23 years old
When D.J Campbell was drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 Draft, almost everyone wrote him off as a backup special teams player who would most likely get sent to the practice squad for further development. After all, Campbell played on special teams his entire four year college career at California, and only had 13 games of starting experience at safety.
Campbell ended up making the Panthers final 53 man roster, but did not play the first 12 games of the season. His opportunity finally came week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons, after both Haruki Nakamura and Shorrod Martin were lost for the season due to injuries. Although expectations were not high for Campbell, he surprisingly played well in his first start at free safety. Campbell didn't make any 'splash' plays, but at the same time, he avoided making any major mistakes. His solid play helped the Panthers secondary contain the Falcons potent passing attack.
For the final three games of the season, Charles Godfrey moved to free safety, which meant that Campbell would have to play more of a 'box' role at strong safety. Once again, Campbell did not disappoint, as he avoided making any major mistakes, while showing good instincts, range and speed.
If Campbell wants to keep his starting job at strong safety, he'll need to improve in a few areas of his game. For starters, he'll need to get a bulk up and get stronger, as there were times last season when he got pushed around by tight ends and looked a bit too small to be playing close to the line of scrimmage. He'll also need to improve at playing the ball in the air and forcing turnovers, something the Panthers secondary coaches are already emphasizing this offseason.
26 years old
Mike Mitchell was a typical Al Davis pick -- an athletic standout who hadn't really done anything in college. When he was picked in the second round as the 47th overall pick in the 2009 Draft, it was definitely a head-scratcher. Hardly anybody knew about the Ohio University safety, as most analysts had pegged him as a seventh rounder or UDFA.
Like most of the other workout warriors the Raiders have picked over the years, Mitchell ended up being a disappointment in the NFL. He didn't start any games in his rookie year, and only has a combined nine starts in four years.
The Raiders bloggers over at Silver and Black Pride had this to say about Mitchell when they re-graded their 2009 Draft:
Second round, 47th overall - Mike Mitchell (F-)
That was the reaction of nearly every expert watching the draft as Oakland selected a guy many had projected as un-drafted in the second round.
And unfortunately for the Raiders, it appears everyone else was right.
In four seasons, Mitchell has recorded just 139 total tackles with just two interceptions while playing mostly on special teams.
Honestly, if he hadn't been a second round pick, Mitchell would probably have been out of the league by now.
24 years old
Lester was one of the Panthers' priority UDFA's following the draft, which means that the team most likely graded him as a late round talent. The former Alabama safety is a bigger, more physical player who fits the role of a prototypical 'box' safety -- he's a hard tackler, can blitz well and generates turnovers. Unfortunately his biggest weakness is his ability in coverage, as he has stiff hips and doesn't have good change in direction ability. He also doesn't have great athleticism. In today's NFL where offenses are turning more to spread-oriented attacks, that's a problem.
Lester has impressed the Panthers coaches in OTA's, but his chances of starting on an NFL team at safety right now are slim to none. He will push Mitchell and Campbell in camp, but will most likely be put on the practice squad for further development.
I personally think D.J Campbell wins the starting job at the strong safety position. He's shown the ability to play at a high level in the NFL, and has more upside and potential than Mike Mitchell. Robert Lester might be considered a dark horse by some, but if he even makes the Panthers final 53 man roster, it'll be a huge achievement for him, because he needs a lot of work right now.
So, who do you think wins the job at strong safety? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? Feel free to vote, and comment below.
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