With training camp a week away, hard-core Panther fans are preparing trips to Spartanburg to finally break their football fast and watch their favorite players go through drills and fight for roster spots. This year, as with any year, there are going to be several new faces. And of course, some of those new faces will stick with the team and become fixtures at Bank of America stadium for years to come.
But who are they? Including their draft picks, the Panthers have 25 rookies reporting to camp. Barring a nasty surprise cut or two, it's likely that only eight or nine of them actually get a contract, either for the team or the practice squad. Most of those will be the players who got taken in the draft, but UDFAs sometimes play their way into the league as well. Just ask Keydrick Vincent or Maake Kemoeatu if you doubt that.
Here is a list of this year's rookies, and their prospects for sticking around.
Only one rookie plays this spot, Louisville product Hunter Cantwell. Considered a can't-miss prospect entering his senior year, he quickly earned the nickname, Hunter Can't-play-Well as he showed poor decision making and a pedestrian 208 yards per game average. Although he has all the physical gifts you could ask for in a quarterback, he hasn't shown that he can take advantage of them and put together a complete package yet.
Following in the footsteps of Chris Redman, Dave Ragone, Stefan LeFors, and Brian Brohm, Cantwell once looked like another Cardinal who excelled in college but just couldn't make it in the pros. Now he looks like someone who couldn't really make it in either place.
The Panthers already have a better developmental prospect in Matt Moore on their roster. Look for Cantwell to be stashed on the practice squad at best, but he's a probable cut.
The good news for the rookie running backs is that two of them were drafted, which is also bad news for the other one. If the Panthers can give Eric Shelton two years to prove himself, Fiametta and Goodson are virtual locks to make the roster on opening day.
Tony Fiametta is a six foot, 242 pound fullback with nice speed and good hands. The Syracuse product was the draft's top rated fullback after a senior campaign that saw him make 16 receptions for 127 yards, and run for a nifty 13.2 yards per carry. That number looks pretty good until you realize that he rarely ran with the ball—he had only five opportunities his senior year.
Still, he's a powerful blocker with long arms and a strong build. He's great at finding and taking out the middle linebacker, and can run through cut blocks. Playing behind Brad Hoover will mean he's looking at a year off to develop, but he's very well positioned to be a career Panther and the team's fullback of the future.
Unless he does the amazing and beats out Hoover in Training Camp, he's also a leading candidate to get a mysterious foot injury that puts him on IR, freeing up a roster spot.
Mike Goodson represents the biggest risk the Panthers took in the draft. He's a burner in the Jerious Norwood mold, but his production slipped every year while he was at Texas A&M and he comes with potential character issues.
After earning Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors for an 847 yard season where he averaged 6.7 yards per carry, Goodson's production dropped each year, and it wasn't just for lack of opportunity either. His yards per carry fell to 4.6 as a sophomore and 4.3 as a junior. Goodson left the team after his junior year, and his coach has never given a clear answer why, or why they failed to carry through on their plans to build the offense around the tailback once dubbed the "future of the team".
Goodson has great measurable's and undeniable athleticism, and he catches the ball well. Obviously the Panthers' staff saw something in him they liked, and he should be on the roster for at least a couple of years as they see if they can coax it out of him.
Jamall Lee is a happy story for the offseason, but realistically his chances of making the team are slim at best. The third overall pick of the CFL draft, Lee has great speed and good size, but the small college curse and the logjam ahead of him limit his chances for the Panthers.
If he's playing in 2009, it will be in the CFL or for another team, unless the unthinkable happens on the injury front. Lee should be offered a spot on the practice squad, but may not last there.
The Panthers elected to stand pat at receiver in the draft, but did sign two rookie free agents. Both of them have blazing speed, and both are being looked at as much for their ability to return kicks as their receiving skills.
Larry Beavers is the one everyone's heard of. He's got amazing speed, as evidenced on a youtube clip showing him running a 4.28 40m, and he has some pretty impressive accomplishments. At Wesleyan he averaged an amazing 39.5 yards per kickoff return and 29.2 yards per punt return. He also found the end zone on returns eight times.
Unfortunately, all of those numbers came against Division III competition, and he's built small for the NFL at 5'11", 165 lbs.
Jason Chery has about 20 pounds on Beavers, and is another speedster out of Jake Delhomme's alma mater, Louisiana-Lafayette.
Although he played at receiver for the Ragin' Cajuns, Chery is probably here to play special teams. He led Louisiana-Lafayette in special teams tackles in each of his four seasons, collecting 60 in his career. He's also got blocked two punts, two fumble recoveries, and one forced fumble on his resume.
Neither Beavers nor Chery is a lock to make the team, but either of them may stick as a return specialist. Don't be surprised to see one or both of them stashed away on the practice squad—the Panthers don't have a lot of depth at receiver and may want to try out several players.
Here's an area where the Panthers took a big hit in the offseason. Although Carolina has one of the best units in the league as far as the starting five is concerned, there are depth concerns as they lost all of their primary backups during the free agency period.
The only guarantee in this group is Duke Robinson, the Panthers' fifth round draft choice. Robinson does one thing, but he does it very well. He's a road-grading guard who was rated best at his position in the draft. He slipped to the fifth round in part because he doesn't play tackle, and the NFL values versatility.
In the Panthers' attack, he's an ideal fit who could challenge for a starting spot this year.
Keith Gray is a center out of Connecticut who should be considered as the next best candidate for a roster spot. The Panthers have penciled in Mackenzie Bernadeau at the backup center, but he really has no experience there. Gray and fellow rookie C.J. Davis are the only players on the roster aside from Ryan Kalil who have experience snapping the ball.
As a captain at Connecticut, Gray anchored an offensive line that opened holes for NCAA-leading rusher Donald Brown. That's only part of the reason why he's likely to stick though. When he started OTAs he requested work at Guard, so he could fill in for multiple positions if necessary.
The Panthers place value on versatility, which speaks well for his chances.
Gerald Cadogan is another good candidate to stick. He's a big tackle who missed being drafted because of concerns about his balance and slow feet, but particularly about his passive nature.
Cadogan has all the physical tools you could ask for—large frame, long arms, athletic, strong—and he's intelligent as well. But there have always been questions about his desire and willingness to really work hard enough to become an NFL quality tackle.
There's no way he's ready to start anywhere right now, but if he responds to coaching and develops a strong work ethic and a mean streak, he could become a very good backup and heir apparent to Jordan Gross.
If Cadogan fails, there's always Patrick Brown or Garry Williams.
Central Florida's Brown was the most experienced tackle in the draft, but lacked the measurable's to be labeled an elite prospect. Williams has a slightly better pedigree as a two year starter at Kentucky, but has questionable footwork and lacks strength in the running game.
Williams is a decent enough pass blocker, but Brown looks like he can add more bulk to his frame if needed (and it's needed for both players). Either of these two may be able to scratch out a short career in the NFL, but whether they can do so in Carolina's power running scheme is very questionable.
The other rookie lineman who will report to Camp is C.J. Davis, a guard out of Pittsburgh who evokes memories of another versatile lineman, Geoff Hangartner.
Like Hangartner, Davis has experience making line calls from the guard position, and did so before he made the jump to center. He can be a little slow and stiff, but he blocks well in the running game and can hold his own in pass protection. He may be a practice squad candidate, but probably won't make the final cut.
This has to be the worst area on the team to try and find a roster spot. With incumbent starter Jeff King, Dante Rosario, and last year's draft pick Gary Barnidge already on the roster, about the best thing a rookie can hope to do is just plant a seed for next year or maybe get noticed enough to latch on somewhere else.
With that said, the Panthers brought in two rookies to compete for an imaginary Tight End roster spot this year. They're Kevin Brock out of Rutgers, and Arkansas' Andrew Davie.
Davie's signing was almost a mystery, as he had just been let go by the Jets and really didn't show a lot at Arkansas, but he has good size and experience at long snapping. So there you go. If Davie makes the roster, it will be as a Tight End in name only.
Brock, on the other hand, is intriguing. A former wide receiver, he has great speed and quickness, and surprising strength. If draft picks were based on measurable's alone, he would have been a first day selection.
But there are questions about his game. First, he's inconsistent. In his senior year he caught at least four balls in three games, but two or less in eight of his other contests. And for someone who's gifted with his speed and quickness, he doesn't seem to really be able to run when it counts. The way he disappeared down the stretch of the 2008 season is also a concern.
If Dante Rosario disappoints in camp and Brock really shows something, there could be a slim chance of a surprise cut and a roster spot for the rookie out of Rutgers. Don't count on it, but don't be surprised if it happens.
There's only one rookie defensive end on the roster, and he's a lock to make the team. When you see him, you may as well say, "Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Brown" because he'll be a Panther for years to come. Mr. Brown, of course, is Florida State's Everett Brown, and he was a steal at the 43rd spot in the draft.
Brown is a bit undersized at 6'2", 256 lbs, but he's very strong, very fast, and very smart. He has a wide variety of moves with a good spin and reverse spin, a hump, rip, and swim techniques that will keep the offensive linemen guessing. He's got better initial quickness than most ends in the NFL, and he's strong enough to bury the run when called to do so.
In his senior year he registered 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 13 games. In sum, he's a keeper.
If I was an undrafted free agent defensive tackle and I was looking to find a team where I might grab a roster spot, the Panthers would be high on my list. Behind starters Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu, the Panthers really don't have a lot of talent. To help with this, they drafted Corey Irvin out of Georgia and brought in three UDFAs to compete for what should be another available roster spot.
Unless he really screws up, Irvin is going to get a jersey this year. That's just what happens when you're picked in the third round.
At 6'3" 302 lbs, he's big enough to play the part, but he also has a ton of quickness and should be great in relief of Lewis, who played a very similar style when he was at Miami.
Irvin has a good first step, decent strength, and is reportedly a leader in the locker room. On the flip side, he's inexperienced, inconsistent, and plays without technique a lot. He's not starting material, but with coaching could develop that.
Among the UDFAs, expect either Marlon Favorite or Lonnie Harvey to make the team, and look for the other on the practice squad.
Favorite is an LSU product who never started, but got a lot of playing time in rotation. He's short but stout, and has long arms. As a defender, he's much better against the run than the pass, but he has the quickness and a spin move to help bring pressure when called on to do so.
He doesn't have a lot of speed, and he lacks an initial burst, but considering that the competition is for who will back up Kemo it's a safe bet that those two qualities aren't high on the list of what the coaches are looking for anyway.
Harvey is a small school standout with good measurables. At 6'4", 342 lbs he already has the size to plug holes on the defensive line.
Harvey's strong and has the bull rush you would expect from someone his size, but he tends to play down to the level of his opponents and doesn't bring the consistency you want from an every-down tackle. He's got a lot of technique to his game and a nice upside though, so if he responds to coaching and gets motivated he'll probably wind up getting significant playing time somewhere.
As good as the prospects are to get a spot as a defensive tackle on the Panthers as a rookie, that's how bad they are to get one at linebacker.
Consider this group: Beason, Davis, Diggs, Anderson, Johnson, and Connor. Now consider that to go undrafted, that means you're probably not among the best that college has to offer.
The best you can hope to do here is plant a seed for the future, or get a reference that you can take to another franchise. On the surface you shouldn't expect any of these guys to survive the final cut, but then you have to consider how much the Panthers love their linebackers.
Last year they carried seven into the season, the year before they carried eight. So there's a shot for these guys.
Anthony Heygood is probably the best of the bunch. His biggest problem at Purdue was a general lack of experience at the linebacker spot. He joined the team as a running back, and made the switch to linebacker in his junior year.
Heygood has speed and is great in coverage, but is still learning the game at that position. He has good intangibles and is described as a "football player", which is something that Fox likes.
Had he run a bit faster at the combine it's likely that someone would have drafted him, but he turned in a 4.64 40m which is a big reason he was available as a UDFA. His best shot is on special teams, and that's why he's got the inside track.
Where Heygood is a weak side prospect, Mortty Ivy looks destined for the strong side. He's got a solid build at 6'1", 248 lbs, and does a great job wrapping up the tackle in space. But he doesn't have great lateral movement and while he can get his hands on the ball, he doesn't come down with it.
Still, he's got potential and can probably bulk up and play inside if necessary. Like Heygood, he has good intangibles and is more of a football player than an athlete. He also came back from a torn ACL to play last season, so he could be faster than his times indicate.
And then there's Jeremy Leman. Leman was a former college all-american who went undrafted in 2008 largely due to concerns about his lack of quickness and durability.
He had two ankle surgeries in 2007 and 2008, causing him to miss the combine and contributing to the aforementioned concerns.
After signing on with Minnesota during the 2008 UDFA period, he hung around until the end of training camp and was cut. As he's never played in the NFL, he's still considered a rookie.
If Leman is fully recovered, his instinct and intelligence may make him a real find. After you get through the negatives about his lack of speed, slow-footedness, marginal change-of-direction ability, and inadequate strength, somehow you need to account for the fact that he was named All American, All Big Ten, and was a finalist for both the Ronnie Lott and Danny Weurfel awards.
In his senior year at Illinois he led the Illini with 132 tackles (71 solo) that included 2.5 sacks and 10.5 stops for losses. He also caused a fumble, intercepted one pass and batted away three others. That was after a junior campaign where he was third in the nation with 152 tackles (75 solo), 19 tackles for losses, four sacks, five pressures, four passes defensed, and two fumbles caused.
Call him slow, call him weak, but the kid can play football.
A lot has been made of the fact that the Panthers returned 21 of 22 starters this year. The lone man out was Ken Lucas, who will be replaced in the lineup by Richard Marshall.
That creates an opportunity for a rookie to make some sort of impact, and the Panthers drafted two of them.
The first is Sherrod Martin. He played both safety positions in college but Carolina likes him as a cornerback in the Ken Lucas mold—big, strong, and physical. He's a strong tackler, adept at stripping the ball, and plays with an aggressive style that should suit Meeks' defense. Not only will he make the team, he'll probably be the nickel back.
The Panthers also drafted Captain Munnerlyn, who's a bit undersized at 5'8" 186lb, but who's also been noted for his play-making ability. He had a poor junior year at South Carolina and spent some time in the coach's doghouse, but he has great closing speed and can change directions on a dime. He may not make the roster, but he should get on the practice squad at the very least.
D.J. Clark is former college safety turned cornerback, and although he's intense and tries hard he lacks the physical attributes to succeed at the NFL level. If anything, he might make the squad as a dime back but what's likely is that he'll get caught in the numbers and be an early cut.
And then there are the safeties. The Panthers carried four safeties on the roster last year, and one on the practice squad. With that said, only the two starters have a ton of job security, so there's some opportunity here for a rookie.
The candidate is Paul Chiara, a 5'10" 204 lb running back turned strong safety out of Syracuse who really appears to have no shot at the team. He wasn't particularly great for the Orangemen, notching only 43 tackles in a senior year that saw the squad eke out only three wins. In two of them Chiara didn't even accumulate any stats.
So there they are, 25 rookies competing for just a few roster spots. Last year the Panthers drafted nine players, and kept seven on the roster. The other two, along with three UDFAs, made the practice squad. This year Carolina drafted seven players, and who knows how many will make the team?
If you want to get to know them, better make it happen quick. If history teaches anything, the UDFAs won't be around for too long.