The Panthers off-season purge of over-30 veterans has created lots of opportunity for the players entering training camp next week. Many starting roles are up for grabs as well as most back-up positions. Though most of the depth chart won't be settled for several weeks, players can get a leg up with a good first impression. This post is an attempt to focus on those things that might be revealing in the first week of camp.
Watch List Item 1: In the case of many position battles you can't read too much into the early camp rotations. A player getting early reps with the first team could quickly be with the second team and vice verse. One exception this training camp might be at offensive right guard. During OTAs tackle Geoff Schwartz was getting reps at this position leading to speculation he might be the front runner at RG. Another thought I have promoted is it was simply an opportunity to increase Schwartz's flexibility to play multiple positions, a Panthers preferred skill for back-up offensive linemen. If Schwartz opens camp at RG I would agree my latter supposition is incorrect. Schwartz seems to have the size the Panthers prefer to line up next to RT Jeff Otah as opposed to competitor Mackenzy Bernadeau. That would leave 2nd year G Duke Robinson as the main competitor but given his inability to get on the field as a rookie he might still need another season to mature. So if Mac-Bern or Schwartz open camp at RG that person is the obvious front runner. Robinson on the other hand might simply be getting his opportunity early. If he doesn't shine early he will probably be back with the second team come week two...more after the jump...
Watch List Item 2: The Panthers made a concerted effort this offseason to upgrade their special teams play, including kick returner. Vying for the job will be free agents Brian Witherspoon, Dexter Jackson, 2nd year Panther Mike Goodson and rookie Armanti Edwards. Who knows, a couple other rookies such as RJ Stanford and Robert McClain might get a look as well. During special team drills you can't read anything into who is rotating in first or even last for that matter. What you need to watch in the first week is how well they are catching and securing the ball before turning up-field. The Panther returners were plagued by drops last preseason leading to a void at returner that was never filled. Consequently I doubt the Panthers will have much patience with even the slightest bobbles by potential returners. I also think the punt return job is up for grabs too in spite of an adequate job last season by rookie CB Captain Munnerlyn. I expect to see Munnerlyn get an increased role in the defense leading to his removal from punt returns.
Watch List Item 3: I'm very curious to see who opens with the first team at defensive tackle. We have assumed Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler are the starters so I expect to see them running with the first team right away. If instead Ed Johnson, Nick Hayden or Corvey Irvin kick off camp with the first team that would send the message the starter spots are more up in the air than first thought. Also, keep an eye on how well the big guys handle the South Carolina heat the first week. These guys are professionals and consequently they should already be acclimating to the heat and humidity. Those that fall out due to dehydration risk getting labeled as soft or unprepared, a label that can be hard to shake once established.
Watch List Item 4: Keep an eye on Rashawn Jackson, my choice for the UDFA most likely to make the roster. I'm not down on Tony Fiammetta at all and I don't think the Panthers would have released Brad Hoover if they were either. But I also don't think the Panthers will hesitate to keep two FB's given how key the position is to the running game. If Jackson shows some power with his blocking and an ability to get to the second level he could earn a spot.
Watch List Item 5: Last training camp I was positive TE Gary Banridge had earned playing time in 2009 only to see him disappear until late in the season. I expect to see more of Barnidge this training camp but with different results. The Panthers will have tough choices with roster spots, just as they do every season. Yet carrying three TE's is a luxury few teams can afford. Look to see if Barnidge is running with the 1st team early again. It could mean a more permanent move up the depth chart.
Watch List Item 6: With Thomas Davis out for the year the LB corps is undergoing change. The latest move has PB LB Jon Beason moving to the weak side to replace Davis. That move could be more about getting Dan Conner on the field more so than any lack of confidence in James Anderson or Jamar Williams playing the Will spot. Let's see if that move sticks with the start of camp. If so that has to excite Mortty Ivy, who would be the obvious 2nd teamer behind Conner. James Anderson on the other hand would probably have just the opposite reaction, since his starting spot at WLB just went up in smoke. After a spectacular preseason last year Anderson has wonder what he has to do to earn a starting spot. If this scenario plays out you should expect Anderson to seek his release from Carolina in hopes of a better opportunity elsewhere.
So that's six things I will be looking for next week at training camp... in addition to some shade. Better bring the sunscreen and a hat if you are going as it is always hot as Hades in Sparkle City. Let's also keep a count of players getting time off for 'fluids', a nice way to say they are falling out due to the heat. No matter how much the Panther trainers will try to keep these guys hydrated there always a few that succumb.