Starting Cornerback: Josh Norman
One player who took a huge jump forward in 2014 was cornerback Josh Norman. After playing 16 games his rookie season he was only able to play seven games his second season and started out his third season struggling.
The coaching staff inserted Norman in the starting lineup in Week 5 and was the first step to solidifying the Panthers secondary. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks had an NFL rating of 53.9 when throwing towards Norman. This was the fourth lowest rating among cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of the team’s snaps.
The team is going to look to Norman to have a similar performance next season. The Panthers are going to face a number of the top wide receivers in the league and for the defense to remain in the Top 10, Norman will be a key reason for that.
Starting Cornerback: Charles Tillman
The other cornerback position is not nearly as settled and there are a number of players who will be vying for this spot. The team signed two veteran cornerbacks and the hope is one will be able to step into the role. Right now, Tillman has to be considered the favorite considering his experience in Ron Rivera’s defense.
The two-time Pro Bowler has struggled the past two seasons with injury and has played in only 10 games. In both 2012 and 2013, Tillman’s season was cut short due to tricep injuries. The question is just how much the 34 year old has left in the tank and if he can stay healthy for a full season.
If he is able to, the Panthers defense is going to be extremely tough to beat. However, the organization can’t feel too confident if Tillman is their best option and should have a back-up plan if Tillman suffers another injury.
Nickelback: Bene Benwikere
One of those back-up plans could be Bene Benwikere sliding back to outside linebacker but he’s better suited as the team’s nickelback. He started at cornerback opposite Norman the final four regular season games and the two playoff games and played very well. He finished that stretch with a rating of 7.9 according to Pro Football Focus.
ESPN’s David Newton wrote about Benwikere’s abilities and why the Panthers defense is much stronger with him at nickelback. “But because of Benwikere's unique skill set, his great vision and ability to read defenses, he can do things at nickel that elevates the overall defense in passing situations.”
As long as one of the other cornerbacks is able to step into the role opposite Norman as an every down cornerback, expect Benwikere to play the nickel. And play it very well.
Cornerback #2: Melvin White
The Panthers signed Melvin White as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2013 season. He steadily improved and was one of the starting cornerbacks for the Panthers to start 2014. He actually started six of the first seven weeks but struggled and soon lost the job.
All hope isn’t lost though for White to earn back his starting cornerback position. The Panthers didn’t bring in anyone that is a guarantee to start considering the two free agents, Tillman and Houston, both have injury concerns. This is certainly one competition that is wide open entering training camp.
Cornerback #3: Chris Houston
Right before the Panthers’ minicamp, the team signed veteran Chris Houston. The former Atlanta Falcon and Detroit Lion is looking to get back to the NFL after sitting out last year. He suffered a toe injury near in the second half of 2013 and unfortunately he wasn’t fully recovered by the time the 2014 season started the Lions released Houston.
At one time Houston was a cornerback on the rise but after sitting out last season, it remains to be seen what level he is at. If Houston wants to surpass Tillman or White, he is going to have to start strong in training camp and continue to play at a high level throughout the preseason.
Cornerback #4: Carrington Byndom
The Panthers signed Carrington Byndom as an undrafted free agent and spent the majority of the year on the practice squad. He did get called up towards the end of the season and played four games on special teams.
Byndom is a player who will need some more time to develop at cornerback but can earn a roster spot by contributing on special teams.
Rest of the Position
There are three other cornerbacks currently on the Panthers roster who will be trying to earn roster spots this training camp (Teddy Williams, Lou Young, Garry Peters). The Panthers signed free agent Teddy Williams however Williams has been primarily a special teams player. In three years, he has played on five teams and appeared in 12 games but only has three career tackles.
One player who could surprise some fans this training camp is Garry Peters. The former Clemson Tiger was signed as an undrafted free agent but has a great deal of potential.
Brandon Croce is the Lead Publisher for PantherInsider.com. You can find him on Twitter @BrandonCroce.