Some jobs still up in the air as Panthers end camp
SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP)
The Carolina Panthers wrapped up training camp at Wofford College on Wednesday with several key positions still up for grabs.
The Panthers (No. 20 in the AP Pro32) said goodbye to Spartanburg and made their way back to Charlotte with ongoing competitive battles at the starting cornerback and free safety spots, the No. 3 wide receiver position, and both kicking spots.
Coach Ron Rivera says things will begin to sort themselves out in the team's next two preseason games - Friday at home against Miami and Aug. 26 at the New York Jets.
The kicking competition between veteran Olindo Mare and former CFL kicker Justin Medlock had been the most intriguing battle for most of the three-week camp. But that has since shifted to cornerback, where rookie Josh Norman is pushing Captain Munnerlyn for the starting job opposite Chris Gamble.
Norman, a fifth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury but bounced back in a big way with four interceptions in practice Tuesday - something no other Panthers has ever done. He hasn't worked much with the starters but has been a regular in the nickel package when healthy.
Rivera said he likes the aggressiveness and playmaking ability he's seen from Norman, but the rookie still has a few things to learn.
''He did well but the one thing he's got to understand is you can't touch guys downfield,'' Rivera said. ''This is the NFL now, not college football. He made some good plays and did some nice things and I don't want to take anything away from Josh but he has to understand that when start getting downfield you have to get those hands off.''
Over at free safety, Sherrod Martin has been the team's starter for most of the last two seasons.
It appears free-agent pickup Haruki Nakamura from the Baltimore Ravens is on the verge of securing that spot and unseating Martin. Nakamura has been working regularly with the first-team defense and started ahead of Martin in Carolina's 26-13 loss to Houston in the preseason opener.
All 11 starting spots on offense appear set with rookie Amini Silatolu winning the left guard spot. He'll replace long-time starter Travelle Wharton, who signed with Cincinnati. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder from Midwestern State was never challenged at any point for the job.
Carolina hoped David Gettis would return from a torn ACL last summer and win that position but he's been unable to get on the field because of lingering knee problems and hamstring issues.
Seyi Ajirotutu, a former San Diego player who played mainly on special teams last year in Carolina, has been running in three-receiver sets with Gettis out. Ajirotutu is receiving a stiff challenge from Louis Murphy, who was acquired in a trade this offseason with Oakland.
Rivera said so far nobody has distinguished themself.
''It's kind of a group of guys right now,'' Rivera said. ''There's a group of guys we're working with right now and that's just kind of where we are with that.''
Both kicking battles remain up for grabs.
Mare is struggling to hold off Medlock, a former fifth-round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs who has spent most of his career in the CFL. Medlock has been shown more leg strength than Mare throughout camp, but he didn't help his cause when he left a kickoff 10 yards short of the end zone Saturday night resulting in a 90-yard touchdown return by Houston's Trindon Holliday.
''It's very close,'' Rivera said of the kicking battle.
Mare is entering the second year of a four-year, $12 million contract.
He struggled in the clutch last season, missing two short field goals in tight losses to Minnesota and Atlanta. While he's done well with his length on kickoffs, he's really struggled on long field goals from around 50 yards away.
''I'm not sure (why) and I've wondered about that,'' Rivera said. ''He can kick it deep in the end zone and has that ability, so right now I wonder. You watch him and he's been deadly accurate from inside the 35 or 40 yards.''
Rivera said the Panthers will only keep one kicker.
The punting job is still wide open too with veteran Nick Harris trying to hold off rookie Brad Nortman.
NOTES: Defensive tackle Andre Neblett, who is suspended for the first four games of the season, has missed most of practice this week with an undisclosed medical condition. ... With running back Tauren Poole out with a concussion, the Panthers re-signed running back Armond Smith Wednesday and waived guard Andre Ramsey. ... Linebacker Jon Beason, cornerback Brandon Hogan and wide receiver David Gettis will not play against Miami.
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