With the third pretend game rapidly approaching, there are several key positions on this team that are still very much up for grabs. Among other positions, there is uncertainty at wide receiver, at defensive end, at defensive tackle, and there is a terrifying level of uncertainty on special teams. Who are the players battling for these positions?
Do we have the answer to these positions on the current roster? Let’s examine, shall we?
The most talked-about unsettled positions have to be the No. 2 and the No. 3 wide receiver positions. The front runners, if you will, are your Dwayne Jarretts, your Kenny Moores, your Wallace Wrights, and your Brandon LaFells. That said, there appears to be four guys fighting for essentially two spots.
The Carolina Panthers do not really have (nor do they use) a fourth wide receiver in their offense. Based on who these four players are, and not what they have shown so far, Dwayne Jarrett and Kenny Moore have to be the the first guys up based on their veteran status. Also, both players have been on the team and in the system longer than Wright and LaFell, and that goes a long way with John Fox.
Still, given that one is trying to shake the reputation as purely a special teams ace, and the other is a rookie, Wright and LaFell are very much in the mix. Taking the two preseason games into account, none of these four men has really popped from a production standpoint.
Jarrett has caught everything thrown at him, but due to his marginal playing speed, and his difficulty getting off the jam, his catches have been short, rather unimpressive possession type grabs.
Moore has been up and down. He has more speed and overall athleticism than Jarrett, but has been inconsistent when it comes to catching the ball, and seems to have an aversion to holding on to it until after the whistle blows.
Wright has not been targeted very much. His route running looks clean and sharp, but it remains to be seen whether he can catch the ball and make plays in a game. His roster spot may be the most secure out of the three veteran players due to his ability to cover kicks on special teams.
LaFell has shown flashes, but has been largely disappointing in his first two appearances in a Panthers uniform. LaFell has not caught the ball cleanly, and has struggled against man coverage.
Someone has to want this job, frankly. These four players have yet to separate themselves. Two of them will be called upon to produce during the regular season. The Panthers’ number two receiver during the last two seasons (Muhsin Muhammad) averaged 59 catches for 752 yards and three touchdowns. Whether they want to or not, one or more of these players has to step up and seize this role if the Panthers offense is going to be at least moderately successful.
The defensive line has been an unexpected bright spot during the first two preseason games. It must be pointed out, though, that Baltimore’s first-team offense marched down the field — running and passing — ultimately creating a 10 point lead before the first quarter was over. During that first quarter, it was starters against starters. The Panthers’ defensive line created very little push, particularly up the middle. Defensive end Tyler Brayton was the lone exception. He recorded two sacks on Joe Flacco before leaving with an ankle injury. Had he not, that field-goal the Ravens cashed in on could have easily been another touchdown.
The second-team defensive line was much more impressive, possibly due to the fact that they were battling the Ravens’ second-team offense. Defensive end Greg Hardy appears to be an excellent pick-up in the sixth round, and 28-year-old defensive end Eric Moore has flashed some pass rush ability late in both games.
Everette Brown, working with the first-team because of Brayton’s injury, recorded two sacks on the Jets’ Mark Sanchez last week in the first quarter.
Overall, the defense and particularly the defensive line looked much better in the game against the Jets. Again, some optimism can be tempered by the fact that the Jets’ offense is a group that has a long way to go before being considered an elite NFL offense. Regardless of the opponent, the defensive line looked much more aggressive in game two. That is a good sign for a unit that must throw several players at a single position, and hope that someone sticks.
At defensive end, the Panthers will start with Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. These two are fairly stout against the run, but may not create enough pass rush to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable. That is where Brown and Hardy come into play. During obvious passing situations, look for Brayton and Johnson to slide inside to defensive tackle so Brown and Hardy can come in to pressure the passer from the outside. But with the way the league works, offenses will take advantage of the personnel on the field. The Panthers will need some pass rush on first down, and they’ll need run support on third down.
Ideally, you’d have four guys who can play all three downs because they have an array of skill-sets. That does not appear to be the case this year in Carolina. We’ve heard the coaching staff talk about replacing the departed starters (Julius Peppers, Damione Lewis, and Ma’ake Kemoeatu) with more than one guy. That is all well and good, until teams start game-planning against the Panthers personnel during the regular season.
The defensive tackle positions are a bit more mystifying at this point. There are no proven commodities to turn to. The Panthers are working in good faith when it comes to the likes of Louis Leonard, Ed Johnson, Tank Tyler, and Derek Landri.
Leonard and Johnson appear to be the big, run-stuffing options. Tyler and Landri look more like your penetrating tackles. These four guys may turn into a serviceable rotation, but first they must stay healthy, stay clean, be effective, and prove they can make it through a 16-game regular season.
Special teams has been the thorn (or spear) in the Panthers’ side this preseason. After signing half a dozen free agents during the offseason in order to strengthen the special teams unit, you have to wonder if it was enough.
The Panthers are still looking to sort out their options at punt- and kick-returner. Armanti Edwards may not be the answer. Kenny Moore has tried his hand a few times, but he too has succumbed to costly fumbles. The combination of Tyrell Sutton and Captain Munnerlyn is steady, but neither player is a threat to take it to the house every time they touch the ball. Speedy cornerback Brian Witherspoon, someone with NFL experience as a return man, has not really had the opportunity to show his stuff (Witherspoon’s roster spot is shaky at best, which might be limiting his playing time as the coaches want to look at their other options first.)
Besides not making many plays in the kicking game, the Panthers have not been able to limit their opponents’ returning success, either. Kick coverage has been a problem for several years. The veteran special teams players who were brought in to help cover kicks have not helped so far. With safety Aaron Francisco returning from a hamstring injury, perhaps he can infuse some leadership and direction into a unit that has been lower-middle-mediocre, at best.
As we move closer to kickoff Saturday night in Charlotte, these looming questions will look to be answered. With the starters playing into the third quarter for this third preseason game, we will get plenty of opportunity to see who can step up and stake claim on a career with the Carolina Panthers.
Topics: Armanti Edwards, Brandon LaFell, Brian Witherspoon, Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina Panthers, Charles Johnson, Damione Lewis, Defense, Dwayne Jarrett, Eric Moore, Greg Hardy, John Fox, Julius Peppers, Kenny Moore, Louis Leonard, Maake Kemoeatu, Mike Goodson, NFL, Offense, Special Teams, Tyler Brayton, Tyrell Sutton, Wallace Wright