Carolina Panthers: A.J. Klein

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Believe it or not, there is news happening with the Carolina Panthers not related to quarterback Cam Newton's fractured ribs.

Here are a few items:
  • Right guard -- Coach Ron Rivera says he still hasn't made a decision on whether rookie Trai Turner (groin) or veteran Fernando Velasco will start. While Turner was the starter for the first two preseason games before suffering the injury, Rivera is worried that the third-round pick out of LSU won't be ready for a full load because of the conditioning he's missed. He expects both to play. My guess is Velasco will start against the veteran Tampa Bay defensive front.
  • Strongside linebacker -- Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein have been in one of the best battles of the preseason. Blackburn suffered a back injury midway through camp that gave Klein more opportunities. Like the right guard position, they'll probably split the repetitions. My guess is Blackburn will start because of his experience.
  • Strong safety -- Rivera said Roman Harper, who has been battling turf toe, will start. If he has to be spelled or the injury becomes an issue, Charles Godfrey will play. Godfrey was moved from safety to cornerback during the offseason and took more than a $4 million salary cut after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury during Week 2 last season. The team began working him at safety again prior to the preseason finale, in part because of Harper's injury and in part because his flexibility allowed the team to keep one less defensive back on the 53-man roster. That related back to Newton's fractured ribs. Because of the uncertainty surrounding him, the team had to keep three quarterbacks instead of two.
  • Mentality -- Rivera says the mentality of this team is more confident and comfortable than his previous three heading into the opener. The Panthers may need that. They haven't won an opener since 2008.

Where's the money? Linebacker

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
A look at the linebacker position in my series on where the money is for the Carolina Panthers:

Total position spending: $11,401,852

Spending vs. league average: 28

Analysis: This really looks like a bargain when you consider the Panthers are paying the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year only $3.4 million under the cap. Not that middle linebacker Luke Kuechly won't demand a big raise when his 2012 rookie contract expires, but when you consider the Panthers had one of the league's top linebacker corps last season and are ranked 28th in the league in spending at that position this definitely is a bargain. Trading Jon Beason to the New York Giants last season helped immensely. The final years of Beason's five-year, $51.5 million deal signed in 2011 and restructured last season to save more than $4 million voided after the 2013 season. Signing Beason's replacement, Chase Blackburn, to a value deal also helped. Having an up-and-coming star in A.J. Klein for just over half a million doesn't hurt, either. That Thomas Davis returned to top form after coming back from ACL surgery on his right knee for the third time and was willing to restructure his deal might have been the biggest factor. Davis basically cut his cap number in half coming off the best season of his career. His number, as well as the numbers of Kuechly and others, will grow after this year. For now the Panthers have not only one of the best corps of linebacker in the NFL, but one of the league's best position bargains.

Combine preview: Carolina Panthers

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman needed less than 90 seconds to select defensive tackle Star Lotulelei with the 14th pick of the 2013 draft.

Probably half of that time was spent in stunned amazement that the 6-foot-2, 315-pound giant he had rated near the top of his draft board still was available at a position the team considered a top priority.

Don't expect it to be that easy this year.

The Panthers head to the NFL scouting combine that begins Wednesday in Indianapolis with three huge needs -- wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback. It's more unlikely that a star such as Lotulelei will fall to them this year since their first pick isn't until No. 28 after a 12-4 season.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers need to add a playmaker like Brandin Cooks who has the potential to eventually replace Steve Smith.
They'll have to be even more thorough with their homework at the combine and individual workouts to find players to fill major gaps.

And they were pretty thorough last season, making sure the heart condition that forced Lotulelei to pull out of last year's combine was not serious.

They may need to find the next Greg Hardy, a sixth-round pick in 2010 who developed into the team's sack leader (15) and a Pro Bowl selection this past season -- and into a player who could be lost to free agency if Carolina can't reach a new deal or use the franchise tag on him.

The good news is Gettleman & Co. appear pretty good at evaluating talent. Three of their first four picks -- Lotulelei, defensive tackle Kawann Short (second) and outside linebacker A.J. Klein (fifth) -- were huge successes as rookies.

Sixth-rounder Kenjon Barner never got to show what he could do because of a logjam at running back and fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila spent the year on injured reserve.

"Of the three guys we got on the field, we're real pleased with,'' Gettleman said in his season review.

Which brings us to the combine, where the Panthers will be looking for players who can make similar contributions. Here's a closer look at their top three needs and why:

Wide receiver: This is where many of the draft analysts have the Panthers focused, and with good reason. No. 1 receiver Steve Smith is heading into his 14th season and wideouts Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are unsigned in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. In all likelihood, the Panthers will re-sign one or two of their free agents. Ginn makes the most sense because he's a proven threat as a return specialist as well as a deep threat. But the Panthers need a solid No. 2 receiver who could develop into a No. 1 when Smith retires. LaFell hasn't done that. This is one of the deepest receiver classes in years, so this an attractive spot regardless of whether it's the first or second round.

Possible at No. 28: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, LSU's Jarvis Landry, UCLA's Shaq Evans.

Offensive tackle: Gettleman loves to talk about the "hog mollies," his term for the men in the trenches. He also loves drafting them, as we saw last season when the Panthers went one-two with defensive tackles. He believes in building a team from the inside out, which is why I believe this is where the Panthers will go in the first round if the right player is there. Left tackle Jordan Gross is either going to return for his 12th season or retire. Either way, he's not getting younger and the Panthers need to find a future replacement for him. Ideally, they could find a starter at left tackle in the draft and move Gross to right tackle. Or groom a draft pick at right tackle as they did Gross for a year in 2003. The chances of finding a starter here is much greater in the first round.

Possible at No. 28: Virginia's Morgan Moses, Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, Ohio State's Jack Mewhort.

Cornerback: As I noted after the Super Bowl, the biggest difference between Carolina and Seattle was the secondary. The Seahawks simply were bigger and better. Carolina must upgrade this position even if it re-signs starter Captain Munnerlyn. While I believe this is third among priorities for a first-round pick, if one of the top three corners (Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Lamarcus Joyner, according to Scouts Inc.) were to fall to 28 he would have to get serious consideration. It's definitely a position that should get attention in the top three rounds -- and at the combine.

Possible at No. 28: Florida's Marcus Roberson, Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

Other needs: Don't be surprised to see Carolina go after a tight end to give quarterback Cam Newton another option there after Greg Olsen, a linebacker and a backup quarterback in the late rounds. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd could be an intriguing pick if he falls to the fifth round as ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has projected. He has many of the same qualities Newton has as a running quarterback and could learn a lot from Newton as he makes the transition into the NFL. Tight end actually was under consideration last year when Lotulelei became available.
Part 3 of my position-by-position analysis of the Carolina Panthers' roster focuses on the strength of the defense.

Need a hint? Luuu-uuuuuke.

Next up: Linebackers

2013 grade: A-plus. This group was the heart of the league's second-ranked defense with Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis leading the team in tackles.

Under contract (2014 salary cap number): Thomas Davis ($5,816,666), Luke Kuechly ($3,430,528), Chase Blackburn ($1,050,000), A.J. Klein ($542,825). Total: $10,840,019.

Key free agents: Jordan Senn, Jason Williams, Dan Connor.

Good news: It's all good. Kuechly -- the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year -- as well as starters Davis and Blackburn are back. Key backup A.J. Klein also returns. This group has a chance to be the best in the league if it wasn't already this past season. Even better news -- because Kuechly is entering the third year of his rookie deal and general manager Dave Gettleman got Blackburn for a steal -- is that this group doesn't blow up the salary cap.

Bad news: Not much, other than Davis will be entering his ninth season and Blackburn his 10th. And Blackburn did have issues with his foot that kept him out of three games last season. But each arguably had the best season of their career and there is no real problem there should be a drop-off. Davis, who deserved to be a Pro Bowl selection, still has something to prove.

The draft: This would be an area where the Panthers likely will look to add a backup and strengthen special teams. Free agent Jordan Senn, a key member of the special teams, is entering his eighth season. There really hasn't been an every-down player ready to step in at middle linebacker if Kuechly were to get hurt since Jon Beason was traded to the New York Giants last season.

Injury update: Blackburn out, Klein in

November, 15, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Rookie weakside linebacker A.J. Klein is expected to get his first NFL start Monday night when the Carolina Panthers face the New England Patriots.

Klein was thrust into the lineup during Sunday's 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers when starter Chase Blackburn re-injured his right foot.

Blackburn has missed practice all this week and was wearing a cast Friday. He said it was "highly unlikely" he would be ready for New England.

"He's struggling with it," coach Ron Rivera said. "More than likely he won't [play]."

Blackburn's injury is one reason the Panthers on Wednesday signed Dan Connor, released from injured reserve by the New York Giants. Connor was with the team in Rivera's first season in 2011, so he is familiar with the system.

"Feeling pretty comfortable about that," Rivera said.

Rivera also is comfortable with Klein, a fifth-round pick out of Iowa State. Klein more than held his own against San Francisco with five tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

"He stayed with it," said Blackburn, who came to Carolina from the Giants during the offseason. "The moment wasn't too big for him. He was able to go out there and execute. He didn't try to do too much and stayed within himself."

Blackburn, who he re-injured the foot trying to make a tackle on special teams, said he got his first opportunity the same way against the Chiefs in 2005.

"Just like that, I got thrown in," he recalled. I had a pretty good game just like that. It's always good when you give an opportunity to a young guy and he takes advantage of it."

Backup tight end Ben Hartsock also was on the injury report with a sore knee. Rivera remains optimistic he will be ready by Monday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You're going to hear a lot about the Carolina Panthers' second-ranked defense after Sunday's 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

You're going to hear how the front seven is among the league's best, how they stop the run and pressure the quarterback without using a lot of fancy schemes or blitzes.

You're going to hear how statistically they rank in the top five -- and in many cases top two -- in most categories and they're a major reason for the team's five-game winning streak.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who will face this unit Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, is so impressed that he said Tuesday on a weekly radio show in the Boston area "we'll see what we're made of."

But what may be most impressive is the Panthers (6-3) are so effective with three to five rookies on the field at critical times. Two of them, in a few cases three, are undrafted.

I asked defensive coordinator Sean McDermott what he would have said had I presented him that scenario during training camp.

"I've already lost my hair," said McDermott, whose scalp is as smooth as a bowling ball.

Seriously, McDermott added, "That typifies what we're all about. We play great team defense and there's not one person that is more important than the other. They take a tremendous amount of pride that they're playing for each other."

In case you aren't familiar with these young stars, here's a quick look:
  • Star Lotulelei, DT, 1st round: The 16th overall pick out of Utah is playing like the top pick many thought he might be until an echocardiogram administered at the NFL scouting combine indicated the left ventricle to his heart was operating at only 44 percent. The inside push he's getting prevents teams from double-teaming ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson as much as they once were and has blown up a lot of run plays. He has 25 tackles, a sack and seven quarterback pressures. A definite candidate for defensive rookie of the year.
  • Kawann Short, DT, 2nd round: He doesn't get as much publicity as Lotulelei because he doesn't start. But the former Purdue Boilermaker is doing many of the same things Lotulelei does as his 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 11 quarterback pressures and fumble recovery will attest.
  • Melvin White, CB, undrafted: Who is Melvin White? That's been one of the most asked questions this season. The former Louisiana-Lafayette player was inactive during a 24-23 loss to Buffalo in Week 2 but got his chance the following week against the New York Giants thanks to a rash of injuries in the secondary. He responded with an interception and a forced fumble, and moved into the starting lineup three games ago after Josh Thomas was beaten deep on two plays against the Rams. The coaches love that he makes plays.
  • Robert Lester, SS, undrafted: The former Alabama standout began the season on the practice squad but was moved up after starter Charles Godfrey was lost for the season in Week 2. He started that week against the New York Giants and had an interception in his first two games. He suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him against Minnesota, and replacement Quintin Mikell played so well that the two split the position now.
  • A.J. Klein, OLB, fifth round: When starter Chase Blackburn left with a foot injury against San Francisco this former Iowa State player stepped in to collect five tackles (second on the team), a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. He will start against New England if Blackburn doesn't return.
  • Wes Horton, OLB, undrafted: When Blackburn went out against Tampa Bay this former Southern Cal standout stepped in for 19 plays and the defense didn't miss a beat.

"It's a group of young guys that play fast," coach Ron Rivera said. "The things we do on the defensive side, in terms of keeping it familiar, has helped those guys."

And you're likely to hear about them for years to come.