Breaking Down Carolina Panthers' 5 Biggest Training Camp Projects
One of the beautiful aspects of the NFL is how rewarding it can be for franchises to develop homegrown prospects into starters.
Inflexible salary-cap limitations prevent franchises from building their teams with proven free agents, so they must rely on extensive scouting and coaching ability to stockpile young, high-value players.
The Carolina Panthers are no exception to this rule—if they're to make another playoff run this season, they will have to build up their current talent because with their backs up against the salary cap, they were unable to add many experienced starters through free agency.
Heading into training camp, the coaching staff is hoping to groom the following players into valuable contributors, if not full-fledged starters. If each pans out, the Panthers could take the football world by surprise once again in 2014.
Brandon Williams, Tight End
Heading into his second professional season, 26-year-old Brandon Williams hopes to figure into the team's plans on offense this time around.
Since Jeremy Shockey left following the 2011 season, the Panthers haven't had a true receiving-oriented tight end to relieve or match up with starter Greg Olsen, and Williams is a great candidate to fill that role.
The 6'5", 250-pound former basketball player has all the talent to progress into a big-time contributor on this offense, and according to Black and Blue Review's Bill Voth, head coach Ron Rivera believes he is on the right track.
“(Williams) has come a long way. He’s learned an awful lot, he’s developed an awful lot," Rivera said.
The Panthers did sign free-agent tight end Ed Dickson this offseason, and while you're bound to see him ahead of Williams on several projected depth charts, keep in mind that Dickson will see the field mainly in short-yardage situations, where the team can utilize the strength of his game—blocking.
If Williams continues to impress in training camp, expect him to open up a lot of possibilities for a Panthers offense that could be more explosive than most are counting on it to be in the wake of the departures of Steve Smith and Ted Ginn Jr.
Nate Chandler, Offensive Lineman
Some may not see Nate Chandler as a project because he started eight games in 2013, but had the Panthers been remotely healthy last season, he would not have sniffed the field, at least not on the offensive side of the ball.
Chandler signed with the Panthers as a defensive lineman but has quickly transitioned to the opposite side of the ball out of necessity for a team that was struggling to find enough healthy bodies to field a respectable offensive line.
Now, just a year after the position switch, Chandler may be charged with the responsibility of replacing All-Pro left tackle Jordan Gross. If fellow lineman Byron Bell proves capable of assuming that role, Chandler could move to the other bookend.
He's had an up-and-down offseason, so there is no clear indication of how this season will shape up for him, but if anything, he's sure to provide competition to push Bell beyond the plateau that he seems to have settled into over the past season and a half.
Frank Alexander, Defensive End
Like many of the middle-round picks who were selected by former general manager Marty Hurney, Frank Alexander has shown great promise at times but has failed to prove capable of starting for the Panthers.
Alexander has been a solid rotational player behind Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, providing a physical, high-energy presence off the bench, but he's managed just 3.5 sacks in two seasons and can be inconsistent in leveraging against the run.
A four-game suspension to start off the season won't help him see increased playing time, but the talent and positional need is there to motivate the coaching staff to explore his potential further.
From a glance, it may not seem that the Panthers are in need of a starter at the defensive end position with arguably the best pass-rushing duo in the league between Hardy and Johnson, but Johnson will eat up more than 10 percent of the team's cap next season. With only $6.0 million in guaranteed money remaining on his contract past 2014, he will become expendable as the team looks to create more cap space.
If Johnson remains, Hardy will likely be allowed to leave in free agency, which will open the door for Alexander or rookie Kony Ealy to take the starting job. In what will be a contract year, Alexander will want to make sure that he's the favorite for that job come next offseason.
A.J. Klein, Linebacker
A.J. Klein started just two games in 2013, but he could start all 16 in 2014 if he continues to trend up like I project him to.
Coming out of Iowa State, Klein was an underrated athlete with instincts that reminded me of none other than a pretty good player and teammate of his, Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. That may seem like overpraising, but I'm a believer in his potential to be a Pro Bowl linebacker down the line.
There are members of the Panthers coaching staff who are equally confident in his readiness.
According to The Charlotte Observer's Curry Shoff, linebacker coach Al Holcomb had this to say about the young linebacker: "I consider A.J. a starter. He’s done a good job and he’s going to continue to earn the right to get playing time for us this season."
If Klein is able to live up to or exceed his coaches' and teammates' expectations this season, the Panthers defense will continue right where it left off in 2013, as one of the top units in the league.
Robert Lester, Safety
In 2013, the Panthers defense succeeded in spite of a secondary that left much to be desired at times. It's tough to be critiqued in the film room next to one of the league's best front sevens, but at the same time, that front seven makes their job a whole lot easier, giving young defensive backs like Robert Lester some room for error in the primary development years.
Lester stepped into the lineup for four starts in 2013 and looked more prepared for the NFL than an undrafted rookie should be—thank the grueling SEC schedule he faced at Alabama for that.
But there's certainly a lot of room left for Lester to grow. The plan is to use him to relieve veteran Roman Harper for now and hope that he can take the reins once Harper's contract expires following the 2015 season.
Lester will have to prove his worth by then, because his contract is set to expire in the same year—this may have been what the Panthers had in mind when signing Harper to a two-year deal. If Lester does appear ready, the Panthers will likely be able to ink him to a financially lucrative contract. If not, they will be free to move on to options in the draft and free agency with money committed to players already on the roster.