It's a tall task, trying out for the Carolina Panthers on any position in the line. It would almost be like a recent business graduate applying for Donald Trump's job.
There is no doubt that the starting front four will be Mike Rucker, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Julius Peppers. The four men command respect from offensive linemen, head coaches, the media and the fans. If any of the rookies or free agents think that they are vying for one of these coveted spots, they certainly have another thing coming. In fact, the so-called "second string" guys either could start or have started on other teams at some point.
Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker will start the season at defensive end. Al Wallace, back-up defensive end, can be plugged in to spell Rucker or Peppers with little to no drop off in talent. Kemp Rasmussen works well as a stop-gap, but he doesn't quite have the physical talent to keep up with the starters. Rookie Jovan Haye, out of Vanderbilt, needs to have a seriously impressive camp to keep up with these guys, but will probably still make the squad as a utility end.
This is where it gets interesting. At the beginning of camp, the battles seemed rather clear cut. However, the drafting of Thomas Davis, Mark Fields taking the year off due to Hodgkin's Disease, plus various free agent and rookie signings have made this a position of high interest for the Panthers.
Originally, the starting LB crew was projected to be Will Witherspoon and Brandon Short on the edges and Dan Morgan in the middle. In week one of preseason, however, Short injured his foot on the opening kickoff. Coach Fox felt the injury severe enough to put rookie sensation Thomas Davis in the linebacker slot, out of the safety position, and then back again to safety after Colin Branch tore his ACL. While Witherspoon and Morgan will most certainly start, who will the depth contain in a roster that, as I'm writing this, contains eleven linebackers?
The starter on the other side is still up in the air. Thomas Davis is out of the picture after a need arose at safety. Chris Draft was obtained as a free agent from the Falcons this offseason, and has a good deal of experience as a starter, as both weakside and middle linebacker. Davis looked like he would get the start, but now Draft is almost a shoe in, assuming his asthma is not a hindrance.
So who is left? The Panthers have always tried to have a linebacking crew they could boast about, so certainly only the cream of the crop will make it. The undersized Vinny Ciurciu, who has jumped from Carolina to Tampa and back again, has made some excellent plays with the second team at camp, and also plays on special teams, so look for him to get the nod to be Morgan's back up this year, which proves that anybody that plays well and works hard can make the roster (Ciurciu was a member of the practice squad for Carolina). Sean Tufts is also a good special teams player, and Jason Kyle is the team long snapper, but won't contribute much to the actual linebacker position. That makes the roster almost full, with rookies Marcus Lawrence and Adam Seward needing a good showing in preseason to make the final roster, not to mention the returning Brian Knight. A good amount of talent, and not all of them will make the roster in Carolina.
During the offseason, the Panthers looked to bolster an area of criticism for the past few years: the secondary. They snagged Ken Lucas in free agency from the Seahawks, and instantly added another ballhawk to the team, as he and incumbent Chris Gamble tied for the most interceptions in the NFC last year. That brings playoff sensation Ricky Manning in as the nickel back, where he is better suited, and suddenly the Panthers have a threatening backfield. They ditched a few players that hampered them last year, such as Artrell Hawkins, and now some of the deeper talent gets their shot from the last few corner spots. Eddie Jackson has turned some heads during camp this year, and if his play continues, looks to be one of the guys to make the final roster. Will Hampton and Dante Wesley are both at a crossroads. After a few disappointing seasons where they didn't quite live up to expectations, they are being given another chance to make the roster. With former starter Manning going to the nickel position, one or both of them might be able to make a good showing to get into the last spot(s). They have a head start over newcomer Marcus Floyd, but if Dwight Anderson, who many feel underachieved at St. Louis, can achieve his full potential and play special teams well, Hampton and/or Wesley could find themselves on the bubble.
Deeper in coverage are the safeties. The Panthers signed several safeties during this offseason, including Idrees Bashir from the Colts and Marlon McCree from the Texans, both of whom have starting experience. Bring those guys in with Mike Minter, the veteran leader on defense, the rookies Thomas Davis and Ben Emmanuel, and (at the time) Colin Branch, and you'd think that the Panthers were overloaded with talent at the safety positions. However, after an injury to Brandon Short that put Davis in the linebacker spot, and a subsequent season ending injury to Colin Branch, the depth chart might decide itself. Minter will definitely get the nod to start, and after the inury to Branch, Bashir may get the start on the other side of the ball. McCree could challenge the spot, but will need a stronger showing in the preseason. The Panthers would love to put the physical Thomas Davis up front, but his coverage skills need some work before he is ready for a starting position. Currently Davis is with the starting group, but the team may opt to have a more experienced player like Bashir take the bulk of the snaps. Look for Minter to be by Davis at every practice, showing him the ropes. Ben Emmanuel might have been a practice squad delegate before Branch went out for the year, but now that Davis is back at safety, he definitely has his work cut out for him.
What seems to be a sickening feeling of history repeating itself in the injury department has pretty much decided the lineups for the Panthers. The wildcard is Thomas Davis. Major injuries to a starting LB and starting S will have the coaches looking very hard at the depth, as Davis needs a clear cut place to go so that he can learn the system. Shifting him back and forth isn't doing the rookie any good, but necessity dictates him to be in a place that the coaches didn't necessarily want him starting out. The coaches have to be thankful for his versatility and ability to cover a position if the situation calls for it. If the Panthers can stay relatively healthy (at least, healthier than they've been thus far), their defense should be good enough and diverse enough to propel them to another playoff spot.