Next to Star Lotulelei, Kenjon Barner could very well be the steal of the draft. In the 6th round, the uber-talented Barner was finally selected by the Carolina Panthers, drawing comparisons to the likes of Darren Sproles and others. Barner spent most of his collegiate career backing up the likes of Lamichael James and Legarrette Blount, hailing from the same school as our very own Jonathan Stewart. Barner has been turning some heads at camp (and apparently drawing the ire of some of the safeties...).
Barner will have a solid chance to make an impact, as Stewart is still on the mend. With Stewart questionable, the coaching staff will likely elect to limit DeAngelo Williams' reps and probably even Mike Tolbert. With Michael Zordich battling to be the team's true fullback, we will likely see a lot of Barner, Tauren Poole, and Armond Smith (with Tolbert and Williams taking some snaps in the beginning). Barner has the potential to become the Mike Goodson of old, hopefully without the fumble issues. Barner will probably get work with all three groups on offense, and a look on special teams. Don't be surprised if Barner amasses 20+ touches on Friday.
Year after year, we hear good things about Edwards in camp, and many fans remain hopeful (though many skeptical) that he will finally show he was worth the third rounder (which we gave up the 33rd overall pick in the next season's draft for) that we spent for his services. However, each year Edwards just barely made the roster. Sure we had seen flashes, but nothing concrete, nothing consistent. But this training camp, the tide may have changed. Every day on Twitter I have seen an update about Edwards making some great catch, and the more I see, the more I believe. Consistency is the name of the game, and Edwards seems to be consistently making plays in camp.
As reflected on the team's newly released preseason depth chart, Armanti Edwards is listed behind Steve Smith, as at least the number four receiver. With Hixon also on the mend, Edwards will likely see a great deal of reps on Friday. Steve Smith will play a few series, as will Brandon LaFell, but these two are the only ones who have 100% locked up roster spots. Edwards should see a fair amount of action at both outside positions and in the slot. Domenik Hixon will get some looks if healthy, but he's pretty much hit his ceiling as an NFL player. Edwards still has something to prove, and might actually show that he's for real. The skeptics of Edwards say to wait. "Wait til he's in pads, wait til he's in live drills..." etc. Now we wait until he's in a game situation. I expect many of us will be eager to see how he performs.
Last season against the Bears, Jay Cutler became a personified potato sack against the Panthers' pass rush. But the pass rush died down later in the game due to being overworked. Hardy and Johnson are extremely talented players, but they simply can't be the only ones to generate pass rush all season long. Enter Frank Alexander.
Alexander made a bit of an impact last season as a nice option to rotate in and out to keep the Panthers star defensive ends at least somewhat fresh. Alexander made his mark batting down passes on his limited snaps, and stepped in on many 3 (to 4) defensive end sets. The Panthers will let Hardy and Johnson get their first taste of blood on Friday, but I highly doubt that the two of them will see too many snaps. Losing either one would be a huge blow to this front seven. We will likely see a lot of Alexander and Mario Addison, who could run wild on the Bears' admittedly improved but still poor offensive line situation. I expect the coaching staff to take a long look at who is "next up" on the d-line.
Let me preface this by answering two questions.
A. No, Clausen is never going to start in Carolina.
B. No, Clausen probably won't supplant Derek Anderson for the backup role.
Cam Newton is the franchise quarterback. Every time Anderson's been called on, we've seen little-to-no drop off on offense. Clausen is going to be the third qb (barring any injuries of course). However, Anderson is far off from ever being a starter in this league again. Clausen might just have a chance. Clausen's been quietly having a very good preseason, minus the occasional misfire that we've all come to expect from our favorite clipboard holder. He's not playing to be the Panthers quarterback, he's not playing to be our backup. But his new throwing motion and overall hard work to be better shows he still believes he can play and be a real boy! Clausen's going to get a lot of reps in the preseason. He could very well work up some value as trade bait, and at the very least gives prospective suitors some recent film to work with. Clausen probably won't be here next year, this is the time to show he deserves a shot somewhere else.
5. Brandon Williams
Williams is another guy whose name is consistently showing up on the Twittersphere. After recovering from a spinal injury, the super athletic but raw tight is looking to make himself an NFL careeer. We've seen some comparisons to Antonio Gates, and the guy is showing some of the hype by making some great catches in camp. He figures to get some reps with Greg Olsen being the only true lock to play in 2013. The second tight end door is wide open, and Brandon Williams has shown he can catch. Now the question is, can he block? I expect Williams to see a lot of looks in our first game. The coaching staff likes what he brings to the table, as does the rest of the team. The best way to shape a raw athlete is to give him some game experience, something you just can't get on the practice field.
So Panthers fans, who do you think should be the players to watch on Friday? Share with us in the comments!