off passes, which is an area the Panthers would like to improve in their secondary.
Regardless of who wins, if both make the final roster, the Panthers will have the outside corner and corner slot positions covered. However, one shouldn’t rule out the possibility of Melvin White making some noise.
Just like Robert Lester, White has been doing some good things during the early-season workouts. However, White may have more of a challenge facing him than Lester. Munnerlyn has been a fixture in the Panthers defense since his rookie season, and Moore is an accomplished veteran in his own right.
What plays in White’s favor is his ability to wrap up ball-carriers or deliver a hard hit. This allows him to either stop the run or break up a bubble screen. One of his weaknesses is very similar to Lester in keeping up with faster receivers. NFL.com has drawn comparisons of White to Seattle’s Richard Sherman—which is quite a compliment.
Brandon LaFell vs. Domenik Hixon
It may be unfair to say that there is a competition brewing between Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon, but competition breeds excellence. LaFell has been a solid second option behind Steve Smith, but he has yet to reach his peak. He has shown flashes during his short career and has seemingly improved each season.
Hixon signed with the Panthers during the offseason and was the fourth-leading receiver on the New York Giants in 2012. He caught 39 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns last year. Keep in mind he was behind the likes of Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks in that offense.
Compared to the battles being fought in the secondary, this one may pale in terms of importance. However, Carolina sorely needs a second wide receiver that can take the focus off Smith and make big plays. Hixon could be that player.
Both receivers should make the final roster and should see plenty of game time. The one who impresses the most in camp will most likely get the starting nod as the team’s second wide receiver.
Ted Ginn, Jr. vs. Armanti Edwards vs. Joe Adams vs. Kenjon Barner
It could be argued there is no camp battle among these three players. Ginn was brought in during free agency to return punts and kicks without much of a contest. Edwards has been a non-factor on special teams during his professional career, and Joe Adams struggled with holding onto the ball in his rookie season.
Ginn has experience and has enjoyed more success returning the ball than he has playing as a wide receiver in the offense. While he is making an attempt to be a dual-threat weapon for the Panthers, it should be noted his only good season was in 2008, when he had 56 receptions for 790 yards and two scores.
On special teams, Ginn has proven to be an asset. He has accumulated over a 1,000 return yards twice in his career and nearly did it a third time in 2010—finishing with 992 yards. As for punt returns, he has gotten better over the past three years with San Francisco, as his return average has been between 10.2 and 13.4 yards per return. Carolina could benefit from those kinds of numbers, especially on short punts which would allow for excellent field position.
Ginn may have a lock on one of the return duties, but he will not go unchallenged. Edwards and Adams both have potential to be very dangerous as return specialists. However, they have disappointed thus far.
Edwards may be seeing his window closing with Carolina and will need a strong camp in order to survive the final round of cuts. He has garnered praise from the coaching staff as the most improved player during OTAs. Of course, it’s what he does in a game that will matter.
Many fans believe Edwards to be the kind of player the Panthers need to retain, as he will break out soon enough. Others believe his selection was a wasted one and have ridiculed the trade which cost the Panthers a draft pick.
Of the four players competing for return duties, Edwards is the only one who controls his destiny.
Adams and Kenjon Barner are both young, with the latter being an explosive return specialist out of Oregon. Adams started out as the punt returner for Carolina last year and lost his job due to problems with fumbling the football. He experienced similar issues earlier this year during OTAs, but it’s what happens during games that matters most.
Barner will compete for either return duty, and if he brings the same kind of performance on special teams that he had in Oregon, he will be a lock on one of the teams. He has the luxury of being a rookie, because the level of scrutiny will be considerably lower compared to his camp competition.
Best-case scenario is that all four of them step up and give Ron Rivera and his staff a major dilemma in who to name as the returner on special teams. Another optimal situation has them changing out throughout the game. The worst case is someone being released, although if that happens, it may very well be Edwards.
Other Notable Camp Battles
Jimmy Clausen vs. Colby Cameron
The end may be near for Jimmy Clausen. The Panthers signed Colby Cameron as an undrafted free agent, and he will challenge Clausen for the third-quarterback spot on the roster. This could be considered a ho-hum battle, as the “winner” will be spending much of the regular season on the inactive roster.
Geoff Hangartner vs. Amini Silatolu vs. Edmund Kugbila
The Panthers need solid linemen in the trenches, which is why they drafted the massive-rookie Kugbila out of Valdosta State. Carolina wants to win the war in the trenches, and Kugbila has the size that fits perfectly in general manager Dave Gettleman’s philosophy.
Hangartner and Silatolu both started last year, but either one could be unseated by Kugbila if he has a good camp. However, Kugbila needs to stay healthy and get on the field in order for that to happen. He took some “mental reps” per the advice of Ryan Kalil during OTAs. However, he will need to prove himself when given the chance.
Silatolu has a lot of promise, and while he looked overmatched a few times during his rookie year, he can be a long-term fixture on the offensive line. Hangartner should be able to resume his role as a starting guard, but if he is outplayed by both of these young linemen, he could be backing them up.