Not only is Brad Nortman the god of punting, but he can also sling the rock if you need a QB in a pinch. (Photo by Brian A. Westerholt/Getty Images)
Position battles in 2012 are a relief, a joy. This time last year we had large, overarching battles in multiple positions, and now we have the luxury of evaluating punter's legs, and a kicking battle– it's a refreshing change. That shouldn't diminish those battles, or undermine those positions, but it's nice as time moves on we're seeing less and less competitions at vital, game-changing roles.
Some of these competitions may seem obvious, some more obtuse– for now, though, we're looking at the main changes in how the 2012 roster is shaping up.
Weakside Linebacker– Luke Kuechly
Despite being a top-ten pick, and being a much ballyhooed rookie, there was always an air of doubt whether he'd be the starter (should Thomas Davis return to form). A stellar opening game vs. Houston, coupled with Davis still working back to form, and solidified with a post-game depth chart adjustment should be enough to call this battle over.
The Carolina Panthers are almost assured to enter the season with the linebacking corps of James Anderson, Jon Beason, and Luke Kuechly– with Thomas Davis serving in a specialist role, where his athleticism can cause mismatches.
More after the jump
Punter– Brad Nortman (current leader)
Nick Harris may have the depth chart bump still, but this is Nortman's job to lose. The rookie had an extremely solid first appearance. He displayed great leg-strength with a jaw-dropping end zone punt that was proof positive why the Panthers felt confident investing a pick in him.
In the role of veteran Harris has been extremely good in his own right, but it would take a pretty mammoth separation in talent for the Panthers to spurn their draft pick in favor of the vet. Even if preseason closes and Harris is looking slightly ahead, it's wholly probable the Panthers will still side with the rookie.
Third Wide Receiver– Louis Murphy (current leader)
Usage in camp would lead you to believe Seyi Ajirotutu has the edge, and the depth chart tells you it's David Gettis, but based on what we saw against Houston this is Murphy's job to lose. Since he was acquired via trade Murphy developed an early rapport with Cam Newton, and has backed it up with solid training camp and preseason play.
Murphy's presence is a case of 'he is who we thought he was' where he isn't the most sure-handed receiver, or the most crisp route runner, but he has the speed, and ability to become a deep threat. As a slot receiver in this vertical Panthers' offense that's all he'll need to do.
Kicker– Justin Medlock (current leader)
Prior to training camp CSR wrote about how fans shouldn't sleep on Justin Medlock, and we took a look at why he was more than a camp leg. Back then the notion of Medlock supplanting Olindo Mare was a 'bold prediction'; now it seems like foregone conclusion.
Abysmal kickoff aside, Medlock has been the better kicker– particularly over the last week. Each day both kickers are getting four attempts, and this week has fallen into a fairly steady pattern: Medlock 4/4, Mare 2/4. Olindo is undoubtedly a better kicker than he's showing, which indicates this battle has become mental for him. Even Ron Rivera is questioning how he has display a huge leg on kickoffs, then fail on long FG attempts.
Meanwhile Medlock is getting a handle on the mental aspect after openly discussing his rookie struggles which forced him out of the NFL, and led to his steady return by way of the CFL. In this battle he has the bigger leg, and is currently showing more accuracy. When it's all said and done this will take a fairly large sea-change for Mare to retain the job.
Right Cornerback– Up for grabs
The most important battle in training camp is the one we don't have a good grasp on. Fans are ready to anoint Josh Norman heir apparent, especially after a stunning four interception day yesterday (sorry Josh, not crediting you with five), but the coaching staff are keeping a more measured approach to the position.
Coach Rivera was quick to point out that several of Norman's INTs would have been pass interference calls, and it's important to remember that Norman has only been able to practice four times due to injury. Like it or not, Captain Munnerlyn is still very much in the discussion for the #2 corner job, and it's likely we'll see both players get snaps against Miami.
Finally we have Brandon Hogan– the biggest enigma of the group. In talking to Joe Person yesterday, he characterized Hogan's inability to get healthy as 'Otah-like'. It simply shouldn't take a player twenty months to recover from his knee injury, and that's becoming concerning. My gut feeling: He's fighting scar tissue right now, much like Brian Urlacher in Chicago who had arthroscopic surgery this week.
3RB– Tauren Poole (current leader)
UDFA Tauren Poole isn't the fastest RB, or the most athletic, but like former Panthers RB Nick Goings, he has a knack for finding a hole and fighting for yards. His performance in the first preseason game is likely enough to vault him in front of incumbent Josh Vaughan, who struggled Saturday night.
Unfortunately, Poole sustained a concussion in camp yesterday, and it's likely he'll miss competition on Friday. So it may be the third preseason game before this battle is decided.