Grading the Carolina Panthers' 53-Man Roster

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2012

Grading the Carolina Panthers' 53-Man Roster

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    The Carolina Panthers have a couple of new faces and a few surprising older ones on their roster for the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    At least 100 players wore Panthers gear at one point or another through several months of minicamps, organized team activities, training camp and the preseason, but only 53 made the final cut.

    Head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney spent most of cut day, August 31, whittling the roster from 75 players to 53.

    Seven of the final 22 players who were cut were then signed onto the Panthers' eight-man practice squad after clearing waivers on September 1.

    Carolina's newest additions, safety Colin Jones and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, were on different NFL teams until this weekend.

    More roster moves will be made after defensive tackle Andre Neblett returns from his four-game suspension and receiver David Gettis rejoins the Panthers from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list after the first six games.

    For now, though, the team that begins its season with three divisional games and a contest against the Super Bowl champion New York Giants is in place.

    Here is a look at the Panthers' 53-man roster with an overall assessment and grade assigned to each player and unit.

Quarterbacks: A-

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    Carolina is solid at quarterback with Cam Newton, the new face of franchise, leading the way and veteran Derek Anderson backing him up.

    Third-teamer Jimmy Clausen will begin his third NFL season roaming the sidelines in sweatpants and a baseball cap.

    Here is a look at the Panthers' QBs: 

    Cam Newton: A

    After his record-breaking rookie season, Newton will try to avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump."

    Newton's passing and rushing yardage totals will be down in 2012, as the Panthers ask their talented backfield to take more of the offensive burden. But he will be a more efficient player.

    Expect Newton's total touchdowns (21 passing, 14 rushing in 2011) to increase, with 30-plus scores coming through the air. Also look for his turnovers (17 interceptions, one fumble) to drop to around a dozen. 

    Derek Anderson:  B+

    Having a former Pro Bowl quarterback as your backup is usually a good thing, particularly when he had his best season playing under your offensive coordinator. 

    That is the case with Anderson and Panthers play-caller Rob "Chud" Chudzinski, who led the Cleveland Browns to a 10-6 record and a playoffs berth way back in 2007.

    Anderson has a solid understanding of Chud's offense and he played well enough in the preseason to earn the confidence of the Panthers' faithful.

    Jimmy Clausen:  D

    Clausen did not dress in any games in 2011 despite starting 10 games and playing in 13 as a rookie in 2010. 

    Barring serious injury to both quarterbacks ahead of him, Clausen in unlikely to get any playing time this season.

    I am curious to know if the Panthers will keep Clausen on the active roster once Andre Neblett (DE) and David Gettis (WR) return to the active roster later this season.

Running Backs: A+

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    The Carolina Panthers have arguably the most talented backfield in the NFL. 

    Nicknamed "Double Trouble," Carolina's tailback duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in 2009 became just the seventh backfield duo to each rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season. 

    The Panthers finished third in the NFL in rushing in 2011, and they will be a run-heavy offense again in 2012.

    Here is a look at Carolina's backfield:

    DeAngelo Williams: A

    Williams is the leading rusher in Panthers history, and he has the speed to take it the distance every time he touches the ball.

    Since rushing for a career-high 1,515 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2009, Williams' rushing totals have dropped in each of his last three complete seasons.

    Williams has averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry for his career and I expect him to have another 1,000-yard season in 2012.

    Jonathan Stewart: A+

    Stewart is the more physical of the two Panthers running backs and he is poised for a breakout season after signing a five-year contract worth $36.5 million during the preseason.

    The Panthers' "backup" running back could emerge as the Panthers' leading rusher this season as long as the ankle he injured in an exhibition game against the New York Jets does not cause him any problems. 

    Look for a repeat of 2009 when both Panthers running backs ran for more than 1,000 yards.

Fullback: A

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    Carolina instantly upgraded its already potent backfield when it added the playmaking Mike Tolbert to the roster this offseason.

    Here is a look at the only fullback on the Panthers' roster.

    Mike Tolbert:  A

    The versatile Tolbert had 54 catches for 433 yards with the San Diego Chargers in 2011.  He also scored a total of 21 touchdowns the past two seasons.

    Tolbert is an instinctive goal-line runner who figures to take away from Cam Newton's short-yardage touchdown runs this season.

    Tolbert will contribute to the Panthers' running and passing games, and any time you can contribute to less wear-and-tear on your franchise quarterback, that is a good thing.

Wide Receivers: B

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    Carolina has exactly one superstar (Steve Smith) at wide receiver and several solid secondary options.

    However, the Panthers upgraded the receiver position this offseason with the addition of Louis Murphy from the Raiders and with the emergence of Brandon LaFell as a legitimate No. 2 receiver.

    David Gettis hopes to return to the mix after sitting out Carolina's first six games on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

    Here is a look at Carolina's wide receivers: 

    Steve Smith: A+

    Smitty returned to Pro Bowl form in 2011 after a serious drop in production playing with Clausen in 2010.

    Newton and Smith, who hooked up 79 times for 1,394 yards last season, have a special connection, but they still only managed to produce seven touchdowns.

    Expect to see a lot of SuperCam to Mighty Mouse in 2012, with Smith scoring double-digit touchdowns for just the second time in his career. 

    Brandon LaFell:  B+

    LaFell emerged as the Panthers' No. 2 wide receiver over Legedu Naanee late in 2011 and has taken a firm grasp of the position this offseason.

    LaFell, who average 17.0 yards per catch last season, has flashed big-play potential and will be a significant improvement over Naanee.

    LaFell should have 50 or more receptions for close to 1,000 yards in his first full year as a starter.

    Louis Murphy:  B-

    Louis Murphy, acquired from the Oakland Raiders for a conditional draft pick, could be the second-most important addition to the Panthers' offense behind fullback Mike Tolbert.

    Murphy displayed good hands, speed and athleticism during the preseason.

    He will be a solid target for Newton this season as Carolina's No. 3 receiver.

    Kealoha Pilares:  B-

    Pilares caught 88 passes for 1,306 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior season at Hawaii.

    He also had the Panthers' first kickoff return for a touchdown in eight seasons as a rookie last year against the Detroit Lions.

    Pilares should see time this year as a slot receiver when Carolina goes to a four-receiver set. 

    Armanti Edwards:  C-

    Armanti Edwards surprised a lot of Panthers observers by making the team's 53-man roster.

    Coach Ron Rivera says the third-year receiver and former college quarterback has improved his receiving skills and he flashed his potential at receiver with five catches for 69 yards in the preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Edwards has six games to show what he can do before David Gettis returns to the Panthers roster from the PUP list.

    Joe Adams (R):  B

    Adams' main role this season will be as the punt returner, but he possesses game-breaking speed and quickness at the slot position, as well.

Tight Ends: B+

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    The Panthers line up tight ends all over the place in Chudzinski's offense. 

    Carolina will use all four tight ends in every game, and each has a distinctive skill set that could find him lined up next to the tackle in a 3-point stance, spread out wide or in the backfield.

    Here is a look at the tight ends:

    Greg Olsen: A

    Olsen is the Panthers' top receiving tight end, and with Jeremy Shockey no longer on the team, Rivera believes he could put up prolific numbers this season, on par with the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham.

    Gary Barnidge: B

    Barnidge will be Carolina's No. 2 tight end and could put up numbers similar to Shockey's 37 catches for 455 yards from last season. However, fullback Mike Tolbert figures to be the target of many of those throws, which could limit the receiving opportunities for the tight ends.

    Ben Hartsock: B-

    Hartsock is primarily a blocker. He will play a prominent role in the Panthers' run game.

    Richie Brockel: C

    Brockel is the Panthers' fourth tight end and is another blocking specialist. However, he will start the majority of his plays lined up in the backfield.

Centers: A

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    A center is the quarterback of the offensive line, calling protections at the line of scrimmage. He's responsible for every player being on the same page.

    Fortunately for Cam Newton and the Panthers, they have one of the NFL's best at the position.

    Here is a look at the centers:

    Ryan Kalil: A+

    Ryan Kalil, along with the Pittsburgh Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey and New York Jets' Nick Mangold, is among the top three centers in the NFL.

    Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer in which he essentially promised a Super Bowl victory for the Panthers this season.

    Though Carolina is nearly guaranteed to fall short of that lofty goal, Kalil is one of at least a handful of Panthers players who will play at a championship level all season.

    Jeff Byers: C

    Jeff Byers is in his second season and lacks significant NFL experience.

    Byers would be a significant downgrade if Kalil ever goes down, but he does share his counterpart's Southern Cal pedigree.

    Byers, who spent six years at USC, blocked for current New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and current Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley as a member of the Trojans football team.

Offensive Guards: B-

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    If there is a weak spot on the Panthers' offense, it could be at guard position where  they will start a rookie who played Division II football last season.

    Here is a look at the offensive guards:

    Geoff Hangartner: B

    Hangartner proved to be a solid player in 2011. He was released by the Buffalo Bills during final cuts and started 16 games for the Panthers.

    Hangartner played his first four NFL seasons with the Panthers before going to Buffalo in 2009.

    He will line up next to tackle Jordan Gross on the Panthers' stronger left side of the line.

    Amini Silatolu: B-

    The Panthers shocked the world when they selected Midwestern State's Amini Silatolu in the second round (No. 40 overall) of the 2012 NFL draft.

    Silatolu is a road-grader in the run game, but he is still learning offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's tricky offensive schemes.

    The game will slow down for Silatolu physically once it slows down for him mentally.

    Mike Pollak: C+

    Pollak will provide insurance for the Panthers, backing up the normally reliable Hangartner and the inexperienced Silatolu.

Offensive Tackles: B+

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    The Panthers love to run the ball behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

    Here is a look at the offensive tackles:

    Jordan Gross: A

    Entering his 10th season with the team, Gross is the grizzled veteran of the Panthers' offensive line.

    The former Pro Bowler protects Cam Newton's blindside and opens holes wide enough to drive a Mack truck through for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

    Byron Bell: B-

    Bell is the type of success story everybody loves to hear.

    As an undrafted free agent in 2011, Bell made the 53-man roster and became the Panthers' starter at right tackle after Jeff Otah injured his knee and did not return for the rest of the season.

    Carolina released the overweight and out-of-shape Otah after a failed trade with the Jets and Bell has taken ownership of the position.

    Bruce Campbell:  C+

    Carolina traded running back Mike Goodson to the Oakland Raiders this offseason in exchange for Campbell, the former NFL Scouting Combine superstar from the University of Maryland.

    Campbell is a work in progress who the Panthers hope to mold into a starting tackle over the next couple of seasons.

    Garry Williams:  C

    Williams started 11 games in 2010 in place of the injured Otah and will back up Gross at left tackle this season.

Defensive Tackles: C+

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    Carolina's interior defense should be much improved with veterans Ron Edwards and Dwan Edwards anchoring the middle of the defensive line. 

    Sione Fua and Frank Kearse will have to play well in the first month of the season to hold onto their roster spots when Andre Neblett completes his four-game suspension after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

    The Panthers could improve their preseason grade if the "Edwards Brothers" can occupy blockers and create a consistent push into the backfield.

    Here is a look at the defensive tackles:

    Ron Edwards:  B

    Rod Edwards is finally healthy after sitting out the 2011 season with a torn triceps. 

    He gives the Panthers more muscle and experience at the point of attack than they had while starting rookie third-round picks Sione Fua and Terrell McClain for the first 12 games last season.

    Dwan Edwards:  B-

    Carolina got an upgrade at DT when Dwan Edwards joined the roster on Sunday after Carolina released Terrell McClain to make room for the veteran tackle.

    Edwards, who started 13 games for the Buffalo Bills last season, is an up-field player who adds a more explosive presence on the Panthers' D-line. 

    The Bills cut Edwards on August 31 when NFL teams had to get their rosters down to 53 players.

    Sione Fua:  C+

    Fua will likely come off the bench after starting 11 games as a rookie before injuring his hamstring in pregame warmups in Week 13.

    Fua is a solid rotational player who will provide relief for the "Edwards brothers" on the Panthers' defensive line.

    Frank Kearse:  C+

    Kearse, the Panthers' biggest DT at 6'5" and 315 pounds, rounds out the defensive tackle position.

    He started the last four games of the season alongside suspended DT Andre Neblett.

Defensive Ends: B-

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    Carolina needs to improve its sack total. Last season, starters Charles Johnson (nine sacks) and Greg Hardy (four sacks) had one of the lowest combined sack totals among DEs.

    New contributors Thomas Keiser, who had four sacks in eight games with the Panthers last season, and rookie Frank Alexander should help the Panthers improve their pass rush.

    Carolina faces several of the NFL's top quarterbacks this season, including Drew Brees (twice), Matt Ryan (twice), both Mannings, Michael VickTony Romo and Philip Rivers.

    Here is a look at the defensive ends:

    Charles Johnson: B+

    Charles "Big Money" Johnson was famously revealed to be the NFL's highest-paid player in ESPN The Magazine's "Money Issue" last season, though his performance did not back up his lofty compensation.

    Johnson has been touted the past two seasons as future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers' replacement, but his two-year total of 20.5 sacks seems a bit underwhelming compared to Pro Bowl DEs Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants and Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings, who each totaled more than 20 sacks last season.

    Johnson will need the help of his fellow pass-rushers this season when he will once again be double-teamed nearly every time he lines up for a play. 

    Greg Hardy: C+

    It's time for Greg Hardy to prove he has the work ethic and the drive to become a long-term fixture on the Panthers' defensive line.

    Hardy put on about 20 pounds of muscle this offseason after a preseason motorcycle accident slowed him down last year. But he continued to put his boneheadedness on full display when he tweeted a picture from his car while he was reportedly driving more than 100 mph.

    Hardy's four sacks in 2011 were disappointing in his first full season as a starter, though he did bat  down a team-high eight passes at the line of scrimmage, according to Sports Illustrated's "NFL 2012" preview issue. 

    Thomas Keiser: A

    Keiser tied New York Jets rookie Quinton Coples for the NFL lead with 4.5 sacks during the preseason,  and he could emerge as the Panthers' top pass-rushing specialist this season.

    At 6'4" and 260 pounds, Keiser is saller than most DEs, but he has a motor that does not stop.

    Other than Johnson, Keiser has the Panthers' best shot at double-digit sacks this season.

    Frank Alexander (R): B

    Carolina's first fourth-round draft choice, Alexander was the Big-12's co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2011 when he led Oklahoma with 8.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss.

    Alexander was second on the Panthers with 2.5 sacks during the preseason and could become Greg Hardy's replacement as a starter as the season progresses.

    Antwan Applewhite: C

    Applewhite provides instant energy on the field and leadership in the locker room. 

    He should benefit from defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's plans to line up Carolina in a 3-4 defense more often this season.

Linebackers: A

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    The Panthers' strongest defensive unit is its linebackers.

    James Anderson and Jordan Senn stepped up in 2011 when Jon Beason and Thomas Davis were injured and lost for the year in the first two games.

    Beason and Davis are back, and Carolina added potential NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Luke Kuechly, with the ninth overall pick in the draft.

    Here is a look at the linebackers: 

    Jon Beason: A+

    Beason, a three-time Pro Bowler who tore his Achilles in the 2011 season opener, is the heart and soul of the Carolina defense.

    He is also the defensive unit's best communicator and makes sure everyone around him is in position to make a play.

    The Panthers kept him out of preseason action this year, but he will be ready to go when the Panthers kick off in Tampa on September 9.  

    James Anderson: A-

    Anderson finished sixth in the NFL in tackles in 2011. The former Virginia Tech Hokie played well despite all the adversity and injuries that plagued the Panthers' defense last season.

    He will retain his starting strongside linebacker position despite Davis' return to action.

    Luke Kuechly: A

    Luke Kuechly is every  where on defense, or to be more specific, he is wherever the ball ends up.

    Kuechly was the first linebacker selected in the 2012 NFL draft, and he has already shown that the NFL is not too fast for him.

    He is an excellent tackler with keen instincts and a high football IQ. He defends the run and the pass equally well.

    Look for Kuechly to quickly become a fan favorite in Charlotte.

    Thomas Davis: B+

    Davis showed off his old explosiveness and speed in the Panthers' third preseason game when he sacked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and broke up a pass play in the end zone.

    Davis, who is attempting to become the first NFL player to come back from three ACL tears in the same knee, will be a valuable contributor to the Panthers' defense if he is fit enough to play as much as a quarter a game coming off the bench. 

    Jordan Senn: B+

    Like Kuechly, Senn is a tackling machine who always seems to know where the ball is. 

    Despite being small for a linebacker at 5'11 and 225 pounds, Senn led the Panthers with 15 solo stops in the preseason. He also played well as a starter late last season.

    Barring injury to one of the starters, Senn will see most of his action on special teams.

    Kenny Onatolu: C+

    Onatolu was brought in to play special teams and to improve the Panthers' coverage units.

    Though he is capable of playing either of the outside linebacker positions, he is expected to be a special-teams stalwart.

    Jason Phillips: C

    At 6'1" and 240 pounds, Phillips is the prototypical run-stopping middle linebacker.

    Entering his third season in the NFL, Phillips is a solid backup for Beason. 

Cornerbacks: C+

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    Cornerback was a strength and a weakness for the Panthers in 2011. 

    Chris Gamble had one of the best seasons of any corner in the NFL last season while, across from him, Captain Munnerlyn had one of the worst. 

    Carolina hopes it upgraded the position with the addition of Josh Norman, but it is missing a talented player with Brandon Hogan on injured reserve and out for the season.

    Here is a look at the cornerbacks:

    Chris Gamble:  A-

    Chris Gamble deserved Pro Bowl recognition in his eighth season as the Panthers' starting cornerback after turning in one of the best seasons among NFL cornerbacks in 2011.

    He will once again be Carolina's No. 1 cornerback, though he should have more help in the secondary with fifth-round selection Josh Norman taking over for Captain Munnerlyn as the other starter.

    Josh Norman (R):  B-

    Josh Norman makes up for his lack of experience with great athleticism, ball-hawking skills and just the right combination of arrogance and confidence found in every great NFL cornerback.

    Norman will likely lead the Panthers in interceptions, but he will also have more opportunities than his counterpart, Gamble.

    The rookie's grade should improve as he gains experience.

    Captain Munnerlyn:  C

    After a disastrous season at cornerback, Munnerlyn will return to the nickel position he played well in 2010.

    His performance should also improve, as he will not be forced to cover the opposition's No. 1 and No. 2 receivers on a regular basis.

    Josh Thomas:  C+

    Thomas played well in the preseason and adds depth and potential to a unit that struggled last season.

Safeties: C

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    The Panthers' safeties struggled in 2011 when starters Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin each ranked in the bottom 15 in tackling among players at that position.

    Carolina has since added a few new faces to the secondary.

    Here is a look at the safeties: 

    Charles Godfrey: C+

    Charles Godfrey struggled last season after playing great in 2010, but that can be partially attributed to all of the chaos taking place in front of him.

    Carolina's lack of a consistent pass rush and poor pass coverage by the linebackers and secondary led to too many instances when their aggressive strong safety was out of position and whiffed while trying to make the big play.

    Godfrey was among the worst-tackling safeties in the NFL last season. But he is the most physically gifted player among the Panthers' safeties and should rebound to have a strong season in 2012.

    Haruki Nakamura: B-

    Nakamura wrested the starting free safety position away from Sherrod Martin after backing up Ed Reed in Baltimore for the past several seasons.

    Nakamura is a smart player and a sure tackler who will not miss as many tackles in the open field as Martin did a season ago.

    The former Raven should also help out with punt and kickoff coverage that ranked last in the NFL in 2011. The Panthers allowed three punts and a kickoff to be returned for touchdowns, including one of each by Chicago's Devin Hester in the same game.

    Sherrod Martin: C-

    Martin was the NFL's worst-tackling safety among players who took more than 900 reps in 2011, whiffing on 15 of 68 tackle attempts, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Martin will continue to get reps at free safety, but he will do so coming off the bench.

    D.J. Campbell (R): C

    Carolina's last pick in the 2012 NFL draft, seventh-rounder D.J. Campbell will join the rest of his draft class on the Panthers' 53-man roster after each of his classmates made the cut.

    Colin Jones: B-

    Jones is a speedster who ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at his pro day at Texas Christian in 2011. He will contribute immediately to the coverage teams.

    Carolina traded a future seventh-round draft pick to the 49ers on August 31 for the rights to sign Jones.

Specialists: B+

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    The Carolina Panthers' special teams were among the worst in the NFL in 2011.

    Improving all facets of the kicking, coverage and return units was one of the team's top priorities this offseason.

    Carolina added standout coverage players Kenny Onatolu, Haruki Nakamura, Mike Tolbert and Colin Jones to the roster, and the Panthers also made changes at punter, kicker and punt-return specialist in a concerted effort to improve their special teams. 

    Here is a look at the specialists: 

    Punter, Brad Nortman (R): B

    The Panthers made Brad Nortman the first punter drafted in team history when they selected him in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL draft.

    Nortman beat out veteran Nick Harris by averaging 47.2 yards per punt during the preseason.

    Nortman also will be the holder on field goals and extra points. 

    Kicker, Justin Medlock: B+

    A former fifth-round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007, Medlock beat out Olindo Mare for the ' kicking duties after playing in Canada for the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats the past three seasons. 

    Medlock has a strong leg and represents a fresh start. The unpopular Mare missed a pair of pressure-filled fourth-quarter field goals after replacing original Panther John Kasay last season.

    Punt Returner, Joe Adams (R): A-

    Luke Kuechly may be the best rookie football player on the Panthers' roster, but Joe Adams has a chance to be the most exciting.

    Adams, who led the NCAA with four punts returned for touchdowns in 2011, has a chance to follow in Patrick Peterson's footsteps as a rookie Pro Bowl punt returner if he can duplicate his performance from last year.

    Regardless, Adams is a significant upgrade over Carolina's previous punt returner, Armanti Edwards, who was the NFL's worst in 2011.  

    Kick Returner, Kealoha Pilares: B

    Pilares finished the 2011 regular season ranked fifth in the NFC with a 25.7 yards average per return, including a franchise-record 101-yard return for a touchdown against the Detroit Lions.

    However, his 20.9-yard average during the 2012 preseason was the lowest among the five players who  returned at least one kickoff.

    Pilares needs to prove that he can consistently return the ball beyond the 25-yard line on returnable kicks, or he could eventually lose his spot to Joe Adams or practice-squad player Armond Smith.

    Long Snapper, J.J. Jansen: A

    What can you say about a long snapper except that the less you notice him, the better he is doing his job?

    This will be Jansen's fourth season as the Panthers' long snapper, and as long as he remains healthy and continues to deliver the ball to Nortman on time, he will be a Panther for many years to come.