Camp Battles

Panthers training camp is about to start in Spartanburg, South Carolina and there is much that still needs to be decided. Who will start on the offense line, who will replace Todd Sauerbrun, and who will make the team are just a few of the questions that will be answered in the next few weeks.

The toughest battle in camp will be along the offensive line. The Panthers offensive line has been undergoing some major changes since the superbowl run. Last year, changes where made due to retirements and free agents leaving. This year it looks like there will be just as much movement in the offensive line, but the outlook appears to be better. Jeff Mitchell will retain his spot at center, but that might be the only position that remains the same. Jordan Gross will move back to right tackle where he excelled as a rookie. Last year Gross tried his hand at left tackle and did a fine job, but when compared to his work on the right side it is easy to see where he was more comfortable. Outstanding rookie Travelle Wharton will move from his spot at left guard to left tackle. Wharton played very well in the second half of the season at guard but his natural position is tackle. He will get a chance to show if he can hold up to the job of protecting Jake Delhomme's blind side. Wharton will have help on the left side with new free agent Mike Wahle playing left guard. Wahle is considered one of the best young guards in the NFL. He will have to stay playing at that high level to justify the 5 year, 25 million dollar contract he signed this off-season. Wahle does bring good versatility to the Panthers offensive line. If Wharton struggles at tackle, Wahle has the ability to move out to tackle allowing Wharton to resume his duties at guard. The biggest question on the offensive line is the right guard position. Right now it is held down but incumbent, Tutan Reyes, but he will be pushed hard for the starting spot by third round pick Evan Mathis and waiver pickup Tupe Peko.

Peko started 8 games at right guard for an Indianapolis Colts team that allowed a league low 14 sacks last year. Mathis had 47 consecutive starts at Alabama and was considered by many to be a steal with a third round pick. The play of the offensive line this year will go a long way in determining the success of the team.

One of the least exciting but most important battles in camp could be at the punter position. In a ball control offense, like that of the Panthers, the punter is very important. Field position is key to winning the close games. With Todd Sauerbrun, the Panthers had one of the strongest legs in the game. Sauerbrun was a player who could kick you out of a deep hole and pin the other team deep. With that success came a price, as Sauerbrun struggled with a weight issue and also had many off field legal issues. This off-season the Panthers choose to part ways with Sauerbrun for someone that will cause less of a splash outside of the lines, but at what cost? The possible replacements for Sauerbrun include 5th year player Jason Baker, 2nd year player Steve Cheek and 13 year vet Tom Rouen. Each punter has strong points and weaknesses. Cheek is the long shot for the job. He has spent time in camp with the Chiefs and Texans but has not played in a regular season game. He has played well in NFL Europe and did have the second-best preseason average among AFC punters at 46.2 yards last year. Rouen may have the best shot at the job. He has averaged 43.6 yards per punt over his career with the Broncos, Steelers and Seahawks but he is coming off a season ending injury to his right hamstring. Baker has to prove he is consistent enough to beat out Rouen. Baker has been with four different teams the last four years and has averaged a meager 39.6 yards per punt for his career. Baker's biggest asset is his kick offs, an area the Panthers struggled with last year. He has had 9 touch backs in the last two years.

Training camp is also the time for players to show what they can do. Every year a surprise player steps up to the challenge of camp to show the team they are ready for the big time. This year there are seven undrafted free agents that will be fighting to be more than just camp fodder. One guy that stands a good chance is Lorenzo Alexander, DT, out of California. He fits the mold of the Panthers defensive line well and plays with a ton of passion. He was compared to current Panther, Brentson Buckner even before he was signed by the Panthers. He is a selfless player that will take on multiple blockers to allow his teammates to make plays. Look for him to challenge Omari Jordan for a roster spot.

Michael Watson out of West Virginia and Jon Doty out of Kansas State are both offensive tackles trying to make the team. Watson is not strong and has marginal balance. He has great attitude and will bury defenders but needs work to get up to NFL levels. Doty has to do one thing to improve his chances, get an attitude. Doty has talent but has earned a reputation of being soft. He has to learn to finish off blocks and knock defenders down. For Doty or Watson to earn a roster spot they would have to out perform Todd Fordham, David Kadela, and Matt Hill.

Efrem Hill and Taylor Stubblefield are both wide receivers that the Panthers signed. Hill is out of Samford in the Ohio Valley Conference. He has height at 6'0" but needs to add some bulk to his frame because he is not a speedy guy. He played with a fractured pelvis his entire senior year which shows toughness. He will need that toughness if he hopes to make the squad. Stubblefield attended Purdue and has the stats to back up any claims he wants to make. He is the NCAA division 1-A all time leader in receptions. Stubblefield was not drafted because he does not fit the NFL type receiver mold. At 5'11" and only 174 lbs he is frail and skinny. He also does not have great speed with a 4.74 40 time. There is no questioning Stubblefield's hands, but for a him to earn a roster spot he will have to show that he can block bigger guys and also take a hit.

Lornell McPherson, defensive back, out of Nebraska and Marcus Lawrence, linebacker, out of South Carolina could face tough battles and long odds to make the team. McPherson is undersized at 5'8" and has average speed, a 4.51 40. He struggles in man-to-man coverage but does show a good burst to close on the ball. He would have to out perform Will Hampton and Dante Wesley to earn a roster spot. Lawrence has good size and speed but has to learn to work in traffic better. He needs to shed blocks quicker and tackle better. Lawrence also needs to make better decisions when on the field. He played middle linebacker at South Carolina but would be better suited to the weak side in the pro game because of his good coverage abilities. For Lawrence to make the team he would have to beat out Sean Tufts, Justin Smith and 2005 5th round pick Adam Seward. The best way to do that would be to excel on special teams.

Training camp is the time for the front office to weed out the slackers and put together a winning team. John Fox and his crew of coaches have some tough choices to make in this up coming camp. We will soon be finding out who will be starting in game one, who makes the team, and who is packing there bags hoping for a practice squad invitation.

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