Five positions to watch this preseason

With the start of the Panthers' preseason schedule less than a week away, I wanted to point out a few guys that should be on everyone's radar as they try to make the most out of every opportunity they get on the field during the exhibition season.

And, before you think I'm going to stir the pot even more than it has already been stirred, Dwayne Jarrett will not be one of the players discussed in-depth in this article. I know a lot of people have very strong feelings about his contributions (or lack thereof, depending on which side you're on), but I wanted to take some time and point out other guys who are trying to make an impact with the squad instead of just providing another forum for a "should Jarrett stay or should he go" argument thread.

With that being said, after the jump I'm going to go over a list of five positions you should keep your eyes on during the preseason, because there are guys at these positions who could play a significant role in the success of our Cardiac Cats if they can make a lasting impression on the coaching staff during the playing time they are afforded during these next four preseason games.

1. Defensive Line

Isn't it obvious that one of our main concerns is the defensive line? I think we've had fifty discussion threads on the topic of our defense since The Great Purge kick-started the youth movement, and there are some who are gravely concerned about the choice to go young on the defensive line, offering the theory that lack of experience could be the achilles heel of our defensive unit; and there are some who are cautiously optimistic about the defensive line's youth, holding on to the hope that the young guys will show up with an insatiable hunger to prove the doubters wrong.

The way I see it, the defensive line is made up of Charles Johnson, Tyler Brayton and a bunch of guys that we don't know much about. We know that Everette Brown has promise. We know that Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler have promise. We know that Eric Norwood has promise. We know that Greg Hardy is out to prove the world wrong about his draft stock. But, we don't know much of anything else about these guys. Are they really any good? Are they really going to anchor a defense that doesn't get obliterated on the field week after week? Will they get significant pressure on the quarterback so the linebackers and secondary can make plays?

I think the youth movement will pay off in the long run. I believe that we will see moderate success from these guys this year, and I believe that there are two guys who will really shine during the season. Greg Hardy and Eric Norwood are going to make a name for themselves this year, and we are going to sit back and reap the benefits of brilliant drafting by Furney, who were able to steal Hardy from the rest of the league in the bottom of the 6th round because a few scouts thought that Hardy didn't have a good work ethic.

Hardy is already showing signs of promise in camp according to the tweets by sportswriters who have been in attendance to some of the practices. Now, I know that performing in training camp and performing on gameday are two completely different things, but some of the comments I've seen about Hardy thus far tell me that he's set his heart on getting on the field and proving to everyone that they made a huge mistake by not picking him. I've even heard comparisons to (dare I say his name) Julius Peppers, which is an added bonus.

To go along with Hardy, we also have Everette Brown returning to the field with a year under his belt, and he's expected to make a contribution to the pass rush from the end position. He probably won't start, but he will be a major factor in the rotation when he is used on passing downs to get to the quarterback. He's added some bulk to his frame in the offseason and should be much tougher for opposing tackles to deal with.

I know they've been criticized up, down and sideways this offseason, but our defensive tackles aren't anything to sneeze at either. Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler were both acquired last season as injury replacements (Tyler being one of the replacements for Leonard, ironically), and they both look to contribute this season in starting roles. We also have Corvey Irvin in the rotation, and DE Tyler Brayton can slide inside on passing downs to free up an end slot for Everette Brown or Eric Norwood.

Leonard is a big fat fatty (6'5", 325 lbs.) that should excel at stopping the run if he can avoid the injury bug that took him out of action after just two games last season. He looks to replace Hollis Thomas, who the Panthers signed last season as a rent-a-fatty when Leonard went down to an ankle injury and ended up on IR. Tyler is lighter than Leonard (6'2", 306 lbs.), and looks to have a role in the defense similar to what he had last year before he was placed on IR in December. Both of these guys are hungry to prove that they belong in the starting lineup, and both of these guys are underrated players who should (and dare I say will) contribute in a major way this season. Keep your eyes on Leonard and Tyler, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the results they produce on the field this year.

2. Wide Receiver

As much as we've debated the defensive line, we've probably doubled that with the talk of our wide receiving corps. (Of course, the majority of that discourse has focused on Dwayne Jarrett, but I'm not going to open that can of worms here. I'm going to talk about the other guys at the position who could make an impact this season.)

For starters, we have Brandon LaFell, the Panthers' 2nd overall pick (3rd round) and the heir apparent to the "Moose Role" of blocking receiver opposite Steve Smith. Unless he gets abducted by an alien, LaFell is going to make the team, and he's going to see a lot of playing time this season. He's a big, strong receiver (6'2", 211 lbs.), and an excellent blocker (he's already been given the nickname "Buck", because he's a young Moose), which will get him on the field for plenty of snaps. One thing that everyone should watch for this preseason is LaFell's ability to catch the football. We talk about his blocking, and detractors talk about his bouts with the dropsies, but the kid can catch the football, and he can use his size and speed to gain yards after the catch. He's going to turn some heads this season, so sit back and watch the show. You won't be disappointed.

I would never hear the end of it if I didn't take the time to mention Armanti Edwards, the former App. St. quarterback who has converted to receiver and expects to be an impact player out of the slot (and hopefully in the Wildcat formation) in his rookie season. He is adjusting well to his new position, but he isn't expected to be a superstar this year. In fact, he probably won't make much of a splash until mid-season after he is fully acclimated to the position, but the Panthers are working him out in special teams as a return man as well, and he could make an impact on kick returns if he adjusts to the role fast enough.

Kenneth Moore is trying to cement a spot on the roster, and he's been the star of camp thus far as far as receivers are concerned. However, and unfortunately for Moore, we said that about him last season too. He practiced great in camp, but disappeared when the season began and didn't really do much other than disappoint. But, he has the heart and the desire to make this team, and he has the upper hand on some of the other guys competing for one of the four or five spots on the depth chart behind Smitty. Guys like David Gettis, Trent Guy, Dexter Jackson, Charly Martin, and Oliver Young probably won't make the final 53 man roster, but could be practice squad bound if no one else snatches them up off the waiver wire.

One of the receivers that hardly anyone is talking about is Wallace Wright. Of course, no one's talking about him primarily because his job is going to be special teams gunner more than receiver, but he will be on the depth chart as either the 4th or 5th option at receiver because of his value on special teams, and I've read reports that he has improved his receiving skills and could sneak up and steal a spot in the starting rotation (especially if we do see the unicorn 4 receiver sets we've been teased with this offseason).

And, to prevent controversy, I'm going to mention Jarrett - but I'm not going to go into detail about him because if you want to know the good and bad about Jarrett, you can filter through the thousands of comments that have been made about him over the past few weeks. There's no need to rehash all of that here, but I will say this: Jarrett will make the team. Whether or not he stays on the team is entirely up to him, but he will be given this season as his last chance to make a lasting impact on this roster. Whether he deserves it or not is another debate that's been debated and debated to death (all this debating's gonna make you go blind, ya know), so I'm not going to get too involved other than to say that I believe he's had his chance and blew it, but with the youth at the position I don't see any way that he will be cut.

3. Tight End

Let's face it: we don't see much out of the tight end position other than blockers who can catch a pass every now and then. Not since the days when Wesley Walls stormed the middle of the field have we seen a true pass catching tight end, until now.

Wait, what? Now? Are you serious?

Yes. I am serious. Gary Barnidge is the reincarnation of Wesley Walls. Mark it down, I said it here first. (Actually I said it in a comment a few weeks ago first, but still...) You might think I'm crazy, but you will see that the Panthers have a lot of untapped potential in the (current) 3rd string tight end, and he's going to make his name known this season. Barnidge is a great receiver who can be utilized down the middle of the field, and he is going to improve his blocking skills to get on the field more, and then he will be unstoppable.

Ok, maybe I'm going over board just a little bit, but I really do believe that Barnidge is going to be the surprise player of the team this season. We're going to see a real tight end threat for once, and we're going to have more than just a blocker who can catch. I don't know about you guys, but I can't wait to see Moore connect with Barnidge down the middle over and over and over again when defenses try to shut down Smitty and Double Trouble, only to find out that there's a big white guy destroying them down the seam.

We've complained in the past that the tight ends aren't used enough, and I strongly believe that's going to change this year, so be on the look out this preseason for an eruption from Barnidge. King is the starter because he's a team leader and he's an excellent blocker, but look for the team to use a lot of two tight end sets with Barnidge on the other side, patrolling the middle of the field, ready to strike.

4. Linebacker

When Thomas Davis tore his ACL during OTA's, a collective gasp rang through Panther Nation. We already had enough uncertainty on defense before he went down, and his injury only added more questions to the depth and ability of the defense. To compensate for the loss of Davis, Jon Beason has moved from middle linebacker (MIKE) to weakside linebacker (WILL), and Dan Connor will get his opportunity to earn a starting spot at the MIKE position.

Rookie Eric Norwood also looks to figure into the linebacker equation as a hybrid DE/LB player who will be used at both positions during the year. We still have James Anderson patrolling the strong side (SAM), and we traded Chris "Hitman" Harris to the Bears in the offseason for Jamar Williams, who is looking to earn a major role on the roster. We also have Jordan Senn, Mortty Ivy, and Quinton Culberson competing for backup roles and special teams spots (with Senn and Culberson the favorites because of their ST abilities), and we have camp body Sean Ware who will probably be cut by the end of preseason.

The two guys who you need to really pay attention to are Beason and Connor, who will be adjusting to new roles this season (Beason in a new position, Connor as a starter). There's no doubt that Beast will succeed, even if it takes moving him back to the MIKE and putting Jamar Williams at the WILL, but I doubt that will be necessary. The bigges concern will be Connor's adjustment to a more prominent role. There are a lot of fans who have the utmost confidence that he will succeed, and there are a lot of fans who believe he's not quite ready to take on the task. But, I believe that he's ready to go, and I believe that we're going to see a breakout performance from him this preseason, and it will translate into the regular season as well.

5. Quarterback

Of course I have to talk about the quarterbacks. But, it's more for the backups than anything else, because unless something major goes wrong, Matt Moore is the starting quarterback of this football team. It's his job to lose, and he's showing so far in training camp that he doesn't intend to lose it. He's showing leadership, swagger, and poise. He's among the first ones on the field for practice, and among the last to leave. He's got the job, at least for this season, and if he lives up to the expectations many (including myself) have for him, he may very well be the starter for many years to come.

As for the backups, we have Jimmy Clausen, Hunter Cantwell, and Tony Pike competing for the 2nd and 3rd string spots. Right now it looks like Pike will be the odd man out, and could either be trade bait or practice squad material, unless they plan to keep four quarterbacks stashed on the roster as an insurance policy in case of injury.

Jimmy Clausen is the one to watch in the preseason, and not just because he is the one the media tells you to watch. He's the one to watch because he's the only one who has a realistic chance to unseat Moore as the starter. He was projected as a first round pick and somehow made it all the way down to the 48th spot when the Panthers had their first draft choice, and he's no slouch. He's a very good quarterback with experience in a pro-style offense, and if Moore struggles, he could see action sooner rather than later.

There is going to be an interesting situation if both Moore and Clausen play well, because the front office is going to have to decide which one they want to keep, and the other one could be used to gain draft picks from another team. It is my belief that Moore will play well enough to earn a long-term spot on the roster, and that Clausen will be the one who is traded at the end of the season. So be on the lookout for Clausen this preseason, because it very well could be the last time you see him in a Panthers uniform, if Moore plays as well as I believe he will.

I'm sure there are other guys that you have your eyes on this preseason, and I could sit here and talk all day about each and every member of the potential 53 man roster, but as I said earlier I feel that I have highlighted the 5 positions that should be focused on the most over the next few weeks while the Panthers play the exhibition schedule to sort out the final roster spots and put the final touches on the depth chart.

Are there any guys you feel should get a deeper look this preseason that weren't mentioned? If so, feel free to start a comment thread and bring attention to them as well.

But make sure you remember what I said about Barnidge, because he's going to be special.
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