5 Players the Carolina Panthers Will Need to Step Up in 2014
The NFL preseason is winding down, and with one more game left to play for the Carolina Panthers before the regular season starts, the 2014 roster will begin to take shape. There have been some good and bad moments after three games, but once the season begins, everything that occurs on the field will count. Veterans and rookies alike will be counted on to give their all in order to help Carolina repeat as NFC South champions.
There are two underlying questions in this regard. First, which players will benefit the team the most and second, why is it important for them to step up this year?
The next few slides will discuss which players will be counted on to make the biggest impact for the Panthers and why their contributions will stand out the most. However, this slideshow will omit established stars like Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly because it's a given they will be key players on the field. Other omissions will include potential bubble players and focus on those who will be on the final roster.
If a player was left out who you feel should have made the cut, please list him in the comments and explain your reasoning for his inclusion.
Let's get to it.
Byron Bell, OT
It's almost tempting to label Byron Bell as the team's left tackle, but until an official announcement is made, he will remain just an offensive tackle. He has done a lot of good things in camp and in the preseason, which has earned the trust of his coaches and teammates to effectively protect Cam Newton's blindside.
This is precisely the reason why he will need to step up in 2014.
A team is only as good as its quarterback's ability to remain on his feet and throw the ball. Bell will need to keep the pass rush at bay in order for Newton to not only make plays with his arm, but with his feet as well. Bell will have to defend against many blitzing schemes and packages to ensure Newton has ample time to do his job.
A lot of fans were not too thrilled with this course of action, but it is Bell's natural position on the line and it helps tremendously to be comfortable at his assigned position.
The offensive line as a whole will be responsible for the protection of its quarterback, but having a solid and dependable left tackle is arguably the most critical position of the unit.
Roman Harper, S
Roman Harper is an established veteran in the league and is very familiar with the NFC South. His ability to disrupt passing plays will be needed to keep the Carolina secondary from being picked apart. Of course, he still has to make a full recovery from his turf toe injury.
The acquisition of Harper was similar to last year's assembly of the team's secondary. The Panthers' front office brought in veteran players to work with its own young talent and not be a liability on defense. Harper was not the only veteran to sign with the Panthers and play within the secondary. He was the only one who can bring a lot of physicality and intensity to the game (see his history with former Carolina receiver Steve Smith).
With any luck, Harper won't be sidelined much longer and will be ready to suit up for the team's first game in Tampa Bay.
The former Pro Bowler was used in blitzing packages while in New Orleans. It has been two years since he last recorded a sack, but in Sean McDermott's defense, that could all change as the Carolina defense likes to bring the pressure from everywhere. Harper's presence in the secondary will help tremendously in that regard.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR
The first of two rookies to grace this list, Kelvin Benjamin was the center of much scrutiny when he was drafted 28th overall this past May. However, he has exceeded his billing and looked sharp in three preseason games. After three games this month, Benjamin has a stat line of eight receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Not bad for a guy who was projected as the second wide receiver on the initial depth chart.
Benjamin has worked with Cam Newton during the summer and in camp to improve their chemistry and timing, both of which will be the difference in winning close games or coming through in the clutch. This duo may be together for a long time, so the Panthers need to hit a home run with this selection.
He will be surrounded with some good receivers on the field in the form of Jerricho Cotchery, Greg Olsen and Jason Avant, but the future of the receiving corps will center on Benjamin himself. It's unknown if he will be a finalist for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but his talent and ability should help propel the Carolina passing game—assuming the offense can work the kinks out by the time the regular season starts.
Benjamin is the present and future of the franchise, and there is a chance he and Newton can turn into something special. He may be a rookie, but if he can step up in this baptism by fire, his contributions will give the Panthers a lot of opportunities to win.
Thomas Davis, OLB
The Carolina Panthers have one of the best linebacker units in the league. With all of the on-field success earned by Luke Kuechly, many outside the Carolinas forget about Thomas Davis. At one point, it seemed Davis' career was over. Three knee injuries appeared to seal his fate, but the unthinkable occurred and Davis not only recovered enough to return to the field, but he was able to be a key player on defense, too.
Last year, Davis punctuated his career with his best season ever. He recorded 123 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. It was a crime he did not receive a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts.
However, Davis is humble and is more focused on team success than personal achievements. This is what will make him a vital member of the Carolina defense in 2014. Unlike some of the players listed here, he doesn't necessarily have to step up because he makes a habit of making plays whenever he's on the field.
Perhaps the goal for him to strive for this season is to repeat his defensive production from last year. His injury history aside, he has been consistent and if he can enjoy another productive season, it will go a long way in keeping the Panthers' defense as one to be reckoned with.
Kony Ealy, DE
The other rookie to make this list, Kony Ealy will have to not only generate an effective pass rush but help fill the void that will be left by backup Frank Alexander, who was suspended for four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. There is a chance Greg Hardy could be lost for a few games as well if his legal issues dictate punishment from the league.
This is where Ealy will need to rise up as a rookie.
After three preseason games, Ealy has been unimpressive and has accrued just three tackles (one for a loss). Considering he was a second-round pick, more is expected of him. He won't be expected to be an elite pass-rusher, but he will have to make his presence known when he's on the field.
Ealy's skill set should allow him to not only line up at defensive end but at defensive tackle as well. Lining up with Charles Johnson and Hardy on the outside with him on the interior could enhance the overall strength and depth to the defensive front.
While that scenario plays on the edge of best-case, the reality is he will need to prove himself early once the season begins. If not, he could lose playing time to Mario Addison and Wes Horton. Additionally, failure to assert himself on the defense could result in constant double teams when he is spelling one the starting defensive ends.
That will not bode well for a team that prides itself on its pass-rushing ability.
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