Last Friday's game against the Chicago Bears served to answer some questions about who would be the Panthers' regular season starters, while raising others. Strong safety was once thought to be the most contentious battle in camp, but that's been quickly resolved unless something unexpected happens. Today we're focusing on the three main competitions that are still up for grabs in the starting lineup.
Mike Mitchell is trying to resurrect his career after being a punchline in Oakland. Written off as 'the fast guy', Mitchell has managed to shake his draft position in Carolina where the former second-round pick has separated himself as the most reliable strong safety for the job. He's not great in coverage, but Mitchell is a physical tackler with an ability to shed blocks, allowing him to make plays in the run game. This should pair nicely with Charles Godfrey at free safety, and should be how they line up to start the regular season.
At this point it's still anyone's guess who gets the nod at right guard to start the season. Logic dictates that Garry Williams will likely get the start, but Chris Scott and Jeff Byers have also seen action at the position in training camp. Of the three players vying for the position, Byers is the most intriguing. He's a huge liability in the passing game, finishing the 2012 season with a -6.2 rating in pass blocking from Pro Football Focus, but his run blocking was an excellent +5.7 -- second on the offensive line to only Jordan Gross.
If Mike Shula really wants to reinvent the Panthers as a running team it makes sense to overload the right side of the line with run blockers, and let the chips fall where they may. This is especially important with the lackluster play of Byron Bell. Carolina could find themselves in a position where an offensive line of Gross/Silatolu/Kalil/Byers/Williams is their best option. It wont be able to protect Cam Newton, but it will allow the run to flourish, and this could be enough to win when paired with their stifling defense.
General manager, Dave Gettleman saw this as one of the team's primary weaknesses when he arrived earlier this year. The Panthers didn't have a lot of money to acquire free agents, but cornerback was the one area that he splashed out. Captain Munnerlyn was re-signed, Drayton Florence arrived from Detroit, and D.J. Moore was pegged to be Carolina's ball-hawking nickel.
It was the easily-forgotten, and oft-maligned Josh Norman who stood head and shoulders above the rest of the corners on Friday night. The two interceptions were impressive, but his overall coverage is on a different level to what we saw during his rookie season. Eye-popping plays are continuing beyond game night, as Norman made another impressive interception in training camp yesterday.
The battle to start across from Florence is on, and it's hard to see how Munnerlyn will keep his job when Norman is playing so well.
Dwan Edwards was retained to be the ever-reliable veteran while the Panthers found their future, but that reality came sooner than expected when Kawann Short was available in the second round. There's no use screwing around here, Short needs to start. He's a better pass rusher than Edwards, has more upside, and getting him reps early simply accelerates his development.
The perception of Edwards is given a huge bump because of his sacks in 2012, but he wasn't a routinely reliable defensive tackle. He added just 13 QB hurries in 2012, less than Frank Alexander -- and graded out from Pro Football Focus as a -1.7, which was worst than Frank Kearse.
Short showed on Friday that he's the kind of player who can help make things happen, rather than the defensive ends allowing plays to come to him. His ability to collapse the pocket was impressive, and there's no sense delaying the long-term pairing of Star Lotulelei and Short on the defensive line.