Rookie, Undrafted Free-Agent Watch for Carolina's Training Camp
While there will be a lot attention aimed at the position battles in camp this year, some of it will be pointed in the direction of the rookies. Carolina drafted five rookies and signed 13 more as undrafted free agents this spring, and already there is discussion about the impact a select few will have on the team in 2013.
Rookies are the foundation on which a team builds its future, and after OTAs and minicamp, a few rookies have caught the eyes of both coaches and the media.
While the real test will come during training camp and the subsequent preseason games, this year's crop of rookies has put itself in a position for some extra reps and to possibly play a few series with the first-team offense and defense.
Here are five players everyone will need to keep an eye on during this year's training camp.
Star Lotulelei, DT
Draft Selection: First Round, 14th pick
Stats: 107 tackles (21.5 for loss), seven sacks, four forced fumbles
Projected Role in Camp: Starter
It can be argued that the Carolina Panthers drafted the best defensive player in the draft. If it were not for the heart abnormalities caught by an echocardiogram during this past winter's combine, Star Lotulelei may not have fallen to the Panthers in the first round.
Despite other teams being scared off by Lotulelei's medical results, doctors gave him the go-ahead to play, and the Panthers didn't waste any time selecting him.
If he turns out to be the caliber player he was at Utah, Carolina will be set for a long time on the defensive front. Lotulelei's presence should help both Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy be more disruptive off the edge, as he will take away a lot of double-teams from them.
Lotulelei is efficient in stopping the run, and he could help give the Panthers a much-needed boost in rush defense. He will be tested this year, as Carolina will meet running backs like Steven Jackson (Atlanta), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Frank Gore (San Francisco), Doug Martin (Tampa Bay) and the always dangerous Adrian Peterson (Minnesota).
Needless to say, Lotulelei and company will have their work cut out for them. However, those matchups were the reason the Carolina front office valued a talented interior defensive lineman over a wide receiver or secondary help.
Lotulelei won't be the only rookie on the defensive line this year. He will be getting some help from a talented defensive tackle out of Purdue.
Kawann Short, DT
Draft Selection: Second Round, 44th pick
Stats: 186 tackles (49 for loss), 19.5 sacks, two forced fumbles
Projected Role in Camp: Rotating Starter
Kawann Short is to pass-rushing what Star Lotulelei is to run-stuffing. He is very good at it. While it was surprising to see Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman take another defensive tackle with the team's second pick, it made a lot of sense.
The Panthers need to a line equipped to stopping the run and rushing the passer regardless of who is on the field. With Short in the mix, they have the ability to do just that.
Short will most likely rotate with veteran Dwan Edwards over the next two seasons in order to keep the line's interior rested and fresh for each series. Like Edwards, Short can bring pressure from the inside and get sacks.
Much like Lotulelei, he will draw his fair share of double-teams away from the defensive ends and allow the Carolina defensive front to be dangerous from left to right.
He won't see as many snaps as Lotulelei will during the season, but he will be a common fixture on the Panthers defense each week.
Robert Lester, S
Draft Selection: Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA)
Stats: 147 tackles (6.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks, 14 interceptions, 24 passes defensed
Projected Role in Camp: Depth Chart Player
Robert Lester could shoot up the depth chart very unexpectedly in camp. For now, he will be a depth chart player competing with veterans Haruki Nakamura and Colin Jones at safety. There isn't too much expected from him, but that could all change after putting together an impressive spring.
Carolina needs serious help in the secondary, and getting it in the form of a undrafted free agent could really benefit its long-term plans and shift its focus on team needs elsewhere.
Lester's best season in college came during his sophomore year where he recorded 52 tackles and picked off eight passes. While his production in the two years since has diminished, there is still reason for optimism that he can be a solid defensive back in the NFL.
He may have impressed his coaches during OTAs, but his real test will come during the preseason. If he can outplay Nakamura and Jones, he could potentially start Week 1. However, the worst-case scenario for the young Alabama safety is that he will make the team as a backup.
Melvin White, CB
Draft Selection: Undrafted Free Agent (UDFA)
Stats: 155 tackles (12.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, 21 passes defensed
Projected Role in Training Camp: Depth Chart Player
Like Robert Lester, Melvin White has the opportunity to make an immediate impact for the Carolina secondary. Cornerback is as big of a question mark as safety, and White could help his cause with a solid camp.
While veterans Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore are possible favorites for one, if not both starting jobs, White will compete against young corners such as Josh Norman and Josh Thomas. However, after the season is over, Munnerlyn may not be with the team, and White needs to impress this summer if he is to stay with the team and have a legitimate chance at the starting job.
White may have played for a small school, but he can play big. He established himself as a hard hitter but had only forced two fumbles during his collegiate career.
It should be interesting to see what he can do against NFL talent, and if he can bring the same kind of tenacity to the pro game like he did in school, he should land on the final roster.
Kenjon Barner, RB
Draft Selection: Sixth Round, 182nd pick
Stats: Rushing: 582 attempts, 3,623 yards, 41 TDs/Receiving: 54 receptions, 591 yards, seven touchdowns/kick returns: 61 attempts, 1,371 yards, one touchdown; Punt Returns: 26 returns, 263 yards, one touchdown
Projected Role in Camp: Return Specialist/Third-String Running Back
The good news: Kenjon Barner could be a playmaker on special teams. The bad news: He hasn't been a return specialist since his junior season in 2011.
That hasn't deterred the Carolina Panthers from drafting the Oregon product and giving him a shot at returning kicks for them. Considering the lack of depth at the position, Barner could easily win one of the slots.
However, it should be noted that he is an accomplished running back and put together an impressive senior year with 1,767 yards rushing on 278 attempts and 21 touchdowns. He could be a huge boost to the Panthers if veteran Jonathan Stewart is unable to go when the regular season begins.
Barner may be a part-time contributor for Carolina, but he could mean the difference between a win or a loss this season.
His main job will be to improve special teams, but he will make an excellent insurance policy if Stewart or DeAngelo Williams are sidelined during the year.