One thing is for certain about this position for the Panthers. They will start a different tandem at safety from last years' duo Charles Godfrey (SS) and Haruki Nakamura (FS). Godfrey will start instead at free safety where he played his first two seasons with the Panthers:
Anyway, I recently discussed the state of the secondary with Wilks. He expressed his opinion that Godfrey will thrive at free safety after moving there from strong safety late last season. Candidates abound at the other spot, from late-season starter D.J. Campbell to free agent acquisition Mike Mitchell to Lester.
So with that we look at the candidates for what I predict will be four safety roster spots. Last season the Panthers did carry a 5th safety on the roster in the form of Colin Jones but he was a specialist for special teams. I expect the Panthers to carry four safeties into week 1 yet again, with Jones a possible 5th safety yet again.
So here are the safeties we currently have listed on the Panthers roster. I'm going to give a probability for making the roster and a probability to start; my personnel, subjective opinion.
As discussed above the 6th year pro has locked down the free safety spot so no need to discuss any further..
Probability to Start at Free Safety: 100%
As a rookie in 2012 Campbell finished the season starting the last four games at SS and given the secondary played pretty good at that time I'm thinking that's going to count for a lot. Campbell is probably the best athlete of the safeties, plays very aggressive and is a fairly good tackler. I'm thinking the job is his to take but he has some serious competition.
Probability to Start at Strong Safety: 85% Probability to Make the Roster: 100%
Last year's starter at free safety is now on the outside looking in. The Panthers signed him as a free agent thinking he was ready to make the jump from key back-up to starter but it was a dismal failure. Though he logged 54 tackles, 4 PDs and 2 INTs in 13 games he was unreliable in run support and absolutely horrid at playing the ball in the air when not thrown right at him. Nakamura is at best a back-up going into 2013 who is fighting for a roster spot. The key will be his special teams play that improves his chances of sticking to the 53, but it is far from guaranteed.
Probability to Start at Free Safety: 2% Probability to Make the Roster: 60%
Mitchell is this year's free agent acquisition at safety for the Panthers, signing a one year deal back in March. Mitchell comes to us after four less-than-stellar years in Oakland after being over drafted in 2009 (2nd round). You can read a quick write up we had on him here. In those four years he has only 9 starts and it is not because of injury. So as much as I like the idea of a 5th year vet coming in and solidifying the position I think he has an uphill climb.
To dig a little deeper I went over to Silver & Black Pride to see what some Raider fans thought about him. I find it pretty telling:
Last of Raiders 2009 draft class now gone - Silver And Black Pride
Round 2: Mike Mitchell - The other big story of the early draft because no one knew who he was. It became a big joke that everyone had to look him up and he was hardly even listed in Mel Kiper's draft guide and was considered an undrafted free agent prospect. He was taken early in round 2 by the Raiders and was beaten out in camp by 2008 round 4 pick Tyvon Branch. Mitchell saw his very first start at strong safety last season. The Raiders let him walk as a free agent and he signed a 1-year deal with the Panthers.
And we thought our 2009 draft class was bad. The fact he has very little experience at SS does not bode well. To be fair, I did find a post that offered something positive about Mitchell:
Updated Grades for Raiders 2013 off-season moves: Secondary - Silver And Black Pride
S Mike Mitchell - He showed some flashes at safety in relief of Tyvon Branch. But the team brought back Branch on a restructured contract and Mitchell would have remained a backup. His departure leave a void as far as depth in concerned but it is not a major issue.
Given the competition at the position I think Mitchell will have to do more than flash to make the 53. This Panthers roster is actually pretty deep in the secondary though not very proven at the NFL level.
Probability to Start at Strong Safety: 5% Probability to Make the Roster: 10%
After playing his rookie season for San Fran Jones played in 15 games for the Panthers in 2012, all on special teams except after subbing for an injured Haruki Nakamura against the Falcons. He ended the season 3rd on the team in ST tackles with 11. I think that performance gives Jones an inside track for a similar role in 2013. Our special teams unit needs to keep the few good players it has.
Probability to Start at Safety: 0% Probability to Make the Roster: 80%
Lester is an UDFA from Alabama who boasts a ton of big time college experience. In the end it surprisingly mattered little on draft day as Lester was thought to at least be a late round pick. You can read some of his pre-draft profiles here.What he lacks in measurables and hip flexibility is easier to overcome when you consider he will be needed more for run support at SS. Lester has the intangibles that could make him a diamond in the rough but he might still end up on the practice squad rather than the 53. On the positive side at least one UDFA makes the roster every year and I could see Lester nailing down that fourth safety spot.
Probability to Start at Strong Safety: 10% Probability to Make the Roster: 20%
Russell was signed from the practice squad for the last three games of the 2012 season and played exclusively on special teams. He's a 3rd year pro out of Ohio U who spent a season in Washington and then Miami before coming to Carolina. Russell would have to really show out in TC to lock down one of the four safety spots. More likely he is battling Colin Jones for that specialist spot.
Probability to Start: 0% Probability to Make the Roster: 10%