Carolina Panthers 2009 Positional Battles

Brad MillsCorrespondent IMay 9, 2009

ATLANTA - NOVEMBER 23: Cornerback Richard Marshall #31 of the  the Carolina Panthers sets for play against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on November 23, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Panthers return 21 of 22 starters from their 2008 campaign. However, as the last month of the season showed, that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement.

On the offensive side of the ball, two rookies might play themselves into the starting role. Rookie fullback Tony Fiammetta was generally considered to be the best blocking fullback in the draft, and slipped through the cracks until the Panthers grabbed him in the fourth.

He'll try to unseat incumbent starter and fan favorite Brad Hoover, who is getting a little long in the tooth.

The offensive line returns all five starters but did experience a littany of injuries in 2008. Travelle Wharton was the only player on the line not to miss a start. Look for rookie Duke Robinson to get at least one start, and possibly hold on to it if he plays well.

One of the more interesting battles will be for the number three receiver. Last season Dwayne Jarrett finally showed signs of living up to his second round selection. However, he'll face stiff competition to hold on to the spot.

Ryne Robinson, who flashed potentional in 2007 returning punts and playing wide receiver, returns from an ACL injury that cost him the entire 2008 campaign. 5th round draft pick Mike Goodson will be in the mix as well.

2008 training camp hero Jason Carter hopes to make a splash after a knee injury ended his season last fall.

The defensive side of the ball is far more interesting. Assuming Julius Peppers stays with the team, there is a log jam on the other side of the line.

Both Tyler Brayton and Charles Johnson played well last year. Brayton came into his own in the second half of the season after playing out of position in Oakland, and Charles Johnson recorded six sacks in a strictly pass rushing role.

However, you have to figure that the Panthers want to find a way to get second round pick Everette Brown onto the field. It's setting up for a huge battle, not just for LDE, but for the first off the bench.

Richard Marshall is slated to start opposite Chris Gamble at Corner, but the drafting of Sherrod Martin out of Troy is interesting. New Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks might want to bring more elements of the Tampa-2 to the Panthers defense, and Martin certainly fits the bill physically.

Marshall admits he struggled in 2008, and some feel that his natural fit might be the nickel corner. Another interesting nugget is that Martin played safety in college, and current free safety Charles Godfrey played corner at Iowa.

John Fox likes versatility in his secondary (having played there himself in college) and a triple switch isn't out of the question.

If there is a position to be won in the linebacking corps it would be at Weakside Linebacker. Jon Beason is an All-Pro, and Thomas Davis excelled at the Strongside, his third position in three seasons.

Na'ill Diggs played very well in 2008, but last year's draft steal Dan Conner is chomping at the bit to see playing time. While his natural position is in the middle, he's obviously not going to unseat Jon Beason, and it will be difficult for Diggs to keep him off the field.

The annual kick returner carousel is sure to be fun again. Almost every rookie skill player under Fox has returned kicks as some point, and this year doesn't figure to be any different.

Goodson and Martin look to be the front runners for the job, but don't count out Jonathan Stewart getting another shot at kick returns. Ryne Robinson showed promise at the end of 2007.

It also wouldn't be surprising to see them resign Mark Jones if he's cut by the Tennessee Titans. You can also never count out Steve Smith seeing a return or two.