Projecting the Carolina Panthers 2014 Starting Lineup
With the NFL Draft in the rear-view mirror, the Carolina Panthers must now assess the talent on their roster and begin working toward a starting lineup for the 2014 season.
Heading into the offseason, the Panthers had big holes at several positions—including tackle, receiver, safety and guard—due to free-agent departures. Now they've had a chance to fill those needs through free agency and the draft, but with training camp drawing close, who on the roster will ultimately be the solution at those positions?
Read on to find out how Carolina's lineup will look when the team first gears up for the preseason in August.
Starter: Cam Newton
This one's a given. Newton is the team's franchise quarterback and has been a mainstay at the position since he was drafted three years ago.
Newton has steadily improved with each season, and there's no reason not to expect that trend to continue. He's still developing the mental side of his game and will continue to develop in that area for years to come.
Starter: DeAngelo Williams
Williams is now 31 years old and nearing uncharted territory for modern era running backs in terms of his age. What keeps him going is a relatively small workload over the eight years he has been in the NFL—he has just 1,370 career carries, which averages out to 171 carries per season.
If Williams has lost a step in recent years, it hasn't shown up in the stats. Over the past three seasons, he is averaging 4.6 yards per rushing attempt, 805 yards per season and has missed just one game.
Darkhorse Candidate: Jonathan Stewart
It's not out of the realm of possibility for Stewart, four years Williams' junior, to gain the starting job. He is heading into team activities healthy for the first team in years and has just 866 career attempts on his legs.
Stewart and Williams formed a fierce tandem during their first two seasons together, 2008 and 2009, but the duo has been marred by injuries since. Look for them to get back to their old ways with Stewart as the change-of-pace back for at least one more season.
Starter: Mike Tolbert
Tolbert was a Pro Bowl and AP All-Pro selection in 2013 and for good reason—his contributions are equally valuable as a runner, receiver and blocker.
Weighing in at 245 pounds, Tolbert is a handful to bring down because of his pure strength and surprising quickness. His size also makes him integral to the team's running game, where he is known for unloading on linebackers and clearing paths for the talented cast of running backs behind him.
Starters: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery
Here we find the first 2014 draftee who will be a rookie starter for the Panthers. Benjamin is the big bodied (6'5", 235 lbs) receiver that Cam Newton has been waiting for and looks to have a big rookie season as he'll be a heavily relied on red-zone target.
Cotchery will be the team's other starting wideout after experiencing a career revival in 2013 for the Steelers. The 31-year-old experienced a serious downturn in production after the 2009 season, but returned to form with 10 touchdown receptions 2013. He will be the leader of a young receiving corps and will likely be a one-year starter for Carolina.
Starter: Greg Olsen
Olsen was brought onto the team in 2011 to smooth the transition for quarterback Cam Newton, and he has served that role well, becoming a primary receiving target on his way to 16 touchdowns in three seasons.
He isn't known for his prowess as a blocker, but he has improved from where he was in 2011, and the offense utilizes block-first tight ends to spell Olsen, whose concentration is the passing game.
Starters: Byron Bell (left tackle), Garry Williams (right tackle)
Bell will make the move to left tackle for the 2014 season after spending the past two seasons as the team's starting right tackle. This isn't ideal for the team, but they are lacking options on the roster, so Bell will have to do for now.
Williams has been with the team for five seasons and has served all over the line as both a starter and backup. He's battled injuries consistently, but the Panthers need him to stay healthy in 2014 due to lack of depth at the position.
Darkhorse Candidates: Nate Chandler
Chandler made the switch from the defensive line to guard last season for the Panthers and is now slated to serve as the primary backup at both tackle positions. If Bell struggles at left tackle, I wouldn't be shocked if Chandler were given a shot at the position.
Interior Offensive Line
Starters: Amini Silatolu (left guard), Ryan Kalil (center), Trai Turner (right guard)
General manager Dave Gettleman believed that the Panthers got a "tough, nasty" player when they drafted Trai Turner in the third round of the draft, and I agree. Turner was a steal that late in the draft and has the strength and mean-streak to become a solid day-one starter.
Silatolu is similar to Turner in that he plays with great aggressiveness and has immense natural talent. However, he has to improve in pass protection this offseason. He no longer has the All-Pro Jordan Gross next to him, so he's going to have to do some maturing and become a headier and more technically sound player.
Center Ryan Kalil is the glue that holds this line together at the seam. He is one of the league's best at the position and his job is safe as long as he's a Panther.
Starters: Charles Johnson (left end), Kawann Short (left tackle), Star Lotulelei (right tackle), Greg Hardy (right end)
This defensive line may be the league's best. It is led by veteran defensive ends Johnson and Hardy, who are among the best pass-rushers in the game. While Hardy has recently been involved in an off-the-field altercation, he has returned to Panthers workouts and his job should be safe.
On the interior of the line are two second-year players who took the league by storm last season. Lotulelei was a starter and incredibly disruptive force in the running game, where the Panthers ranked second best in the NFL.
Short came off the bench, but was equally impressive. He's limber for his size and be a one-man wrecking crew with power that opposing linemen cannot prepare for. However, he needs to become more consistent if he's to maintain his starting job—that means a more consistent effort and not taking plays off.
Starters: Thomas Davis (strong side), Luke Kuechly (inside), A.J. Klein (weak side)
Kuechly is the leader of this defense, and the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year has the production to match, leading the team in tackles in each of his first two professional seasons.
Davis is known as the player who recovered from three ACL surgeries, but he's also one of the finest strong-side linebackers in football. A converted college safety, Davis is incredibly athletic for the position and brings veteran leadership as a nine-year Panther.
A.J. Klein served as the backup to Chase Blackburn in 2013, but he should supplant Blackburn as the starter in 2014. Klein is a Kuechly-lite type player; he has the great instincts and quickness to become a an elite linebacker.
Starters: Melvin White, Antoine Cason
White is another rookie defensive player who played an integral role in this defense's success in 2014. He has great size for the position but was overlooked in the draft due to lack of fluid hips and recovery speed; however, he's quickly developed into a solid, physical corner and has plenty of room for growth.
Cason is another long-armed, athletic cornerback that the team brought in as a 2014 free agent. He also lacks ideal speed, but is terrific in run support and is developing the ability to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Starters: Roman Harper (strong safety), Thomas DeCoud (free safety)
Harper is a solid box safety who was brought in to replace the physicality that the team lost when safety Mike Mitchell sought a bigger contract elsewhere. He isn't an athletic freak, but he is adequate in coverage and great in run support.
DeCoud is a former Pro-Bowler who had a down year in 2013. He remains a great talent, however, and should resume his high level of production in a defense that will utilize his impressive range in coverage and playmaking ability.
Kicker: Graham Gano
Punter: Brad Nortman
Punt/Kick Returner: Philly Brown
The Panthers have two elite legs on their roster in those of Gano and Nortman, who contributed greatly to an improved special teams performance from the Panthers in 2013.
In the return game, the Panthers lost playmaker Ted Ginn Jr., but they will replace him with a capable youngster. Brown lacks elite athleticism and receiving skills, but he has experience in the return game, and the fact that the Panthers signed him likely means they are planning to designate him as their return man.