The Panthers took the National spotlight last night, and familiar face in the Panthers huddle the last few years made his return…
After sitting out the first Preseason game still recovering from his Offseason ankle surgery, Quarterback Cam Newton finally got back on the field and had some live bullets thrown at him. His first drives were rocky at best, with some inaccurate passes and poor decisions, but eventually Newton settled down and made a couple of pretty throws including a fireball over the middle of the field to new BFF Kelvin Benjamin. On the Defensive side of the ball, the Panthers started slow for the second straight week surrendering an opening drive Field Goal. Much like the Panthers QB though, the Defense quickly settled in and controlled Kansas City for much of the first half. All in all, it was a good night for Panthers fans, seeing flashes from several familiar faces, and a few new arrivals. As with every Preseason game, the goal is evaluation and there was plenty to evaluate last night.
1. Brenton Bersin
Bersin had a good day with a couple of very nice catches including a back shoulder adjustment for a touchdown. The former Charlotte Latin standout did a good job setting up his Defender on a Corner route, and created just enough separation to make the grab in the end zone. Bersin’s route running could be a big asset for the Panthers in 2014. His skill set makes for a potential prototype third down chain mover, and with concentration catches like this one Bersin should definitely have a locker when the Panthers open the regular season against Tampa Bay.
2. Brandon Williams
Swole Bones makes my standouts for a second week in a row, this time falling just shy of a “star” of the game. Williams was a good presence in the passing game yet again, including a long reception where he proved difficult to bring down for the Chiefs….
He also narrowly missed a touchdown for the second straight week, however he did draw a flag in the end zone setting up an easy Fozzy Whitaker score. Williams probably should have brought down this pass, but it wasn’t the best of throws either.
Williams also showed an ability to get to the second level as a blocker. The same can’t be said for his results as a lead blocker, which almost certainly provided a few laughs during film session on Monday.
Thankfully for Williams he can refer everyone to this textbook suplex if they give him too hard of a time.
3A. Star Lotulelei
I could have easily said the entire Defensive Line again, but this week I decided to single out Star. I’m not sure if people should be surprised by Star’s play anymore, but when a 320 pound Defensive Tackle shows a great combination of speed, power and pass rush moves it’s worth mentioning.
This move demonstrates Star as a football player. He’s quick and explosive off the snap, swimming over the Guard with his right arm. Once he gets inside the Guard he bursts around him. At the same time he uses his other arm to brush the Guard aside and push them in to the turf. Star finishes the play showing a good level of explosiveness to stop the Quarterback in the backfield. Star’s versatility on the interior has also been on full display during the preseason with the former Ute playing both the 1 and 3 technique, one of the many reasons I had him as the third overall player in the 2013 Draft.
3B. Antoine Cason & Melvin White
I juggled back and forth with who to include and who to leave out, but in the end I thought both warranted a mention. Cason showed a good level of pursuit in coverage, and understanding of the Chiefs Offense. It was in the open field where Cason shined though. He closed in on Chiefs pass catchers numerous times, and made sound tackles every time, forcing the Chiefs to punt on two occasions.
Cason’s running mate, and David Gettleman gem Melvin White also had a solid game Sunday. The 2013 UDFA addition flashed numerous time in run support, sealing the edge and making perfect form tackles. He shows a willingness to stick his head in the pile, and doesn’t shy away from contact which is something you love to see out of your starting Corner. Once regarded as an afterthought, White has steadily improved week to week in the Panthers Defense to the point that Panthers fans can feel at ease for the most part with him on the outside. White had several good moments in coverage as well, including this play where he locked up the Receiver off the line and prevented him from making a catch.
1. Jonathan Stewart
He’s baaaaaack…..Ok, maybe it’s a bit premature, and who knows how long it will last for, but Sunday night Jonathan Stewart reminded everyone why he was regarded as one of the top Running Backs in the NFL back in 2011. J-Stew looked like his old self, bouncing off tackle attempts and bursting through holes with power and explosion. When the Panthers offense was struggling, it was Stewart who jump started them with a good run on a stretch play. He showed great patience waiting for the play to develop, before bursting through the hole and gaining extra yards after contact. Stewart also showed why he can be a factor in the passing game, picking up a Kansas City blitzer with relative ease and allowing Newton time to get the ball away.
2. Kelvin Benjamin
Benjamin makes the list for a second week in a row almost as much for the plays he didn’t have an opportunity to make as the plays he did. One of the biggest questions surrounding Benjamin entering the NFL was could he be a legitimate deep threat. At least through the first two weeks of the exhibition season, Benjamin has answered those questions with a yes. In week one Benjamin was able to run right by Bills Corner Stephonne Gillmore, and Sunday night he repeated the feat. Benjamin worked through a slight press off of his release, and then was able to beat the deep Safety. With two steps on the last defender, Benjamin was poised for another explosive gain, but Quarterback Cam Newton couldn’t put the ball on target. Still, the ability he’s shown to get vertical has to have Panthers fans optimistic. The rookie contributed in the running game as well, with some good physical blocks. He even drove a Defender off the field right before halftime blocking on a screen. Kelvin made a great grab over the middle, and flashed some stellar hands ability with a nice extension snag.
3. Fozzy Whitaker
Maybe it’s the name, maybe it’s the effort, maybe it’s the fundamentals, but I am growing very fond of Fozzy. Despite his size he’s a physical runner, refusing to shy away from contact. Fozzy is also a no nonsense back. That is to say he doesn’t do a lot of dancing in the backfield. He finds the hole and hits it hard. He keeps his legs moving, and showed an ability to fight for extra yards Sunday. Fozzy also showed that he can be a weapon in the passing game with a catch and run where he tiptoed the sideline. Finally, on the closeout drive of the game, Whitaker showed excellent fundamentals covering the ball with both hands in traffic. Fozzy is certainly a player who’s made the most of the opportunity he’s been presented with, and someone I could certainly see in the discussion for the 52nd or 53rd spot on the roster.
The Offensive Line Is Gelling
One area of concern for the Panthers leading into the season was Offensive line, specifically both Tackle positions. While all the worries haven’t haven’t gone away yet, the truth of the situation is less severe then it looked a month ago. Left Tackle Byron Bell has quietly has a solid start to the Preseason, mirroring well with pass rushers, and performing admirably in the running game. While Bell still has issues giving up too much ground in his vertical set at times, and still can have trouble targeting Defenders to block, he’s not nearly the trainwreck many have expected him to be. At the same time, the return of Left Guard Amini Silatolu and the play of third round rookie Trai Turner have helped to solidify the interior of the line. Turner has picked up the NFL game rather quickly, becoming road grading Guard for Double Trouble and crew to run behind. The biggest area of concern for the Offensive Line could be Right Tackle Nate Chandler, and it’s more a question of a nagging knee injury then a question of ability.
The Safety Position is Worrisome
One area of the Panthers roster that should have some attention paid to it is in the Defensive backfield at Safety. Free Agent addition Thomas Decoud has been underwhelming, taking poor angles at times and not providing much in run support. Fellow Free Agent Roman Harper hasn’t even seen the field since the first days of Training Camp, and it’s starting to become a big concern. Harper has been out with what is being diagnosed as “Turf Toe”, but after not seeing him for three weeks now you have to wonder if it’s not something more that could potentially end up with a trip to IR. The Panthers depth at the position doesn’t give you a warm and fuzzy feeling either. Anderson Russell started the game in place of Harper Sunday, but was far from spectacular. He took poor angles on several occasions, and had a few lapses in coverage. Perhaps the most surprising is Robert Lester who seems to have regressed from the form he finished 2013 in. Lester also took very poor angles Sunday night and fell for play action fakes on multiple occasions. If not for a dropped pass, Lester would have given up a long gain over the middle to Tight End Anthony Fasano that resulted solely from his reaction to a play fake. Colin Jones is a solid Special Teams player, but not someone you would want starting 16 games, and it remains to be seen if fourth round pick Tre Boston can even contribute this year. Safety is certainly a position I would address, and could see the Panthers addressing after the wave of Preseason cuts.
Projected 53 Man Roster
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Derek Anderson
Thought Process: Last week I had Joe Webb included. It’s nothing he did to lose the spot, but Cam showed me enough pocket mobility Sunday that I feel comfortable only going into the season with two Quarterbacks on the roster. Blanchard could be kept on the Practice Squad, but I think it’s more likely the Panthers pick up a young mobile QB for that spot.
Running Backs: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whitaker
Thought Process: Fozzy is outperforming Kenjon Barner right now and that’s what this decision is about. Preseason roster projections are fluid though, so he will have to bring his lunch pail these last two games to prove himself. He should see significant playing time against the Steelers to make his case.
Wide Receivers: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tavarres King, Brenton Bersin, Tiquan Underwood/Free Agent Addition
Thought Process: Same as last week. The only reason Underwood is here still is because he’s proven he can stretch the field during the regular season, and the Panthers need at least one of those guys.
Tight End: Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson, Brandon Williams, Richie Brockel
Thought Process: Richie Brockel makes the roster as a fourth TE, but will primarily be used as a lead blocker at FB. Brandon Williams completes a trio of athletic Tight Ends who can all stretch the Defense.
Offensive Line: Ryan Kalil, Byron Bell, Nate Chandler, Amini Silatolu, Trai Turner, Chris Scott, Gary Williams, Brian Folkerts, Fernando Velasco/Free Agent Addition
Thought Process: Same list as last week. I’m getting more comfortable with the starting five, but obviously there’s a bit of a talent drop off in terms of depth. This could be an area where the Panthers look to upgrade after cuts.
Defensive Line: Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Greg Hardy, Dwan Edwards, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, Wes Horton, Colin Cole
Thought Process: If it’s not broke don’t fix it. The Defensive Line and Linebackers are the obvious strengths of the team. A nine man rotation allows for fresh bodies most of the game. Having Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Kony Ealy in the rotation allows for creative scheming up front as all three can slide inside to allow for more pass rush on the field.
Linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn, AJ Klein, Jason Williams, D.J. Smith
Thought Process: See above, the Linebacker unit definitely isn’t broken. D.J. Smith takes Joe Webb’s vacant spot to add to the Linebacker depth.
Cornerbacks: Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Bene Benwikere, Charles Godfrey (versatility to play Safety keeps him here), Josh Norman
Thought Process: The play of Cason and White have been bright spots in the Secondary. Charles Godfrey and Bene Benwikere continue to battle for the Nickel and Dime roles, and Josh Norman could be a huge wildcard if he can keep his emotions in check and be more consistent.
Safeties: Roman Harper, Thomas DeCoud, Colin Jones, Robert Lester, Tre Boston
Thought Process: The weak link of the team in my opinion, I almost expect to see additions in this area after cuts. Something to watch will be Roman Harper, who has been gone an awfully long time with Turf Toe.
Special Teams: Graham Gano, Brad Nortman, J.J. Jansen
Thought Process: Not much to say here, both Nortman and Gano are two of the best at their respective positions. Jansen is a longtime Special Teamer in Charlotte who can play Linebacker in a pinch.
*Frank Alexander wouldn’t have to be included on 53 man roster till his suspension is over*
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