Manning: "This is going to be my best season."

The Panthers plan to begin the season with Chris Gamble starting at cornerback opposite free agent pickup Ken Lucas. It had basically been a foregone conclusion after the Panthers gave Lucas a $13 million signing bonus in the off-season. Gamble was a first-round draft pick out of Ohio State last year who started every game and tied for the NFC lead in interceptions, ironically enough, with Lucas, who played for Seattle last season.

That, of course, leaves Ricky Manning Jr. as the odd man out -- or in this case, the nickel corner.

The Panthers will still use Manning in many of their defensive looks, but the threesome of Lucas, Gamble and Manning potentially gives Carolina one of the best cornerback trios in the league.

Manning has been a two-year starter for the Panthers and grabbed national attention with two huge plays during Carolina's Super Bowl run in 2003. In a divisional playoff game against St. Louis, he stopped a Rams drive in Carolina territory near the end of the first overtime with an interception of Mark Bulger. Three plays later, Steve Smith went 69 yards for a touchdown to give Carolina a dramatic 29-23 double overtime win.

The following week, Manning picked off Donovan McNabb three times in the NFC Championship game, lifting the Panthers to 14-3 win and into the franchise's first Super Bowl.

Last year, as Carolina's number one cornerback entering the season, Manning appeared to struggle some with the enforcement of new rules which prevented cornerbacks from using their hands after five yards. Carolina's third down defense struggled and the Panthers felt they needed a shutdown corner and went out and got Lucas.

Up until recently, coach John Fox has been saying the three jobs are open for competition, but he admitted recently that he plans to start the season with Lucas and Gamble at the corners. Of course, he said that could always change.

Manning, who stands just 5-feet-9, is eager to prove that he belongs back in the starting lineup.

"Because of my size, I have always been the underdog -- going into high school, going into college, and going into the NFL," Manning said. "So it's nothing new for me. I'll be ready for the challenge. I'm going to make that decision tough for the coaching staff."

As for Lucas, Manning said, "He's a good player. He makes plays. But I don't think that they are bringing in someone who is like, way, way better than me. I think he will make us better as a team."

Manning said he might have gotten complacent and took his role as a starter for granted last year after receiving little competition in training camp. But he said he won't make the same mistake again this summer and still feels like he can handle any wide receiver in the league.

"This year there is competition and it's going to be a hard off-season," said Manning, who started 16 games in 2004 with four interceptions and 80 tackles. "This is going to be my best season. I felt I played good last year. I didn't have a spectacular year, but I played good. I tackled well and busted my butt all year long. I plan on doing better year."

Dante Wesley, Eddie Jackson and William Hampton will battle for the No. 4 and No. 5 cornerback spots.

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