It's going to be a very interesting Pre-Season for the Panthers this year. Gone are the days of predicting what's going to happen based on Fox's propensity to stick with the Vets...because well, there almost are no vets! It's a young team, but one brimming with talent and athleticism, and a team that I feel will bring out some of Fox's best coaching.
Here is a look at what I personally view as the major position battles for this upcoming season. (This post was getting kinda long so I split it up into Offense and Defense)
The departure of Julius Peppers opens up a lot of possibilities at DE this year for the Panthers. Tyler Brayton was one of the few vets to survive this off-season's purge, Charles Johnson has shown flashes of skill in backup spots the past few years, last year's undersized draft pick - Everette Brown - has bulked up to 260 this offseason, and two rookies in Greg Hardy and tweener LB/DE Eric Norwood both have potential. I forsee the Panthers keeping 5 at DE this year and running a rotation. Brayton will most likely man the RDE position and possibly slide inside on passing downs. The other starter most likely comes from Johnson or Brown. They gave up a lot to get Brown last year and Defensive Coordinator Ron Meeks has had success with smaller DEs in Indianapolis in the past so unless he is physically overmatched I foresee Brown winning the other starting nod. However, I do think that Johnson will get plenty of playing time this year. The dark horse candidate here is Greg Hardy. A supposed first round talent that was selected with a sixth round pick this year because of injury, he seems to have the type of size/speed/athleticism to potentially ease the pain of losing Peppers. Also expect Norwood to have an impact this year, sometimes from DE and sometimes rushing from LB, but he is seen by the team as a Pass Rusher who was obviously selected with some sort of role in mind.
Winners: Tyler Brayton and Everette Brown
Major Contributor: Charles Johnson
Dark Horse potential starter: Greg Hardy
Situational Rusher: Eric Norwood
Possibly the weakest area of the team and the most concerning is DT. While the Panther's DLine has lived on the reputation of the past and Peppers for the past few years...the fact is that this has been a mediocre DLine for several years. It was further weakened by injuries last year, but at least that forced the Panthers to make a few trades and we do have at least some ability. I feel the DT position is going to come down to a rotation between Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler, Ed Johnson, Corey Irvin, and Nick Hayden. Leonard and Tyler were both traded for last year and showed some potential before getting injured. Johnson is a reclamation project from Indianapolis who has had performance and off-the-field issues. Irvin was a draft pick last year who was viewed as a project and was injured early so is basically a complete unknown. Hayden, while having a huge motor and a ton of desire, was simply over-matched most of the time that he saw the field last year. If the injury bug hits this area of the team again this year I predict a LONG season of run defense. I have some faith that the duo of Leonard and Tyler can be serviceable clogging the middle and that, along with Irvin and Tyler Brayton moving inside on passing downs, they might be able to generate some pressure. I'm a little leery of Johnson who was on and off the Colts because of off-the-field issues, but last year was released purely based on performance concerns. While I like Hayden and I love guys with non-stop motors, I simply think if he sees considerable time this year it spells disaster for our defense. This is a position that i'd love to see the Panthers trade for some more depth or starting potential before the season begins.
Winners: Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler
Backup: Corey Irvin
On the Bubble: Ed Johnson and Nick Hayden
This is going to be one of the most confusing and interesting battles to see unfold this year. The injury to Thomas Davis really hits hard because he is an amazing talent that really started to shine in Meeks' defense. His injury also opened up all sorts of potential scenarios all across the LB crew. One obvious starter is Jon Beason, one of the best MLBs in the game. Beason has been manning the middle for the past several seasons, but one potential option is to move him to WLB to replace Davis. Normally this would make no sense because having a dominant MLB normally is more important than a dominant WLB, but in Meeks' Tampa 2 the WLB becomes very important...think Derrick Brooks. If Beason is to slide to WLB that puts the most likely starter at MLB as Dan Connor - a standout LB from the original LB U, Penn State. If Beason stays at MLB then the most likely starter at WLB is Jamar Williams, a recent acquisition from Chicago who was stuck behind Lance Briggs. At SLB the front-runner is James Anderson, but depending on how the other positions play out either Connor or Williams could factor in as well as DE/LB tweener Eric Norwood. In the end, I feel like this all comes down to Jamar Williams. If Williams shows a lot of talent at WLB, then they should keep Beason at MLB where he has excelled. However, if Williams shows he is more of a backup, then moving Beason to WLB makes sense.
Lots of potential prediction scenarios here...
If Jon Beason plays at WLB:
MLB: Dan Connor
SLB: James Anderson (backed up by Williams and Norwood)
If Jon Beason plays at MLB:
WLB: Jamar Williams
SLB: James Anderson (backed up by Connor and Norwood)
WLB: Jamar Williams
MLB: Jon Beason
SLB: James Anderson