Top 5 Carolina Panthers Prospects Under 25 Years Old
The NFL is different from other professional sport leagues like the NBA or MLB in that there is no farm system for players to develop before entering the highest level of competition.
In baseball, the minors comprise three separate leagues (Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A) in which players can compete against lesser competition before being called up to the majors. The D-League of the NBA is similar in that franchises can choose when to call up prospects.
This lack of a farm system makes it more difficult to differentiate which NFL players are truly developmental "prospects" and which have shed this label and are well into their development as professional football players.
Therefore, I'll set out a set of standards that players must meet to be considered prospects: Players must be less than 25 years old, have started 10 or fewer games in the NFL and must not have been picked within the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
The players on this list are ranked based on their ceilings as professional football players, their ability to remain in good health and their potential to contribute to the Carolina Panthers organization.
5. Frank Alexander, Defensive End
Frank Alexander was drafted by the Panthers in 2012 and has been a solid rotational player since, backing up star defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.
Alexander's worth in the eyes of the Panthers organization has been diminished by a drug-related suspension, but he remains a player to keep an eye on if he can limit the off-field distractions.
Alexander plays with a lot of attitude, and his high-energy style of play has been the reason he has maintained his backup role. He doesn't have all of the tools to be a three-down linemen right now, but he allows Carolina the flexibility to bump down Hardy or Johnson on third down and get a strong pass rush without blitzing.
Alexander has only 3.5 sacks in his two seasons on the team, but chalk a large portion of that up to limited playing time. Should Hardy leave following the season, the franchise will be able to take comfort in having a potential starter like Alexander on the roster.
4. Robert Lester, Safety
Lester started four games for Carolina in 2014 and made the most of his playing time, picking off three passes and totaling 16 solo tackles.
Lester isn't a premier athlete but compensates with great instincts. He was typically solid in coverage last season despite lacking great range.
The safety also excels in run support, where he's never afraid to step up and take on a larger, stronger running back.
Lester is unlikely to start this season with Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud as Day 1 starters, but he could develop into a solid player with more time to pick up the pace of the game and the intricacies of the Panthers' zone-coverage scheme.
3. Bene Benwikere, Cornerback
Benwikere wasn't selected until the fifth round of May's draft, but general manager Dave Gettleman gave him a vote of confidence by trading up in the round to make sure the team could secure the pick.
Benwikere comes from a small school, San Jose State, so he didn't face the best college competition, but he stood out enough for Gettleman to take a chance on a versatile defensive back.
He's played a bit of cornerback, nickelback and safety in his career and has been a ballhawk at all positions. Benwikere possesses receiver-like ball skills and could become a great playmaking safety for the Panthers before long.
The rookie won't start this season, but with time to develop I can imagine a scenario where he is a starter by his second season in the league.
2. A.J. Klein, Linebacker
Klein started two games in his rookie season at strong-side linebacker in place of the injured Chase Blackburn, but I expect him to win the starting job this season.
Klein fits right in with fellow linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis due to his athleticism and instinctual style of play. He was a three-year starter in college, and with that experience came his knack for sensing the development of a play and finding the ball.
Klein and Kuechly could be a great linebacker tandem for years to come, as both are young and have similar skill sets. Look for a possible breakout season from Klein in 2014 as he finally wins the starting job for good.
1. Melvin White, Cornerback
Melvin White started 10 games for the Panthers as an undrafted free agent and was perhaps the team's most productive cornerback.
At 6'1", 205 pounds, White possesses great size for the position and plays with great physicality. He doesn't back down from jamming more built-up receivers and loves to stick his nose in for a hit in the running game.
He seems to still be developing a feel for cornerback and plays like a safety at times, but with playing time will come a better sense for the position. Expect White to up his interception total from the two he had last season and develop into the team's most consistent starter since Chris Gamble.
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