Most of the starters on both sides of the ball will be back next year, and the few that won't be are pretty much already replaced, with their successors having been determined almost before their departures.
There are, however, a few positions that aren't quite etched in stone at this point. The best part of training camp is watching those who know they are fighting for a job go at it day in and day out. Every non-superstar NFL player knows that one bad day on the job at camp can be the difference between a roster spot and a pink slip.
Here are a few battles to watch as training camp unfolds for the Panthers, assuming Julius Peppers is back in black next year. If that ends up not being the case, then impressive youngster Charles Johnson will likely battle it out with rookie Everette Brown for the right to start opposite Tyler Brayton at defensive end.
Position: Right guard
Last Year’s Starter: Keydrick Vincent
The Challenger: Duke Robinson (rookie)
If his college highlights and the praise that scouts have given him turns out to be anything close to Robinson’s production in the NFL, the Panthers could have one of the major steals of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Robinson, a 6’5”, 330-pound guard from Oklahoma, is a bulldozer of a man. Though he is listed at 330, most think he is likely closer to 350. His ability to drive defensive players out of plays is amazing, and he has the size and speed to move to the tackle position if the need arises. Robinson can also get to the next level after mowing over his first blocking assignment. This would be ideal to compliment the Panthers’ “Double Trouble” duo coming out of the backfield.
His potential downside is his temper, which cost the Sooners penalty yards several times in 2008, including in the National Championship game.
His draft stock after his junior year had him going in the top three rounds, but as is the case with most guards, his stock fell, and he slipped to the Panthers in the fifth round this year.
Keydrick Vincent missed the Panthers final two regular season games, as well as their playoff game against Arizona with a groin injury. If the eight-year veteran can’t come back at full speed for training camp, Robinson will have the upper hand in this battle.
The Panthers’ offensive line was its strongest asset last year, allowing DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to run wild on opposing defenses. The right guard position will be key to running the ball up the middle, which the fearsome duo often does before bouncing outside or breaking tackles for large gains.
Strong side linebacker
Last Year’s Starter: Na’il Diggs
The Challenger: Landon Johnson
New defensive coordinator Ron Meeks is likely to favor Johnson’s smaller, speedier build. Diggs was a staple on the Panthers defense last year, missing only one game and recording 54 total tackles (43 solo). Diggs also recorded a sack and an interception, as well as two pass deflections.
He had a team-high nine tackles in the team’s week six loss to Tampa Bay.
Johnson recorded 16 total tackles and forced a fumble on special teams while serving as a back up in Mike Trgovac’s defense.
Johnson was a third-round pick by Cincinnati in 2004 and his rookie year tackle totals are greater than any one season in Diggs’ eight year career. He twice eclipsed the 100-tackle mark in his final two seasons with Cincinnati before coming to Carolina as a free agent before the 2008 season.
Johnson has shown he can be a solid starting linebacker, and after an entire season with the coaching staff in Carolina, should make strides towards re-solidifying his status as a starter.
Linebacker play has been solid for the Panthers since the addition of Jon Beason at middle linebacker in 2007. The linebacking corps has proven to be the heart of the defense, with Beason and Thomas Davis starting at the other two spots.
The strong-side linebacker position will be key in providing pressure on opposing quarterbacks and in stopping opposing tailbacks who make it to the second level.
Position: Kick/Punt Returner
Last Year’s Starter: Mark Jones (departed)
The Challengers: Ryne Robinson, Larry Beavers, Mike Goodson
Robinson was the team's return man in 2007, and was slated to hold the job in 2008 before a knee injury knocked him out for the season. Jones filled in nicely, and has since left the team in free agency.
Robinson showed a bit of hesitation at times while returning kicks, but gained confidence as the 2007 season wore on. He averaged 23.0 yards per return, and had a long of 60. He is the clear frontrunner for the returner position, as he is the only player on the list with any NFL experience.
The undrafted Beavers is a relative unknown to even some of the more serious football fans, but his 2008 stat line at Wesley College is something you cannot overlook. Beavers returned kicks for 39.5 yards per return and 10 touchdowns. No, that’s not a typo: That’s 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns.
No matter what level of football you are talking about, 10 kickoff returns for touchdowns is absolutely jaw-dropping. Couple that with a 4.28 40-yard dash time in college (video proof here), and you've got what could be the next Devin Hester. His small frame may pose problems for him at the pro level, but with some work in the weight room, he could be a dark horse to make the Panthers' roster, especially if he can impress the coaches with returns in training camp.
Goodson was not a returner in college, but his speed and size make it hard to ignore him for consideration at this level. His raw speed and ability to make it to the outside as a running back at Texas A&M make him an intriguing possibility at this position.
As is the story every year heading into camp, the starting positions are never solidified until the 53-man roster is set, and the Panthers begin regular season play. As camp progresses, it's almost certain that these will not be the only battles going on, but they will certainly be some of the most intriguing.