The NEXT Will Witherspoon?

When the Panthers selected linebacker James Anderson from Virginia Tech in the third round of the 2006 NFL draft, many fans and analysts were up in arms. They claimed that he was a reach. They claimed that he was a workout warrior.

They claimed that there were more obvious positions of need such as tight end and safety and players on the board who better fit these needs such as tight end Dominique Byrd and safety Darnell Bing.

The good thing is that none of this bothers James Anderson.

He is ready to come in and contribute in any way he can. Luckily for him, he comes from Virginia Tech, which has always prided itself in its special teams success. Like many rookies, this will be where Anderson is likely to make an early impact. "Coming into the NFL, you may not get into the game right away on defense, so my experience from the past gives me an opportunity to make an immediate impact on special teams with the Panthers," Anderson said recently in an interview with

The fact of the matter is that James Anderson was the best pick at that spot. Fox and Henning have shown little desire to incorporate a prolific pass catching tight end into the offense. The tight end in the Panthers' scheme needs to be able to run-block first, pass-block second and catch the ball in an emergency. So, why waste a first day pick on one? They tried that with Mike Seidman a few years back, and so far that hasn't worked out. They tried to pick up a receiving tight end in Freddie Jones in free agency last season and he couldn't make it through training camp.

The addition of Shaun Williams through free agency and Colin Branch returning from injury (not to mention the fourth round pick Nate Salley) lessened the need at safety. So far, Fox tends to prefer spending big money and high picks on the front seven and cornerbacks on the defensive side of the ball and relying on smart, big hitters at the safety position. Again, there's no need to spend a high pick on a player who won't be featured in the defense.

That leaves the only other big hole on the team – weak-side outside linebacker, the position left vacant after the departure of Will Witherspoon. Many fans had assumed that Thomas Davis would assume the role, but the Panthers desire his blitzing and big-play ability on the strong side where he can play behind Julius Peppers, who demands a double-team on virtually every play. Na'il Diggs and Keith Adams were picked up in free agency to provide some veteran competition for the position, but neither guy is signed long term, with Diggs signed to a one year deal and Adams to a two year deal. Both guys also probably saw how safety Marlon McCree was able to come into this defensive scheme as a journeyman and then leave via free agency one year later with a hefty contract in free agency. Neither would mind having something similar occur in their futures.

The thing that everyone has said about Anderson, and that he says about himself, is that he plays with a lot of speed. Looking at the type of linebackers the Panthers have been bringing in, it seems that one of the traits they most desire in the position is speed. Anderson also compares himself favorably to Witherspoon, who thrived in the Panthers' scheme, saying that "he (Witherspoon) was a guy that you could definitely tell that he could run, he could cover, and he could get to the ball. I think those are some of the things you see when you watch me play." Hmmm… Cover? Run? Getting to the ball? That sounds like a guy the Panthers could use in their linebacking corps!

Could it be that this third round linebacker who many have questioned could be the heir apparent to Will Witherspoon? The similarities abound. Will Witherspoon is 6-1, 231. Anderson is bigger – 6-2 3/4, 238. That's how big he is, straight from his own mouth. Both were under appreciated and underrated coming out of college, and both subsequently went in the third round to the Panthers where both were considered by many "experts" to be "reaches". The biggest advantage Witherspoon has is the advantage of experience. Anderson recognizes this and he knows that he has to "study game film and gather knowledge about the system so that [he knows] exactly where [he] needs to be and how [he] fits in." This is expected of every rookie, and to an extent, every newcomer to the team.

Will Anderson start this season? Probably not. Na'il Diggs is a guy who had a lot of success at Green Bay and who would've been a much more valuable player had it not been for injury concerns. Keith Adams is a player who performed admirably as a starter for the Eagles, will compete for playing time and will be a welcomed addition to the special teams unit.

Going into training camp, Anderson is on a more level playing field than most rookies when it comes to earning a starting position. Diggs and Adams are two of his primary competitors, and despite their NFL experience, they are still new to the Panthers. They will have to learn the same new terminologies and schemes that Anderson has to learn. The other primary competitor is Seward, who himself was a rookie last year and who only made it to week four before a foot injury sidelined him. While the staff seems to be high on him, they may be looking for him to be a reliable backup at middle linebacker. The situation James Anderson is entering is about as ideal as a third rounder can ask for if he wants to compete for a starting spot immediately.

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