CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With training camp starting for the Carolina Panthers, nearly all of the positions are set. However, there are some that are wide open — and may stay that way deep into training camp.
Here’s a look, at the top five position battles for the Panthers heading into the preseason:
This is universally considered the second-most important position on offense, just behind quarterback. This position protects the all-important blindside of right-handed quarterbacks. And for the first time in over a decade, the Panthers aren’t sure who’ll be the primary guardian for quarterback Cam Newton.
There are three possible starters: Byron Bell, Nate Chandler and somebody not yet on the roster.
Bell has been the starting right tackle the last few years, but has had his issues. He’s had trouble protecting the quarterback, at times, although he has finally cut down on his penalties.
Through his first 47 games, Bell has allowed 22 sacks, including nine last season, ranking ninth for most allowed by all tackles.
Chandler has been a nomad, having played three different positions in three years with Carolina. First, there was defensive tackle, where he saw a fair amount of playing time. Then came guard, before finally moving to tackle.
He also played tight end in college (UCLA).
Chandler is more nimble, but is raw and still learning the position. He shows promise, but it’s just a matter of how much he can learn and how long it will take to get up to speed.
Then there’s the real possibility the starting left tackle doesn’t even reside on the Panthers’ current roster. The club signed a couple of backup offensive linemen this week, but neither play tackle.
As salary cap and roster cuts start taking place during August, Carolina could easily sign somebody to be the starter. But then again, that may not happen.
This is pretty simple — the person that doesn’t win the starting left tackle position will be the starting right tackle. Unless, to repeat the above, Carolina finds a new tackle prospect during the August cuts.
If that happens, then expect Bell to fall into his familiar role at right tackle, with Chandler backing him up.
This position is truly up for grabs, as it has also been a revolving-door conundrum over the last few years. Numerous people have started here in recent seasons — including Chandler.
That’s one reason why the Panthers drafted Trai Turner out of LSU (Round 3). They want him to eventually become the long-term starter. Just don’t be surprised if Garry Williams or Chris Scott begin the season as the starter.
Williams started the season opener last year at right guard, but tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season.
Scott is a monster, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 345 pounds. However, he’s had his difficulties getting into and staying in shape.
If Scott can reach his full potential with Carolina, then he’ll provide what general manager Dave Gettleman wants with his linemen — a true run-blocking force.
This position is a major concern, along with the entire defensive backfield. However, the cornerback position tops the worry list.
There are four people vying for two starting spots: Melvin White, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and Antoine Cason.
Cason is the newcomer, having signed in the offseason, while White, Thomas and Norman are returnees from last season.
White looks to have an edge in the competition, starting 10 of 15 games from last season.
Cason comes to Carolina from Arizona, where he didn’t start a single game, although he started nearly every game in his previous three seasons at San Diego. He was signed for insurance purposes, but may be pushed into starting role if neither Thomas nor Norman jump to the forefront.
Thomas is entering his fourth season with Carolina and has started 10 games over the last two years. However, he has had issues and has been burned quite a few times. In normal circumstances, he wouldn’t be a starter, but this is anything but normal.
Then there’s Norman, a brash third-year player who only played in seven games last season, after having started 12 in his rookie campaign.
He’s big in stature, but often plays small.
Regardless of who the four starters are, there’ll be many questions marks heading into the season.
The Panthers, by any defensive metric, have one of the NFL’s best front sevens — and that includes the outside-linebacker rotation of A.J. Klein and Chase Blackburn.
Blackburn was a veteran signee (New York Giants) and played well. Klein did the same as a rookie, after being drafted in the fifth round out of Iowa State.
Blackburn is a steady force that doesn’t make many mistakes, but the Panthers hope Klein can be the difference-maker he was in college (Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year).
Odds are that Klein will be the starter, but there’s certainly no guarantee that’ll happen in Week 1. And even if Klein does win the starting spot, Blackburn will get his fair share of snaps.