Carolina Panthers training camp begins in just two weeks (July 26th-August 12th, Wofford College) and there are several questions entering the annual event. Among these questions are concerns regarding key positions, which will undoubtedly inspire great positional battles.
After losing three of their four pass catchers from 2013 many eyes will be on the receiving corps. The Panthers drafted Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and the 6’5” 240-pound über-athlete will be expected to contribute immediately. Carolina also drafted two other talented receivers in Marcus Lucas (Missouri) and Philly Brown (Ohio State), both of which could make the team and some noise. In addition to drafting talent, the Carolina Panthers also signed free agent veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant to anchor the receiving corps.
Another question for the Panthers is the shape of the running game, despite relying heavily upon it in 2013. The Panthers were seventh in rushing attempts in 2013 (483 – only three behind 6th place San Diego), but 11th in rushing yards (2,026 yards). Although DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are two of the better running backs in the league when healthy, that last part is the key. Stewart missed 11 games last season to multiple injuries, including the Panther’s playoff game, and has now missed 17 games the past two seasons after playing in 62 of his first 64 games since being drafted in 2008.
Stewart’s health is key to the Panther’s running game as the team relied on quarterback Cam Newton for nearly 23% of the team’s carries (111 carries). Pro-Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert also accounted for nearly 21% of the team’s carries (101 carries), which is rare for a fullback in any system. And speaking of carries, of active running backs Williams is 10th with 1,370 rushing attempts (Note: Stewart is 23rd with 866 rush attempts). The front office took serious note of all of this and drafted Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney to help offset any issues at running back; Carolina also signed free agent Kenjon Barner and undrafted free agent Darrin Reaves (Alabama-Birmingham) to add depth to the run and return game.
There is even some intrigue regarding the back-up quarterback position. Although Derek Anderson was the team’s reserve quarterback in 2013 and was resigned during the off-season, the team also signed Joe Webb from the Minnesota Vikings. The Carolina Panthers carried two quarterbacks on their roster in 2012, but GM David Gettleman reduced that number to two quarterbacks last season. Some think Gettleman won’t keep two quarterbacks on the roster in 2014, but Webb’s versatility and ability to use his legs make him appealing, especially for sets and plays designed for Newton.
There are many intriguing stories heading into training camp, such as the aforementioned battles for third-down back and third and fourth receiver for example, but the true intrigue lies within key starting positions. Two of these battles will be on the offensive line and the other position battle will include a veteran starter coming off a season-ending injury that was forced to change positions and take a major pay cut.
The three most intriguing positional battles entering training camp for the Carolina Panthers will be at left tackle, right guard, and right cornerback:
The Carolina Panthers signed left tackle Byron Bell to a one-year contract worth $2.187 million. That figure makes Bell the highest paid offensive lineman on the team in terms of base salary, and accounts for almost 15% of the total assumed salary allocated to the offensive line in 2013 ($15.112 million). Funny thing about NFL contracts – they’re not guaranteed. Bell’s contract does not call for any singing bonus, nor any performance bonuses, so it stands to reason that if Bell doesn’t shine at camp, or has any serious competition, Bell could be an easy cut, financially-speaking.
Insert Garry Williams. Coming off a season-ending knee injury Williams has showed promise in camp and has been designated as Bell’s major competition to start at left tackle. Williams is a guard-tackle hybrid who started several games at right guard last year, but will be better served at left tackle considering the positional battle occurring at that position. In addition to Williams and Bell, right tackle Nate Chandler also ran reps at left tackle during mini-camp and has also been considered at left tackle as the team pursues their best option.
The Carolina Panthers drafted Trai Turner in the third round of the NFL draft in May, and it’s turning out to be one of their best draft picks, no pun intended. The super-athletic and speedy lineman from LSU was projected to be an early first round selection in 2015, but came out a year early. He’s been showing people he made the right decision. Turner made such an impression at rookie and mini-camps that he’s already penciled in as the starting right guard.
I say ‘penciled’ because the aforementioned Williams also has a shot at retaining his old position, having started several games at right guard in 2013 before succumbing to injury. Let us remember that just because a player is slated to start a position and loses the battle doesn’t mean said player can’t win another position battle, especially a hybrid lineman such as Williams.
Chris Scott had also been counted on to compete for the right guard position, but came into camp out of shape, which seriously hurt his chances, especially considering Turner’s progress.
Right cornerback may not come off as a position battle for many Carolina Panthers fans necessarily, but it certainly could become one. With a veteran presence in Antoine Cason slated to start at left cornerback in the absence of Captain Munnerlyn and safety-turned-cornerback Charles Godfrey coming off a season-ending Achilles injury that cost him nearly all of 2013, left cornerback Melvin White might have a battle on his hands.
This is not to say White underperformed in 2013; in fact, the rookie played right corner beautifully and had a productive season amassing 47 combined tackles, nine passes defended (PD), two interceptions (INTs) and one forced fumble. Productive season aside, it’s hard to imagine Godfrey, who was coming into his own as a top-level safety with ball-hawk skills (11 INTs and 33 PD through 75 games), being satisfied as a nickel corner. Godfrey has ten tackles and two PD in just two games alone in 2013 before injuring his Achilles.
So although it’s tough to say White will be looking over his shoulder come camp, he will. The same might be said at left cornerback as well, where both Cason and back-up Josh Norman are coming off relatively unproductive 2013 campaigns. After very productive seasons in 2012 both players fell off sharply in 2013 for various reasons, and shouldn’t be necessarily counted on to start over a player such as Godfrey’s caliber.
The team also has Bene Benwikere in waiting. Don’t laugh. Benwikere, drafted in the 5th round this May, was scouted hard by the Carolina Panthers and invited to private workouts, ultimately culminating in a draft-day trade in which the Panthers sent their 5th- and 7th- round draft picks to Minnesota to acquire him. I’m not suggesting Benwikere supplants any of the aforementioned cornerbacks, who have far more professional experience, but it’s worth mentioning that a player the Panthers worked hard to draft plays a position that doesn’t necessarily have starters etched in stone.
Needless to say, cornerback must be worked out during camp to ensure that the Carolina Panthers front seven, arguably the best in the league, maintains their game, something crucial to the Panther’s continued success.
Outlined here are three positional battles that will highlight training camp, but that’s not to say other intriguing battles won’t happen. Rookies like defensive end Kony Ealy will surely make their mark and even challenge the likes of defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, although the latter might not be too tough if Hardy’s legal situation isn’t rectified by the start of the season.
As we all know, training camp is the time to answer questions, and the Carolina Panthers have plenty.
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