Concern About Linebackers In '06 And Beyond?

Linebacker, an area of strength in 2004 for the Carolina Panthers, could soon turn into an area of weakness. The contracts of MLB Dan Morgan and WLB Will Witherspoon expire after the 2005 season. In addition, the unknown future of SLB Mark Fields, who recently had a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease, makes the situation even more confusing.

Fields, the pure definition of a true athlete, is expected to be back for the black and blue in '06, but his return is far from a sure thing. At 32 years of age, and missing his second full season in the last 3 years, Fields may be done with his football career. His agent recently told the press, "Mark would like everyone to know that he considers this 'blip' in his recovery a minor setback and that his expectations are to return to the field for the 2006 season.", leading many to believe that Fields expects to come back and play again in the NFL. The Panthers are prepared for what lies ahead. With Brandon Short, Chris Draft, Vinny Ciurciu, Adam Seward and the potential of moving Thomas Davis from safety to linebacker, Carolina has some options.

Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon are entering the final years of their contracts this season, and will be unrestricted free agents. Morgan, the 11th overall pick in 2001 from Miami has been as solid as any middle linebacker in the league....when he's healthy. Staying on the field has been his biggest problem. Morgan has suffered multiple concussions and has missed 24 games over his first 4 seasons in the league. Will Witherspoon, a 3rd round draft pick from the University of Georgia in 2002, has been a steady contributor and had a break-out year in 2004. A solid coverage linebacker with a motor that doesn't stop, Witherspoon's best days are ahead of him, and should be at the top of Carolina's priority list of players needing to be re-signed.

Brandon Short is the top candidate for replacing Mark Fields for the 2005 campaign, and is no stranger to John Fox's coaching style. Short was the starting linebacker for the Giants when John Fox was the defensive coordinator in New York. Brought in before last season, the former Penn State standout was a solid depth guy for the Panthers. Short is a physical LB and is outstanding against the run. He lacks the speed of the current starters, but is good in small space. Look for Short and Chris Draft to battle it out in training camp for that open spot.

Chris Draft, who just spent five years with the Falcons, was recently acquired via free agency by Carolina. Mainly playing MLB in Atlanta, some think he's better served at OLB. Draft is a smart athletic player, though a little undersized. He has a strong burst that makes him a blitzing threat. Draft is also good in coverage, though at times makes bad decisions, thus removing himself from the play. He will give Short some competition for the SLB position.

Vinny Ciurciu has been Dan Morgan's back-up for a little over a season. Signed in December of 2003, Ciurciu's speedy, focused presence has mainly been seen on Special Teams. Ciurciu started in four games during the '04 season in place of Morgan, and impressed many within the organization. Is he ready to be a starter in the NFL? Ciurciu will have to continue to put forth similar effort and prove that he can be consistent from week to week.

A couple linebackers arrived in Carolina a few weeks ago via the draft.

Arguably the surest tackler in the draft, Thomas Davis was selected by the Panthers with the 14th overall selection. Davis was a safety at Georgia, but has the size/speed combination to play linebacker in the NFL. He played some at LB during his freshman year, and some NFL analysts think he was drafted because of his flexibility to move to LB.

Adam Seward came to Carolina in the 5th round from UNLV. Seward is a tough, hard-working MLB that plays with an aggressive style. He isn't as gifted speed-wise and is weak in coverage, but he should make an impact on special teams initially.

The remaining options presently on the roster are Marcus Lawrence, Bryan Knight, Sean Tufts and Justin Smith. They will each have a chance to make an impression on the coaches during training camp.

Re-signing both Morgan and Witherspoon would be ideal, but with both probably commanding high-dollar deals and some other important re-signings on the horizon, it's easier said than done. At least the Panthers have some options in the event that Fields, Morgan and Witherspoon aren't with the Panthers after the 2005 season.

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