It seems every year that the Panthers leave a position grouping or two up in the air for some healthy competition. Typically with rookie draft picks the veterans get the nod early on for first team snaps, while the rookies have to fight their way up the depth chart. And the resulting decisions brought forth the player who gave the Panthers their best chance to win. As an example, undrafted free agent cornerback Melvin White was on the proverbial "roster bubble", but managed to stay with the team as we saw Drayton Florence released in favor of White during the first rounds of cuts. As the season progressed, White eventually became the starter at the second cornerback position. By the same token, Josh Norman won the second cornerback spot his rookie year to start the season.
Defensive back has been a competitive position these past few seasons, and it appears we are looking at the same battle to take place again.
This season, the only incumbent starter in the Panthers defensive backfield is 2013 UFA Melvin White. Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell, and Quintin Mikell all left Carolina without a new contract to return. The Panthers in turn brought in cornerback Antoine Cason to alleviate the losses at cornerback, while bringing in familiar faces Roman Harper and Thomas Decoud at safety. The Panthers have 9 total cornerbacks on roster, and it's very possible that Melvin White doesn't keep his starting spot. The Panthers also brought in Bene Benwikere in the 5th round of the 2014 draft, and Benwikere has been garnering the praise of Ron Rivera in OTA's. Benwikere will realistically compete for the nickel corner spot early on in training camp. Josh Norman and Josh Thomas return following a bad 2013 season for both of them. James Dockery was resigned this offseason following an injury filled 2013, and the coaching staff certainly must see something in him for Dockery to have stuck around this long.
Also keep an eye out for UFA Carrington Byndom and 2nd year pro De'quan Menzie. Menzie is a former 5th round pick who spent all of his rookie season on IR, and if last season told us anything, Gettleman's been able to find gems for our defensive backfield.
We also have the variable that is Charles Godfrey. Godfrey has a total of 6 seasons under his belt as a Panther, and three whole seasons of experience with Sean McDermott's defensive scheme. Godfrey is however returning from an Achilles injury that knocked him out for the year last season. While Godfrey spent his entire career as a safety, he does have collegiate experience at cornerback and possesses many of the skills and traits of an effective nickel cornerback (when healthy). How this position battle plays out will depend on how healthy Godfrey is. He is set to compete for the nickel corner spot, but don't be surprised if he gets some looks as an outside cornerback as well.
CB1 - Antoine Cason
I just don't see any way that Cason isn't a starter in this system. He has enjoyed 49 starts over his 6 year career and has NEVER MISSED A GAME. He's at least dressed for all 16 games every year of his career. Unlike Drayton Florence last season, Cason appears to have a lot left in the tank. He didn't start a single game for Arizona last season which can be attributed to a loaded defensive backfield. Prior to 2013 he was a 16 game starter for San Diego. Here in Carolina, he will be playing behind a front seven that is as good if not better than Arizona's. He also has a familiarity with Steve Wilks working to his favor.
CB2 - Melvin White
Melvin White made great strides over the course of the 2013 season. While he wasn't spectacular and made a lot of mental mistakes, for an undrafted rookie he played quite well. Josh Norman just hasn't seemed to win back Rivera's favor ever since his rookie year, and Josh Thomas was just plain awful last season. Benwikere might eventually have the chance to compete for this spot, but he's slated to compete as a nickel and likely won't see many outside looks. The only player I see on roster who could challenge for this spot is Charles Godfrey, who should be closely watched to gauge how healthy he is, and how much he can contribute.
Nickel CB- Charles Godfrey
Bene Benwikere will get his chance to win this spot, but honestly I just haven't seen the qualities that made Captain Munnerlyn a great nickel cornerback in our defense. Benwikere has great ball skills and his instincts are what you look for in an NFL cornerback. But he leaves much to be desired as far as playing the run/near the box. Charles Godfrey on the other hand has shown (in my opinion) that he can play the box and possesses the coverage skills necessary to be a successful nickel cornerback. He also has 6 seasons of pro experience on his side. Godfrey showed a willingness to mix it up in the box while also being a good coverage player at safety. If Godfrey is healthy come the start of the season, I believe that the defensive scheme doesn't have to change too much with Godfrey taking over Munnerlyn's role in the defense. While Benwikere might be able to play the nickel and do well, I don't see us using him as the joker defender that Munnerlyn was, while with Godfrey I believe he can. Click the links in this paragraph for further explanation.
Do you agree with my analysis, Panther fans? Who do you think will win the battle? And stick around for further analysis of the rest of training camp's position battles.