Projecting the Carolina Panthers' Starting Lineup Pre-2014 NFL Draft
The NFL draft will help the Carolina Panthers fill in major needs and add depth to the roster. Offensively, the team looks unimpressive, especially on the line and at wide receiver. The current make-up of the defense offers a reason for optimism, but the offense will need to be counted on to put points on the board.
Carolina has a good mix of experienced veterans and talented young players who have three or less years in the league. The question is whether or not the current depth chart will be enough to defend the Panthers' division title.
It's unlikely the players on the roster now can get the job done.
However, before the draft starts, it's worth taking a look at the depth chart and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each position. The most pressing needs of the team will feature a player to be determined (TBD) among the current veterans on the roster.
Starter: Cam Newton
Backups: Derek Anderson, Matt Blanchard, Joe Webb
The offense is in good hands with Cam Newton under center as he enters his fourth season as the Carolina Panthers starting quarterback. He has shown gradual improvement since his rookie season, with the most notable change being his growth in maturity and leadership.
Newton will have the interesting task of developing chemistry with a new group of receivers this year, and if he can show consistency in his production, there will be plenty of reason for optimism moving forward.
Derek Anderson will return as his backup, but he will have competition in the form of Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb. Anderson has seen limited action as a backup, and the addition of two new quarterbacks is not so much a reflection on his performance, but rather it's keeping consistency in the offense for play-calling purposes.
Expect a lot of action among these three during the preseason games because the Panthers may only carry one backup.
Starter: DeAngelo Williams
Backups: Jonathan Stewart and Kenjon Barner
Starter: Mike Tolbert
Backups: Richie Brockel and Michael Zordich
DeAngelo Williams figures to be the starter when the season opens, but that doesn't mean he won't split carries with Jonathan Stewart. Both have proven to be a force when healthy and presented with openings up front. However, the overall production of the tandem has been in decline over the past few seasons, and it stands to reason that this could very well be the last year with this current group.
Kenjon Barner may see more action this year, but he may enter the game solely as a special teams player.
The fullback position will be in capable hands, as Mike Tolbert will enter his third season as the Carolina lead blocker/red-zone threat. He was used a lot better in 2013 and placed second on the team in rushing touchdowns with five. His efforts and production earned him a Pro Bowl nod, and he will be counted on again to be a force in the rushing game.
Behind him will be Richie Brockel and Michael Zordich who could be competing for the backup spot. Brockel may have a slight edge as he can play tight end and is listed as such on the Panthers roster.
Starters: Jerricho Cotchery, TBD draft pick and Jason Avant
Backups: Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, Marvin McNutt, Toney Clemons and Brenton Bersin
Arguably, wide receiver is the biggest question mark on the team at the moment in terms of need, but definitely the biggest concern in terms of production. Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant will be counted on to serve as the veteran mentors of the unit and help mold the rookie receiver into a fine NFL player.
Backing them up will be the limited, but talented, young guys who have either been brought in via free agency and waivers over the past year or have been a part of the scout team. Among this group, Tiquan Underwood and Marvin McNutt have a lot of potential. The latter saw a little action late last season and just missed scoring a touchdown against Atlanta.
There should be plenty of competition between them and Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares, Toney Clemons and Brenton Bersin during camp as the Panthers will probably only carry six receivers.
Regardless of who makes the final roster, this year's receiving unit will have to make up for the lost production of last year's group, since all the players in that group departed this offseason for other teams.
Starter: Greg Olsen
Backups: Ed Dickson, Mike McNeill, Brandon Williams and D.C. Jefferson
Greg Olsen led the team in receiving last year and will be counted on yet again to be Newton's security blanket and third-down threat. Given the current composition of the Carolina receiver unit, his job may have become a bit more difficult.
The Panthers made some moves in the offseason to add depth behind Olsen, and Ed Dickson could breathe new life into his career as the other big receiver on the offensive line. He has started 44 of 60 games as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, and while his numbers were not good among starting tight ends, he could be a productive receiving end with Carolina.
However, if Dickson is to secure that role, he will have to compete with Mike McNeill, Brandon Williams and D.C. Jefferson for the position. This looks to be the primary camp battle at tight end later this summer.
Starter: Ryan Kalil
Backup: Brian Folkerts
Starters: Amini Silatolu (LG) and Garry Williams (RG)
Backups: Edmund Kugbila (LG), Chris Scott (RG), Michael Jasper (LG), Derek Dennis (RG) and Oscar Johnson (LG)
Starters: Byron Bell (LT) and TBD rookie (RT)
Backups: Nate Chandler (LT), Travis Bond (LT) and Andrew McDonald (LT)
Fortunately, the condition of the interior offensive line is not as the outside. That is not to say it is without its problems because injuries destroyed the guard position last year. Amini Silatolu should rebound and compete with Edmund Kugbila for the starting job. Both were lost last season due to injuries; however, there is still hope both can be assets on the line.
Ryan Kalil will resume his role as starting center and leader on the offensive line. There is not much depth behind him, so staying healthy will be paramount to the effectiveness of the unit.
At offensive tackle, it appears that the coaching staff has no problem sliding Byron Bell over to left tackle to protect Newton's blind side. The decision to move him over could hinge on who Carolina drafts to anchor the other side of the line. Bell will be the veteran presence, but seeing a rookie starting on the line in 2014 is expected.
Starters: Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short
Backups: Dwan Edwards, Colin Cole, Linden Gaydosh and Casey Walker
Starters: Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy
Backups: Frank Alexander, Mario Addison, Craig Roh, Wes Horton and Alex Hall
The front line of one of best defenses in the NFL should remain virtually unchanged. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy will be a potent pass-rushing threat with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short doing their part to keep the double teams at bay.
Frank Alexander and Mario Addison should return as the second-string defensive ends and maintain continuity on the defensive front. The good thing is that much of the supporting cast behind the second-string unit is familiar to the defense and the scheme employed by Sean McDermott.
Starters: Luke Kuechly (MLB), Thomas Davis (SLB) and Chase Blackburn (WLB)
Backups: D.J. Smith (MLB), Ben Jacobs (MLB), A.J. Klein (SLB/WLB) and Jason Williams (SLB)
There is a lot to love about the backbone (and heart) of the defense with this group of starting linebackers. Luke Kuechly has become a defensive force after two seasons and has been awarded hardware at the end of season for his efforts. As he has shown the past two years, he will be involved in the majority of the plays on the field.
Thomas Davis is perhaps one of the best feel-good stories in professional sports today. After suffering three knee injuries, he returned in 2012 and hasn't looked back. He is the perfect complement to Kuechly and is just as productive.
While he has proven to overcome his past limitations, there may be unspoken concerns about his overall health regarding his knee, but it won't hold him back from being a disruptive member of the defense.
Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein combined to patrol the weak side last year, and the two should compete for the starting job in 2014. Either one is very capable of being a solid starter, and the camp battle should be a fun one to watch.
The backups may be competing for other spots on the team like special teams, but it is likely one linebacker is cut during camp.
Starter: Thomas DeCoud
Backups: Charles Godfrey and Colin Jones
Starter: Roman Harper
Backups: Robert Lester and Anderson Russell
This is perhaps one unit that saw satisfactory replacement during the offseason. Roman Harper has been a thorn in the Panthers' side as a member of the New Orleans Saints, but his experience practicing against and playing with a potent passing offense led by Drew Brees should give Carolina a bit of an advantage.
Harper will be competing against the young and talented Robert Lester who was undrafted last year and emerged as a surprise player in the secondary. The two should battle for the starting job, but for now, it appears Harper has the initial edge.
Free safety Thomas DeCoud was a late offseason addition, but like Harper his experience playing in the NFC South for much of his career could prove valuable. Charles Godfrey is still a question mark because it is unknown if he will be cut in the coming weeks or if he will restructure his deal. The good news is both players offer veteran experience and should help the inside of the secondary during the season.
Starters: Antoine Cason and DeAndre Presley
Backups: TBD draft pick, Melvin White, DeQuan Menzie, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and James Dockery
The lack of experience at cornerback will be the reason why the unit will be the defense's Achilles' heel once again in 2014. Antoine Cason provides adequate veteran presence, but who will line up opposite of him is unknown. It stands to reason that a rookie will assume the role this fall, but he will have to battle the current group of backups.
Melvin White was another surprising undrafted free agent who made an impact in 2013 and should build upon the success of his rookie year. Josh Thomas and Josh Norman are not to be counted out, as they can be effective in coverage, but Norman will have to prove he is fully recovered from the injury that cost him nearly all of last season.
Carolina needs a cornerback and should be taking one within the first three rounds of the draft.
Punter/Holder: Brad Nortman
Kicker: Graham Gano
Return Specialist: Kenjon Barner
Long Snapper: J.J. Jansen
Both Brad Nortman and Graham Gano are firmly secure in their respective roles. The latter signed an extension in the offseason and should be a reliable source for points when the Panthers get into opponents' territory but fail to get into the end zone.
Nortman was masterful in flipping the field last year and his contributions on special teams helped Carolina win a few games. He should be able to repeat his success this upcoming season.
As of now, Kenjon Barner is the only player on the roster who will be returning kicks and punts. It is likely the Panthers will find additional help during the draft and may try out Kealoha Pilares again to see if he can be a contributing member. However, he still has to show he isn't limited by his previous knee injury.