There are several position battles being fought in the Carolina Panthers preseason. And there are other positions that have question marks due to health. Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, coming off season-ending injuries in 2011, are still hurting.
Davis, who has had three surgeries on his right knee, strained his right calf during the second practice. He has resumed individual drills and coach Ron Rivera hopes he can increase his workload next week.
Beason pulled a hamstring due to overcompensating for his surgically-repaired Achilles.
Neither is expected to play Friday against Miami, but Beason hopes to return for the August 26 preseason game against the Jets. Coach Rivera is a bit concerned about both Beason and Davis, but watching rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly gives him a bit of breathing room.
“I think Luke and James Anderson are both cornerstones for us right now as far as a linebacking crew,” Rivera said. “We do look forward to getting Jon back on the field and having Thomas contribute to what we want to become as a defense.”
I have written about some of the position battles, but before the Panthers take on Miami on Friday night, here are some thoughts:
Incumbent placekicker Olindo Mare vs. former CFL star free-agent Justin Medlock.
Medlock botched one kickoff against Houston last Saturday and it was returned 90 yards. Other than that, he has shown a powerful leg and has been more accurate from further distance than the 39-year-old Mare.
Watching both at practice, I notice Mare’s kicks to the end zone are further than Medlock’s however, when kicking field goals in simulated game conditions, Medlock out-kicks Mare. He has a stronger leg and is more accurate. In making a final decision, Rivera said he would definitely like to have it done by the third preseason game, so both kickers have a very short window to win the job. Ideally, Rivera said, he would like to see each kicker get the opportunity to kick a field goal, under game conditions, at the end of each half against Miami. Whether or not that can be arranged is another story.
As for the punters, rookie Brad Nortman, the first kicker ever drafted by the Panthers (6th round), has looked very good. His kicks are long and with a lot of hang-time. He also has worked very hard in camp at his directional kicking. 12-year veteran Nick Harris, a free-agent signing by the Panthers during the off-season, is also battling Nortman for the position. At this time, it is definitely Nortman’s position, however.
The Panthers need to put more pressure on quarterbacks than they did last season. In a division with Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta), this is a must. If they do not begin pressuring the opposing quarterbacks, their secondary could be very vulnerable. Rivera said they need more production from Charles Johnson (nine sacks in 2011). So far, the interior linemen have not been able to get much pressure on the offense, and the Miami game Friday night will be a good test. They will face a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) possibly making his first start as well as a familiar face in former Panther Matt Moore.
Pro Bowler Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are the top wideouts for the Panthers, but after that…well, there has to be someone the Panthers can count on.
Newcomer Lewis Murphy has dropped several passes in camp. The former Oakland Raider has all the ability, but needs to hold onto the ball. Kealoha Pilares and Seyi Ajirotutu look good running routes in practice, but are not stepping up to claim the third receiver spot yet.
As for the tight ends, Greg Olsen has run good routes, has fairly good hands, and, at 6’5″, 255 pounds, can be a force.
Speaking with Smith yesterday at practice, he likes Murphy.“When we came in, he said, ‘I need this.’ And when you hear that from a guy, and then he comes out and does it, that’s the part where you realize we need more guys like that,” Smith said. “There are a lot of guys who come in and say they’re hungry and you get two weeks in and they get comfortable and you forget about them and you don’t even know they’re playing.”
First-round pick (No. 9 overall) Luke Kuechly has impressed everyone. He sees the game and reacts very well to the situation. He seems to be in the right place most all of the time (other than lining up on the wrong side on the opening snap Saturday night), and has a nose for the ball. He has intercepted several passes in camp and looks like he will be one of the best draft picks ever for the Panthers.
Drafted in the fifth round, unheralded cornerback Josh Norman is making a great impression. Coming out of a small school (Coastal Carolina), playing in a low Division I league (Big South Conference), Norman has turned heads with his play in camp. He had four picks on Tuesday, including one off Cam Newton.
“He’s definitely been a ball-hawk. I’ve watched Luke make some plays, too. … They’re going to try the rookie. And he’s made them pay,” veteran linebacker Jon Beason said. “And that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re a game-changer or if you’re saying, ’I was a late draft pick, but I can play in this league.’ ”
No surprise here…Newton is solidifying his role as the team leader and most-beloved player by fans. Newton works hard at every practice and wants to improve his game. Last season, he surprised many people by playing so well. The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year passed for more than 4,000 yards and was responsible for 35 touchdowns (by throwing or running).
“He works on everything. He talks about what he wants to improve. The one thing you really watch – and he’s so hard on himself – is the mental aspect of the game,” Rivera said. “When he’s not making the right decisions he’s missing things, he’s going right to (offensive coordinator Rob) Chud(zinski), right to (quarterbacks coach Mike) Shula and they’re trying to get those things worked out.”
It has been very clear to me (and others, of course) that Jimmy Clausen will not be an NFL quarterback for long. Chosen by the Panthers in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Clausen was thrown to the wolves early and lost all confidence. His passes are very limited – the short ones are fair and he has nowhere near the arm strength to match Newton nor back-up quarterback Derek Anderson. In several practices, he has only thrown short passes and has not looked like someone you want to play quarterback in the regular season.
On the other hand, Anderson looks comfortable in the back-up role. When his turn comes up, he takes command of the offensive unit and is decisive with his throws. He is no Cam Newton, but as far as a back-up, you could do a lot worse in the league.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FRIDAY NIGHT AGAINST THE MIAMI DOLPHINS:
Coach Rivera wants the team to avoid injuries and be consistent on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. “We can’t have the ups and downs. We have to make plays when we get the opportunity to. I think if I had to say defensively, I want to see us separate from blockers quicker and be better tacklers,” he said. “Obviously I want to see us make the plays we need to in critical situations. On third down, we need to be better on defense.”
MY OVERALL IMPRESSION OF THE PANTHERS:
They have a long way to go to get to the elite level in the league. They are facing a tough schedule, but certainly have most of the tools to go far. It seems that every season brings a new team to the playoffs…a team no one really expected to go far – see San Francisco last year. The Panthers could be that team. Injuries will heal, and only time will tell if this team can do the unexpected. Maybe the full-page ad Ryan Kalil placed in the Charlotte Observer will motivate this team to win the Super Bowl. But right now, I don’t think so. Now, they are working on quickening their tempo…not dropping passes…getting healthy (linebackers)…and finding a quality third receiver.