QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Moore. Backups - Hunter Cantwell, Jimmy Clausen, Tony Pike.
Contrary to speculation in the national media that there's an open quarterback competition in Carolina, it's a foregone conclusion that, barring injury, Moore will open the season as the starter. The No. 2 spot will be played out in the preseason with Cantwell hoping to hold off Clausen, the team's second-round draft pick from Notre Dame. GM Marty Hurney loves Clausen and even tried to trade up to No. 33 in the draft to get him before watching in astonishment as he fell to them at No. 48. Clausen played in a very similar system at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis - his former protege, Jeff Davidson, is Carolina's offensive coordinator - so the learning curve will be quick. But the Panthers like the way Cantwell looks after changing his throwing motion. He probably has the strongest arm on the team and will be given a legit chance to earn the No. 2 spot. So Clausen could start the season third on the depth chart. Pike, from Cincinnati, was selected as a value pick in the sixth round. The Panthers won't want to risk losing him by putting him on the practice squad, so don't be surprised if Pike ends up on injured reserve with a (wink, wink) injury. Overall, this is the least experienced quarterback unit in the league, with only eight career starts between them, and all of those belong to Moore. Moore has been impressive when he's played (6-2 record), which is why the Panthers feel compelled to give him a longer look. But the big question remains whether he can succeed under pressure. In most of his previous starts (three in 2007 and five in 2009), the Panthers were out of the playoff picture so expectations were fairly low. Moore is under a one-year contract, so he should be plenty motivated as his financial future hangs in the balance.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - RB DeAngelo Williams, FB Tony Fiammetta. Backups - RB Jonathan Stewart, RB Mike Goodson, RB Tyrell Sutton.
This is the most stable position on the team. Williams and Stewart became the first running back tandem in league history to each run for 1,100 yards last season. Although Stewart actually outgained Williams with a strong finish last season - including a franchise-record 206-yard rushing performance against the Giants in Week 16 - it was Williams who went to the Pro Bowl. Williams missed his final three games with a foot injury but is fine now. Together, they give Carolina arguably the most dangerous one-two punch in the league. And, the talent doesn't end there. Sutton, an undrafted rookie in 2009 who was claimed off waivers from Green Bay before the season, was a huge surprise and will likely serve as the team's third-down back since he fits the scat-back role better than Williams and Stewart. Goodson has outstanding potential and is a big-time home run threat, but needs to learn to protect the football better. The big question with this unit is if Fiammetta can develop as the blocking back after taking over for longtime fan favorite Brad Hoover, who was cut in a salary cap move. Hoover was very good at what he did and one of the more underrated players in the league. But the Panthers wanted to go young and felt Hoover might have been wearing down after 10 seasons in the league.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Jeff King. Backups - Dante Rosario, Gary Barnidge.
The Panthers are almost certain to return the same three tight ends. Each brings something different to the table. King can block and catch, but isn't particularly fast so his yards after catch will never turn heads. Rosario has great hands and can line up as an H-back, while Barnidge has the speed to spread the defense. On another team, one that throws more to the tight end, Rosario might get more attention, but he has a limited role here. Barnidge is a player who could emerge this year because he can stretch the field, which would open things up for star WR Steve Smith. Basically, this is a decent group of tight ends.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett. Backups - Brandon LaFell, Armanti Edwards, Wallace Wright, Charly Martin, Kenneth Moore, David Gettis.
Keep Jarrett's name in pencil because although he's working with the starters right now, he could easily be released before the start of the season if he doesn't start producing. Now entering his fourth season, Jarrett has only appeared in 29 games and caught just 33 passes with one touchdown. The Panthers need someone to step up and take pressure off Smith, which is why they drafted LaFell and Edwards in the third round. LaFell is Jarrett's primary competition for the No. 2 spot. He has the ability to make plays downfield and is a decent blocker. It also helps that new receivers coach Tyke Tolbert is a former LSU graduate and pushed for the team to draft LaFell. Edwards is a project. He played quarterback for Appalachian State, but the Panthers plan to make him a receiver and returner, although he could see some action in the Wildcat as well. Edwards is fast and has surprisingly good hands, but you have to wonder if his smallish frame will hold up. Smith will miss most of training camp with a broken arm he sustained playing flag football, but he should be ready for the season. Wright will make the roster because of his special teams ability but hopes to play some receiver. Martin, Moore and Gettis, a late-round draft pick, will battle for the fifth receiver spot.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Jordan Gross, LG Travelle Wharton, C Ryan Kalil, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Jeff Otah. Backups - OT/OG Geoff Schwartz, OG Duke Robinson, OT Garry Williams, OT Rob Petitti, OG C.J. Davis.
OL Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton
The only change here is at right guard, where Bernadeau is likely to replace Keydrick Vincent, who was not re-signed. He could face competition from Schwartz, who is a little tall for guard (6 feet, 7 inches) but played well at tackle last year. If Schwartz doesn't start, he's clearly the sixth man off the bench, giving the Panthers some proven depth on the O-line - something they didn't have last season. Other than that, the starters are set, with Gross and Otah both returning from season-ending injuries. Gross was having an average year by his standards when he broke his leg last season, but he should be fine. Kalil is developing into one of the better centers in the league and played in the Pro Bowl last year after being selected as a second alternate. Wharton is underappreciated and solid. This is an outstanding run-blocking offensive line. It gave up a lot of sacks early last season but turned things around as the year went on. The problem wasn't the line, but how defenses attacked it. With Steve Smith the only threat in the pass pattern, teams often sent extra defenders to pressure the quarterback. With so many players up on the line of scrimmage, it was also more difficult to run the ball early in the year. Still, the Panthers ended up third in rushing last season, and running the ball should be their strength once again.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Charles Johnson, RDE Tyler Brayton, NT Tank Tyler, DT Louis Leonard. Backups - DE Everette Brown, DT Ed Johnson, DT Corvey Irvin, DE Greg Hardy, DE/OLB Eric Norwood, DE Hilee Taylor, DT Nick Hayden, DE Eric Moore.
The Panthers let Julius Peppers walk in free agency and now they have to find a way to replace his 10 sacks per year. In all, they will be replacing three of four starters on the line, with only Brayton returning. They're counting on former high draft picks Charles Johnson and Brown rotating in at one end spot, with Brayton and Hardy sharing time on the other side. Norwood, a linebacker by trade, could also be asked to rush the passer because of his success doing that at the college level. Hardy, a sixth-round pick, impressed during OTAs and has the potential to be a diamond in the rough. He has a motor that doesn't stop and a desire to be great. The Panthers have plenty of questions inside after cutting veterans Damione Lewis and Maake Kemoeatu in salary cap moves. Leonard, Tyler and Irvin are all coming off serious injuries, further clouding a position that was in flux most of last season. Ed Johnson is being given a chance to rejuvenate his career after sitting out most of last season. He's had off-the-field issues, so this may be his last chance to make a splash. The Panthers traded fourth- and fifth-round picks for Tyler and Leonard, respectively, and both played well before getting injured. But this group hasn't worked together and is relatively unproven, so run defense could be a problem early on. The Panthers don't have a big nose tackle on the roster, something they've had in previous years.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Jamar Williams, MLB Jon Beason, SLB James Anderson. Backups -- Thomas Davis, MLB Dan Connor, SLB Eric Norwood, SLB Jordan Senn, WLB Quinton Culberson.
Davis' injury (he re-tore his ACL during OTAs) is a huge blow for a unit that already had to replace five starters before he went down. The hope is Davis can make it back in six months and play in the second half of the season, but there are no guarantees. In the meantime, the Panthers have moved Beason out to weak-side linebacker, with Connor filling in in the middle. That goes to show just how important the WILL linebacker is in the Tampa 2 defense. However, the more likely scenario is Williams, who was acquired in an offseason trade that sent safety Chris Harris to Chicago, could wind up the starter there, with Beason remaining in the middle. This is a very fluid situation and the Panthers will continue to look to get the best three linebackers on the field. The Panthers aren't, at this point, considering moving Anderson to the weak side even though he filled in for Davis there last season. Anderson takes over for Na'il Diggs at strong-side linebacker. With Davis out, depth is a concern here.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chris Gamble, RCB Richard Marshall, FS Charles Godfrey, SS Sherrod Martin. Backups - CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB C.J. Wilson, CB Marcus Hudson, S Aaron Francisco, S Jordan Pugh, CB R.J. Stanford, CB Robert McClain, CB Brian Witherspoon.
Marshall isn't happy with his contract situation, but he had little leverage and was forced to sign his restricted free agent tender. He'll again be paired with Gamble while Munnerlyn, coming off an impressive rookie season, will be the nickel back. Gamble is paid like a shutdown corner and does a nice job even though he doesn't garner much national attention. He's never been to a Pro Bowl. The fourth and fifth cornerback spots remain up in the air. The Panthers signed Hudson and Witherspoon in free agency and drafted Stanford and McClain in the seventh round to go with Wilson. At safety, Martin replaces Chris Harris, who was dealt back to Chicago in a salary cap move. He played well in five starts last season as a rookie, and the Panthers like his ball-hawking style. Godfrey returns as the free safety after missing time last year with a high ankle sprain. Francisco and Pugh look to be the backups. Carolina's pass defense improved as the season went on last year and players got comfortable with Ron Meeks' new defensive scheme.
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK John Kasay, P Jason Baker, LS J.J. Jansen, KR Tyrell Sutton, PR Armanti Edwards.
Kasay returns for his 16th season with the Panthers and remains as reliable as ever. Baker solidifies the punting game and could be asked to kick off as well following the departure of Rhys Lloyd. Jansen did well last season as the long snapper. The Panthers would like Edwards to return punts and kickoffs, but right now he's primarily working on punts while Sutton returns kickoffs. Edwards, a quarterback in college, has never returned punts, so that could be a bit of an adventure.
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