"This time a year ago he wasn't even practicing yet," head coach John Fox said of middle linebacker Jon Beason after Sunday's practice. "He's come a long ways and he needs to continue to improve."
It's not often a team gets a young player who displays leadership qualities like Beason. Those qualities were part of the reason why the Panthers selected him higher than most draft evaluators thought he'd go.
"It's probably more rare than not, but a lot of that is a part of your evaluation process - what kind of guy they are, what kind of football character they have, mentality. We felt pretty strong about that side of him (Beason) coming in. Coming along in really a short camp (last year), I thought he developed pretty fast. He moved from outside backer to inside backer during his rookie season, and all he did was continue to improve."
Beason broke the Panthers' single-season tackles record last season as a rookie, notching 160 in 16 starts.
Behind Beason, safety Chris Harris patrols the secondary and makes sure his teammates are lined up correctly. After coming over from Chicago in a trade during training camp last season, Harris emerged as a playmaker on the field after quickly picking up the Panthers' defensive scheme. Harris forced eight fumbles last season, a Panthers single-season record, and recorded 102 tackles in the process.
"He's a pro", Fox said. "It's a little bit different (from a rookie). He's operated in a pro defense and understood what it takes to be successful. I think he just kind of stepped in here and started out where he left off in Chicago. He had started a bunch of games, so he knew what it takes to play in the League."
Harris will be counted on to help mold promising rookie free safety Charles Godfrey. Godfrey arrived in mini-camp and immediately practiced with the starters. Harris' on-field tuteledge will be counted on to make sure Godfrey learns the ins and outs of the NFL.
"You always need some name in there to be that guy, and we've been blessed here with those names you mentioned," said Fox.
"You've got to have guys step in."
And that is exactly what Harris and Beason have done. They've filled the shoes of two long-time Panther standouts in Mike Minter and Dan Morgan on the field -- and it's looking like they may fill their shoes in the locker room as well.