As I get ready to head to training camp in a couple hours I’m exciting about seeing any developments on some of the key starting position battles. Here are the ones I plan to focus on though I doubt I’ll be able to report on all of them from one practice.
RG – It’s a three way battle between newcomers Keydrick Vincent, Toniu Fonoti and Milford Brown. Vincent got the initial nod in mini-camp but Fonoti, a former Pro Bowler, has started TC running with the first team. Looks like the Panthers may be rewarded for giving Fonoti another chance to return to his PB form. The Panthers right side of the line could dominate opposing defensive lines at the point of attack with Fonoti and just-as-large rookie RT Jeff Otah clearing the way. Here's Fonoti commenting on his sudden promotion:
“There’s a lot of kinks I need to work out here,” said Fonoti. “It will take a little getting used to. But the coaches want us to be physical. You’ve got to be big and mash people.”
“Mash” people, you have to love it. For some reason I don’t think those 3rd and 1’s are going to be that much of a problem this season.
LDE – This is either a two or three man battle between Charles Johnson, Stanley McClover and newcomer Tyler Brayton. I was surprised to see Brayton get the initial nod to run with the first team during mini-camp over 2nd year player Johnson. If Julius Peppers does move to the left side as anticipated then I would expect McClover to be his back-up since he mainly played the right side last season. That leaves Johnson and Brayton to battle for the starters spot on the left side. Early reports from TC are that Brayton is having trouble against Jeff Otah, which may just be a prelude to what we can expect to from Otah. In spite of the initial vote of confidence given to Brayton I think Johnson will be the starter come game 1.
CB – Is this the year Richard Marshall supplants one of the Panthers starting CB’s, either Ken Lucas or Chris Gamble? Gamble is the better cover guy but Lucas is a leader of the secondary. There’s no denying the Panthers need to get Marshall on the field full time and I don’t see him moving to free safety as some rumors have suggested. It’s a complete toss up I can’t even give a good guess as to who will start at CB.
Strong-side LB – As reported earlier Thomas Davis has been moved to the weak-side making this position the one up for grabs. The move really makes sense since both Landon Johnson and Dan Conner are better suited for the strong side. Given Fox’s history Johnson will get the nod at strong-side with Conner backing him up. I figure Fox will want to groom Conner for that side and let Adam Seward continue to back up the middle spot.
RB – Rookie RB Jonathan Stewart is already making believers out of his teammates with powerful running and a devastating stiff arm. Given the Panthers stated goal to emphasize the power running game he may already be the starter come game one. I still expect incumbent DeAngelo Williams to gets his share of plays but I expect them to be suited to his running style. Contrary to my previous opinions on who will start at RB I now think Stewart is more suited to the 1st and 2nd down running plays the Panthers will favor.
#3 WR – Though most of the talk has been about the #2 WR position I guarantee you can pencil Musin Muhammad into that spot. The Panthers covet a WR that can block and Moose can certainly do that. At 35 years old this guy can still bench press 375 lbs eight times! That’s damn impressive and most assuredly means he will do the dirty work for the running game on 1st and 2nd downs. Yes, count me as one of those glad Moose is back. The real competition is for the #3 WR that I think DJ Hackett will win easily. Dwayne Jarrett will get his opportunity at some point this season since the chance of all three WR’s remaining healthy the entire season is slim to none (knock on wood). Also, I'm looking forward to seeing Jason Carter put up some dazzling plays. I can already tell he will be 'darkhorse' favorite to make the roster.
FS – Much to my surprise rookie S Charles Godfrey was running with the first team during mini-camp instead of free agent pick-up Terrence Holt. The starters’ spot seems to be his to lose and given the fact Smitty is already impressed I’m looking forward to seeing what the kid has. If he mistakes though Fox may decide to give the nod to the veteran Holt. This one isn’t over yet.
TE – Jeff King will probably remain the primary blocking TE but the question is whether either Dante Rosario or rookie Gary Barnidge will cut into the 46 catches he got last season. Rosario continues to impress with his athleticism and ability to make catches. It will be interesting to see what Offensive Coordinator Jeff Davidson does with the TE position this season.
One thing is for sure, the Panthers staff will have some difficult decisions to make. The good news is that it’s a nice problem to have, not enough positions for start-quality players. In fact, it’s exactly why the Panthers will win the NFC South in 2008.