Hello all! Its time for my projected depth chart for the season. Its been tough making some decisions, especially on positions like the D-Line, where play was sporadic (and that's putting it mildly). However, I had the opportunity to watch quite a few of the games last year, and some of the preseason, so I have compiled my own depth chart for all of you to see! Hopefully I didn't rip off the brilliance that is Joe Person's depth chart too much!
Take a look at my projections and analysis after the jump...
The Offense was pretty spectacular last season, and looks to continue its dominance of opposing defenses. Look for Chudzinski and Cam to try and work in some new toys, such as Mike Tolbert, Joe Adams, and a returning David Gettis. We will also see a slightly different offensive line this season, with 4 returning starters and an open competition at right guard. Here is my offensive depth chart.
FB: Mike Tolbert, Richie Brockel
WR1: Steve Smith, David Gettis, Seyi Ajirotutu
WR2: Brandon Lafell, Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams
LG: Geoff Hangartner, Mike Pollack
C: Ryan Kalil
RT: Jeff Otah, Garry Williams, Bruce Campbell
You may be surprised to see that a guy like Richie Brockel is still on the roster even after Mike Tolbert will take over as the full-back. Here's my reasoning: Brockel has value as a tight end and a full-back, along with special teams value. The Panthers have always been an organization that loves hard workers, and if Brockel continues to make the most of every opportunity, he'll be here next season. Also, Brandon LaFell is my pick to take the second wide receiver spot, as he is the most veteran presence (aside from Smitty of course) and was able to turn some heads last season. However, if Gettis returns strong from his injury he will definitely be a contender for that slot, as nobody's job is safe in the Rivera-era. And finally, I have Amini Silatolu to take over at guard. He is a raw athlete, but we know he is a very solid run blocker, and the combination of Silatolu and Otah (if healthy) will create a menacing right side for defenses to protect against the run. Garry Williams and Byron Bell will be interchangeable over the line. Williams can play Guard and both Tackle positions, and Bell will be a solid substitute on the right side for injuries. We may even see Silatolu on the left side, though management has pointed at Hangartner as the Left Guard for now.
The Panthers defense was on the opposite end of the spectrum last season, ranking in the bottom tier of the league in nearly every statistical category. However, returning leaders such as Jon Beason and Thomas Davis will give this defense a boost, along with draft picks like Luke Kuechly, Frank Alexander, and Josh Norman. It will be an interesting year, as nearly every position has some healthy competition in the mix for play time.
DE: Greg Hardy, Frank Alexander
MLB: Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason, Jason Phillips
WLB: Jon Beason, Thomas Davis, Kenny Onatolu
CB: Josh Norman, Captain Munnerlyn
K: Olindo Mare
P: Brad Nortman
KR: Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams, Brandon Hogan
PR: Joe Adams, Captain Munnerlyn
You may have noticed a number of things about this roster. For starters, Sione Fua is not on it. This was intentional. This team is hungry and wants to win NOW. Fua was a pick many considered a reach in the 3rd round last season. After a miserable regular season, he ended it on IR, where players like Neblett, Frank Kearse, and Jason Shirley performed admirably. I don't think Rivera cares how high a guy is drafted, in the NFL now rookies are sometimes expected to step up. I think the reason we didn't pursue any defensive lineman is because Rivera thinks what we have is going to be pretty good. (NOTE: Fua could easily earn a roster spot if the Panthers decide to roll with 6 defensive tackles, my post was assuming they would keep 5) Aside from Charles Johnson, there will be a lot of substitutions throughout the game, as we will most likely use the situational packages we have used for the past couple of seasons. I think Shirley beats out Fua for the fifth defensive tackle spot, and Rivera chooses to roll with 2 nose tackles, barring any injuries. I have heard a great deal of praise from Rivera and others on the Panthers radio shows about Kearse, and I think his size and strength will outweigh any potential Fua might have had to play. As for defensive ends, the depth chart is hard to project behind Hardy and Johnson. We saw defensive ends all over the line last season, so Alexander may end up lining up at Johnson's position if he, say, kicks into the middle on passing downs. Keiser, Applewhite, and Alexander will rotate in and out to keep guys fresh.
Now as for the linebackers, my depth chart is banking on that Beason is NOT 100% recovered from his Achilles injury. I have heard him say he's at 80%, but that does not mean he will be 100% as the season starts. We will probably see Kuechly and Anderson on the field in almost every formation, with Thomas Davis being subbed in at the Will and Beason going to the middle a few times. The Linebacker battle is going to be interesting, and undoubtedly Rivera and McDermott will work out some packages with all 4 of them on the field at once. With the drafting of Kuechly, most likely guys like Jason Williams won't be back next season.
And finally, the secondary. SURPRISE! I have Josh Norman beating out Brandon Hogan and Captain Munnerlyn for the second corner position. Now, I know this is indeed a BOLD prediction on my part, but what I see in Norman is a guy who exploded in his sophomore year and didn't see the ball thrown his way much afterwards. Remember, he logged 8 interceptions his sophomore year, followed by 3 the following 2 years. Norman comes from a small school at Coastal Carolina, and I could see him being a breakout player if he is coached right. The only player other than Gamble who has had a full offseason program with the Panthers is Captain Munnerlyn, who didn't play very well last season. Hogan, while logging some valuable experience at corner towards the end of the season, spent most of the small offseason he had recovering from his college injury. He and Norman are on a near-level playing field here, and I wouldn't be surprised if Hogan did pull out the win and take over as second corner. But my prediction is this: for any of you who read my article on draft day about him, you may have seen his highlight tape. He has tremendous ball skills and is a pretty solid tackler. He is the most physically qualified corner we have at 6 foot, 190 pounds, with long arms to boot. Hogan is 5'10", and Munnerlyn is 5'8". What I see happening is Norman making some awesome plays on defense in practice and in the preseason, to the point that Rivera sits down with McDermott and says "Why aren't we starting this kid?" Undoubtedly, Munnerlyn will step in as the nickel that he is oh so fit for, while Hogan will be nipping at the ankles of Norman and Gamble for playing time.
Now, for the safety position. I have Sherrod Martin maintaining his starting position at Free Safety for one reason: He will finally get a full offseason with his new scheme, and a new secondary coach in Steve Wilks. Both Martin and Godfrey were awful tacklers last season, and Rivera will whip them into shape if they want to play next season. Reggie Smith and Nakamura both will have great value as depth and special teamers, but I think that Martin will get his head on straight, and the healthy competition will motivate him to make himself better. However, one mistake too many and we will see Smith and Nakamura fighting to get in, as both are unproven but reliable players.
So Panthers fans, there you have it. This offseason will be competitive as ever for many positions. One thing is certain. If the Panthers want to be a playoff team rather than a spoiler like last season, the team will have to work harder than they ever have. There is a lot of talent on this team, but chemistry will need to be created between the newer players and the coaches as well.
Keep Pounding Panthers!