The Panthers (or at least their fans) have expressed interest in running the ball out of more traditional formations. To really do this effectively, you need a lead-blocker. FB/HB/Dancer Extraordinaire Mike Tolbert is a wonderful player, but he is not what you envision of when you think of an old-school blocking fullback. FB/H-Back/TE Rickie Brockel is a jack of all trades, but he is best used on special teams (and for Fumblerooskis).
The team has even used TE Greg Olsen as a lead blocker at times, but this is like taking a Maserati out 4-wheeling. TE Ben Hartsock is a solid blocker, but he's too big and lumbering to lead block for a tailback. I mean, he's a couple of Boberries away from being an offensive tackle.
I watch this team run the football, and it's clear that they need 'a Hoov' in that backfield to really get the most out of the elventy billion dollar investment they made in their runningbacks.
Back to Ben Hartsock... The guy as a great third TE. He is perfect for that role -- you know, a guy who comes in for goal-line sets and in-line blocks against DEs and OLBs. But as a second TE, he appears to lack some of the speed and athleticism you need if you want that guy to be a viable receiving option. He's made a career out of being an extra tackle, why would then, at what, 33 years old, he become a receiving threat? Well, we're not buying.
The Panthers are likely waiting to see if any of the young TEs on the roster are ready to play a role on offense. If not, it would behoove them to peruse the waiver-wire or their free agent Rolodex before the season starts to see if they can find a for real #2 TE.
Call me crazy, but I get the feeling that LG Amini Silatolu might be moving over to the RG spot. I know, I know, but hear me out...
LG is the easiest position on the OL. You often double team the nose tackle with the center. You probably aren't worried about what's going on to your left, as most teams' best lineman is there holding down the blind side. So you wait to see if the center needs help with the nose, and if not you get up to the second level to find a LB, or you sort of needlessly shuffle your feet with your arms out to make it look like you're doing something.
At RG, you are often singled up on the 3-tech DT, and you might even have help responsibilities to your right, as most defenses look to pray on pass rush deficient right tackles.
With this said, it might make sense to move your best guard (Silatolu) to RG, and then have Geoff Hangartner (who graded out as one of the 5 worst RGs last year) and the rookie Edmund Kugbila battle it out for the LG spot. Kugbila is also supposed to be super-quick and athletic for a big guy, but not overly strong (21 reps at 225), so it would make even more sense to make him the pulling LG. The left side is also used more in the screen game, which would fit his skill-set better as well.
So, I guess the question mark would be at LG under this scenario? Regardless, one of the guard spots is going to be manned by Geoff Hangartner or a 4th round rookie. This is our concern, dude. (However, my concern would be slightly alleviated if Amini was moved to RG.)
It's hard to call this a question mark after Byron Bell has manned this spot for the last 1 and 3/4 seasons. Nonetheless, he is a guy who is solid if not spectacular in the running game, but is still very raw in his technique when it comes to the passing game. To go back to my theory about switching the guards around, putting the best guard next to him would also be wise, as we saw last year that having your two shakiest pass blockers right next to one another can be dangerous.
Bell will be inked in as the starter, and may stay there for a while since the bigger concern could be finding a replacement for LT Jordan Gross this offseason or next. The need at RT could sort of fly under the radar, but it is still a need. In the simplest of terms: Bell will develop so that he can better protect Cam Newton or the Panthers will look for a replacement.
We saw it too many times last year... the pass rush would fade late in games and our secondary would get exposed. Do the Panthers want their secondary exposed now that it has lost it's best player? How's about no.
Frank Alexander is a young promising third DE, but behind him I see another example of an unproven guy being handed a roster spot because their are no other options on the roster. Mario Addison showed that he can play a little bit in the last few games of the 2012 season, but how many times have we seen this movie? Let me summarize the plot:
Player X gets picked up off waivers late in the year. Player X plays in three or four games as a reserve and looks pretty good. Player X makes the team the following year based off this performance, and then Player X produces absolutely nothing in September, when teams are relatively healthy.
The Kraken and Loch Ness are monsters, yes, and Frank the tank is great as a versatile third guy, but behind them the Panthers have very little to nothing. If the top three guys get worn down late in games, it might be the same old song and dance we saw all too often a year ago.
Josh Thomas looks to have one of the cornerback spots sewn up. Surprisingly, most of the fanbase (myself included) feel pretty good about that. There are three or four guys who could hold down the nickel spot -- if not excel in the nickel spot. But that 2nd CB position remains a bit of question mark.
You have the veteran, Drayton Florence, coming in from the Lions (who are known for having really bad secondaries lately). His veteran presence and leadership will be good for this young group, but can he play? Can he stay healthy?
Captain Munnerlyn is obviously one of the guys we have in mind when we talk about a nickelback. Can he make a leap in his 5th season? Can he play on the outside? Is he, like, still growing?
After Munnerlyn, Thomas, and Florence there's really no one to get super excited about. There's James Dockery, who they picked up off waivers (another 'Player X' candidate) late last year. There's DJ Moore. He's another potential nickelback from the Bears who can at least catch the football. Josh Norman was a mess last year. He might as well be a safety if he wants to play 18 yards off his receiver. UDFA Melvin White has been getting some praise from Ron Rivera, but Rivera has yet to see him put the pads on and play when real bullets are flying (and, well, he's an UDFA).
'Quentin Mikell, come on down! You're the next contestant on: please, please, please come play safety for the Carolina Panthers!'
Thanks, Johnny... So this one can practically write itself. The Panthers have seen (albeit in shorts and shells) what they have at the SS position. The next bit of news we hear is that they are shopping for a veteran at that position. Deductive logic tells us they think it's an area of need, and so should you.
DJ Campbell, Mike Mitchell and Robert Lester could all be starting-caliber safeties in the league. Fact is, they aren't that right now. Last year, the Panthers saw the value in not gambling at the safety positions (first ATL game comes to mind). Your last line of defense has to be in the right place at the right time -- a very veteran characteristic.
Yes, 'the answer is usually on the roster.' And that's great. That's what Jerry loves to hear. The reality is, the Panthers desperately need another veteran in the back end, especially considering the question marks at the CB position and the thin DE group.