Panthers Roundup: Something Special

(Chuck Burton/AP)

After a disappointing season on special teams, the Panthers went about changing things up this offseason.

They not only fired coordinator Danny Crossman (later replacing him with his former assistant Jeff Rodgers) but also signed a handful of free agents with special teams experience including Wallace Wright, Aaron Francisco, Marcus Hudson and Brian Witherspoon and traded for James Williams to beef up a unit that mostly relied on rookies and inexperienced players.

"We wanted to get back to having some guys who had more experience do that stuff," Rodgers said.

"Aaron and Wallace have been outstanding guys in the league and I've coached Marcus before so I know what kind of guy he is. It's having those guys who have done it before, guys who you know how they're going to perform on game day, more so than the rookies. And certainly that's a positive."

The Panthers will still have some rookies on special teams, but Rodgers is cautious having too many.

"Any time rookies come into this league they are not used to doing what I am asking them to do," he said. "They aren't used to covering kicks. If they did it, they probably did it as a freshman or a sophomore."

The Panthers finished at the bottom of the league in overall special teams ability, according to the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings in 2009.

But Rodgers said the team doesn't pay much attention to those numbers.

Their focus is on four particular categories -- net punting average (16th in 2009), net punt return average (24th), kickoff coverage drive start average (19th) and kickoff return drive start average (21st).

"Those are the big four in terms of hidden yardage," Rodgers said.

Rodgers' focus this year as a coach has been on an attention to detail.

"Coach Rodgers is really reiterating the individual skills," said tight end Dante Rosario, a regular on special teams. "We spend a lot of time in practice not just going over what the play is going to be but what the individual guy has to do. I think that will help out. And it helps that we have athletic guys and very motivated guys."

The Panthers will still rely on some special teams core players from last year, including Richard Marshall, Captain Munnerlyn and Gary Barnidge. But some of the remaining spots will be filled by their new free agents, providing they're good enough at other positions to make the 53-man roster.

The return game in particular is one area the Panthers need to improve upon.

They drafted Armanti Edwards in hopes that he can be the long-term answer there, but since he's making the transition from playing quarterback that could take some time.

In the meantime, the Panthers have a number of players working on returning kicks. Along with Edwards, Witherspoon, Mike Goodson, Tyrell Sutton, Kenny Moore and Trent Guy are getting looks. On punt returns, Munnerlyn, Moore and Guy have seen action, too.

"As a group there are a lot of guys with what we call juice -- they can take it and go," Rodgers said. "There are a couple of guys back there who have done it at this level. Experience is a factor back there."

CAMP CALENDAR: The Panthers break camp Aug. 18.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Much of the talk leading up to Fan Fest has been about the improvements the Panthers have made in the passing game after finishing 27th in the league in that category a year ago.

But you'd never know it if you watched Saturday's 36-play scrimmage at Bank of America Stadium.

The first-team offense managed just two first downs in three possessions (12 plays) as quarterback Matt Moore finished 4-of-9 for 26 yards. It didn't help that his experienced offensive line looked out of sync and allowed regular pressure from the second-team defense.

The second-team offense didn't have much luck either.

Led by young quarterbacks Hunter Cantwell and Jimmy Clausen, they managed just one first down during their 12-play sequence against Carolina's first-team defense led by linebacker Jon Beason.

The only points of the day came when the third-team offense mustered a field goal by veteran kicker John Kasay.

"The defense was ahead of the offense," coach John Fox said. "But I think that's typical every year. But I'm pleased with the effort and pleased we got through healthy."

--Second-year OG Duke Robinson is eager to put his weight issues behind him and focus on football.

Robinson, who missed the first four days of training camp after reporting to camp overweight and out of shape, is back on the field eager to compete for the starting RG spot currently occupied by Mackenzy Bernadeau.

"I'm a work in progress," Robinson said in his first interview since reporting to camp.

Robinson wouldn't discuss any specifics about his weight, but said he has learned quite a bit the last couple of weeks about how to control it.

"I'm trying to get down to as low as I can and keep pushing to help this team get to where it needs to go," Robinson said. "The main thing is being educated on how to eat and what to eat... It's basically knowing the fats and proteins and the nutrition scale and knowing what to eat at what times and the difference between good carbohydrates and bad carbs."

Robinson has shown flashes during recent days, making some impressive blocks on the line while working mostly with the second team.

"As far as when I'm on the field I'm going 100 miles per hour every time, all of the time," Robinson said. "You can't tell that I was quote-unquote out of shape or whatever, because I go hard all of the time. I have a real nasty mentality and it's just about me taking that mentality and cleaning up my technique and progressing in this league."

--As he'll do from time to time, D-line coach Brian Baker went Earl Weaver on one his players, and this time it was DT Louis Leonard.

Baker got on Leonard pretty good after he failed to correctly execute an inside pass rush move.

Instead of moping and worrying about his ego, Leonard pulled aside undrafted rookie offensive tackle Noah Franklin after practice and began working on his technique. Baker quickly noticed and came over to help explain in further detail what he wanted from Leonard.

Leonard hasn't played football since Week 2 of last season when he broke his ankle against the Atlanta Falcons, so he's still a little rusty.

"We're getting him back in football shape," Fox said. "He came off offseason surgery, so we're bringing him back a little bit slower, which is smart. We've got time yet. We've got four preseason games as well as our Fan Fest to bring that along. We've got a lot of guys in that boat right now, whether they're on PUP or off PUP, that are missing time. Again, we've got a plan, and, hopefully, it works."

--The Panthers have some decisions to make in terms of who's kicking off.

They didn't want to pay Rhys Lloyd more than $1 million to kickoff this year, so they let him walk in free agency. They brought in a younger, cheaper version in Todd Carter, but the jury is still out on him.

Carter played at Grand Valley State and while he's looked good in practice, Rodgers is eager to see how the small school kicker will fare in front of NFL-size crowds.

"It's more challenging because when you have a guy who takes up a roster spot just doing kickoffs he has to be lights out," Rodgers said. "Todd has had some days where he's been that guy. I don't have any questions he can do it, but he needs to be able to in front of a lot of people and be able to perform at the same level he does in practice."

If he can't do it then the Panthers will turn to punter Jason Baker to handle that role.

Baker has kicked off before in the league, but distance has always been an issue.

"He just hasn't done it in a couple of years," Rodgers said. "So we're revisiting that with him and seeing where he's at. We want to have options. I think he's been better than some people who have watched him would have thought."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The cool thing about Matt, and the kind of player that he is -- he's very consistent. He has been the same guy when he stepped in for just a few games to being the starting guy now. He is really filling his leadership role, and the offense really has a lot of confidence in him. It's going to be exciting to see how this offense takes shape and what kind of character this team has." -- Panthers C Ryan Kalil on QB Matt Moore

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Panthers signed running back Dantrell Savage. The 5-8, 182 pound Savage started his career with the Kansas City Chiefs after being signed as an undrafted rookie in 2008. He appeared in 13 contests for the Chiefs, primarily on special teams, posting 34 kickoff returns for 793 yards and 14 punt returns for 53 yards. On offense, Savage tallied 25 carries for 98 yards and nine receptions for 51 yards. The Oklahoma State product was released by the Chiefs on March 3, 2010.

Defensive back Marcus Walker was waived injured by the club after suffering a calf injury in training camp.

That gives the Panthers another body to carry the ball and take the workload off their two healthy backs -- DeAngelo Williams and Josh Vaughan.

--RT Jeff Otah had his knee scoped last week but is expected to be back for the regular-season opener. Otah has been a mainstay at right tackle for the Panthers since being selected in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft.

--QB Jimmy Clausen continues to split reps with Hunter Cantwell for the No. 2 quarterback spot. Matt Moore continues to work with the first team.

--CB Captain Munnerlyn is working as the team's nickel back behind starters Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall. Munnerlyn had a great rookie season in 2009. Meanwhile, C.J. Wilson and rookies Robert McClain and R.J. Stanford are competing for the fourth and fifth cornerback spots.

--WR Dwayne Jarrett is still working with the first-team offense, but there's plenty of speculation the team could cut ties with the former second-round draft pick if he doesn't step up his game.

--LB Dan Connor is working in the middle after the team moved Jon Beason to the weak side. So far Connor looks pretty comfortable in that role.

BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Mackenzy Bernadeau vs. Geoff Schwartz vs. Duke Robinson for the starting RG spot --

Bernadeau continues to work with the ones during practice, but part of that is because Schwartz is having to fill in for Jeff Otah at right tackle. Once Otah returns, Schwartz is expected to see more action at right guard. Robinson is the wild card here. He has great size and a mean streak, but was late getting started in training camp after reporting overweight and out of shape. He's doing much better now and could figure into the mix before all is said and done.

OTHER BATTLE FRONTS:

Ed Johnson, a castoff from the Indianapolis Colts, is performing well in Carolina and appears to have moved ahead of Tank Tyler on the depth chart. Johnson is working with the first team alongside Louis Leonard, although it's still early.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: CB Robert McClain --

The Panthers seventh-round draft pick has impressed in recent days, coming up with a couple of interceptions during practice. McClain is battling for a roster spot as the fourth quarterback.

INJURY REPORT: RT Jeff Otah had arthroscopic knee surgery on this past week in Charlotte, but the hope is he'll be ready for the Sept. 12 season opener against the New York Giants. Otah, who started training camp on the active-physically unable to perform (PUP) list, was having some discomfort in the knee.

"It checked out pretty good -- a typical scope," coach John Fox said. "We'll evaluate it week-to-week. I think it was a good move and something he will recover from pretty quickly." When asked if Otah will be ready for the Giants, Fox said, "As with all injuries it's hard to tell, but that's the plan."

Otah has been a fixture at right tackle for the Panthers since being selected in the first round of the 2008 draft. He started 12 games as a rookie and 13 in 2009 before tearing the meniscus in his left knee late in the season. He finished the year on injured reserve and underwent surgery to fix the problem.

The 6-foot-6, 335-pound Otah played a key role in Carolina averaging 156.1 yards rushing per game and setting team records with 2,498 yards and 123 first downs in 2009. He opened rushing lanes for Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams to become the first set of teammates in NFL history to rush for more than 1,100 yards in the same year.

In 2008, he helped Williams and Stewart post a combined eight 100-yard rushing games in the second half of the season.

With Otah out, Geoff Schwartz has been running with the first team.

--The offensive players not participating in the Fan Fest scrimmage on Saturday included RBs Jonathan Stewart (PUP), Tyrell Sutton and Mike Goodson, WRs Steve Smith (PUP), Charly Martin and Trent Guy, OTs Garry Williams and Otah (PUP), and TE Jamie Petrowski. Sitting out on defense were LBs Thomas Davis (PUP) and Jordan Senn, DT Nick Hayden, DEs Hilee Taylor and Eric Moore, CB Chris Gamble and S Aaron Francisco.

DT Louis Leonard and OG Duke Robinson were removed from the active-PUP list and returned to practice last Monday.



Will Carolina's special teams rebound this season? Discuss in the message boards.




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