Carolina Panthers: Amini Silatolu

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- The offensive line for the Carolina Panthers appears set.

A big question entering training camp, the revamped line looks like this as Carolina ended its stay on Tuesday at Wofford College: Byron Bell, left tackle; Amini Silatolu, left guard; Ryan Kalil, center; Trai Turner, right guard; Nate Chandler, right tackle.

Bell
The only real question entering camp was whether Bell or Chandler would replace the retired Jordan Gross as the left tackle. They flip-flopped between right and left for the first week and a half.

But Bell took most of the reps at left last week and started there in the preseason opener against Buffalo. He took all of the snaps there -- except when he was spelled for what was described as patella tendinitis on Monday -- the past couple of days.

"You can see we're pretty close to settling on a group," general manager Dave Gettleman said. "Now it's a matter of them learning to play with each other, get comfortable, trust each other."

As complementary as coaches were of Bell after his performance against Buffalo, he still appears shaky on the bull rush. He was pushed back into the quarterback against the Bills a couple of times, and Carolina Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy did the same Tuesday during one-on-one pass rush drills.

"We have some work to do," Kalil said "There is going to be some growing pains with this group [compared] with some of the older groups we had. But we have some really tremendous talent that I think will set us up for years to come.

"I have been happy with all of the guys, Byron at left tackle, Trai coming in, first timer. He's been doing a really good job."

A lot more will be learned in Sunday night's preseason game against Kansas City in which the starters will play into the third quarter because of a short turnaround before the third preseason game.

But for now, the line appears set with Bell as the left tackle.

"As we go forward, yes," Coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a big week. This will be a big test for Byron, it'll be a big test for Nate, and we'll get a good feel for it."
A look at the offensive line position in my series on where the money is for the Carolina Panthers:

Total position spending: $17,624,047

League rank in spending: 28


Analysis: Yes, four teams -- Arizona, Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh -- are spending less under the 2014 cap on the offensive line than Carolina, and yet public perception says Carolina is in the most dire need for help. Indianapolis is spending less than a $100,000 more and there's not a woe is me cry. But bashing the offensive line is nothing new at Carolina. It was considered the weak link a year ago and it turned out pretty good considering both starting guards were lost to injuries. Talent wise, this unit has a chance to be better. You can't discount the loss of left tackle Jordan Gross to retirement. But in Nate Chandler or Byron Bell they have two players who at least can match Gross' athletic ability, especially Chandler. Even better, they count less than $3 million between them on the 2014 salary cap. Whoever wins the position, the Panthers have a bargain if they perform close to Gross' standard. The loser of that battle likely will start on the right side, so there's potentially another bargain. The guard position is full of bargains, from Amini Silatolu returning from a season-ending knee injury to rookie Trai Turner that the coaching staff absolutely loves. And then there's Kalil. At $7.2 million he keeps this unit from being the cheapest in the league. With four Pro Bowl selections, he gives this unit a solid base from which to build. As I mentioned when this series began, the Panthers are about $6 million under the cap. Had they wanted to get in a bidding war with Tampa Bay for Cincinnati left tackle Anthony Collins, who got a five-year, $30 million deal, they potentially could have. They didn't because they didn't feel Collins at $6 million a year was significantly better than Bell or Chandler. If they're right, they fell into another bargain. If they're not, they'll fall in the standings.

Camp preview: Carolina Panthers

July, 17, 2014
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 NFL Nation's David Newton examines the three biggest issues facing the Carolina Panthers heading into training camp.

Offensive line: In many ways, the success of the Panthers comes down to how well this revamped group comes together. With left tackle Jordan Gross retired, there's a chance only center Ryan Kalil returns to the position he started at the end of last season. It's not as dire as many think, though. The Panthers are high on starting right tackle Byron Bell or right guard Nate Chandler moving into Gross' spot to protect Cam Newton's blind side. The loser of that battle probably will start on the right side. Carolina also has veteran Garry Williams, coming off an ACL injury, ready to play either tackle or guard. The Panthers love rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott has experience there if needed. Amini Silatolu had won the starting left guard spot last season before suffering a knee injury in the fourth game. He has 18 career starts, so he's solid. It all comes down to chemistry for a team that wants to rely on the run and give Newton freedom to improvise as he does so well.

Wide receivers: No position has drawn more scrutiny during the offseason at Carolina with the top-four receivers from 2013 gone. The biggest reason was the decision to let all-time leading receiver Steve Smith go. When Carolina didn't sign a big-time name to replace Smith, the naysayers became more outspoken. But here's my take. The Panthers are better at receiver than they were a year ago. Nothing against Smith, but at 35 he was no better than a No. 2 receiver and at the end of his career. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon really weren't big losses when you look at it closely. Hixon wouldn't have been a loss at all were it not for the game-winning touchdown against New Orleans. The key here will be chemistry, but first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin looks like a red zone beast at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Free agent signees Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant are solid possession receivers, and more dependable than the players they replaced. Who steps up as the fourth receiver will be the biggest question, whether it's free agent Tiquan Underwood or one of the young receivers. The Panthers plan to run a lot more two tight-end sets makes that less critical.

Cam Newton: I was going to go with the secondary here. The Panthers are replacing three-fourths of their starters. But that position is as good or better than it was this time last season, so I'm going with the franchise quarterback here. The two-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off surgery to tighten the ligaments in his left ankle. The diagnosis is the ankle will be better than ever, which makes him even more of a threat as a runner since he'll be pain free for the first time since college. I mention Newton here not because of the ankle, but because his ability to take his game to another level will be more important than ever with changes to the line and receiving corps. The leadership and consistency he showed last season will be called upon even more. Just because of the changes he can't be lulled into thinking he has to do it all as he did his first two seasons. But as former left tackle Jordan Gross said last season, as Newton goes so goes the Panthers.
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- One by one reporters from around the NFL stopped by the table of Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who under strict orders from his wife was eating a healthy plate of fruit at Wednesday's NFC coaches' breakfast.

One by one they asked about wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina's decision to cut its all-time leading receiver, which Rivera and management believe was healthy for the Panthers.

The rest of those at the NFL owners meeting apparently aren't so sure. I've had my doubts as well. So Rivera spent well over half of his 45-minute interview period talking about the newest addition to the Baltimore Ravens.

He finally had enough.

He finally became animated -- at least for him -- and defended general manager Dave Gettleman's decision to part ways with one of the most popular players in team history. He talked passionately about how Gettleman took a hit for the team.

He expressed his frustration over reports that it was personal and that Smith was a distraction to the locker room. He made it clear that it was neither.

Finally.

Had he done this two weeks ago, we might have moved on to another topic for the defending NFC South champions.

And it is time to move on.

The Panthers have. They believe they are headed in the right direction even though much of the league believes they are headed for a hard crash after a 12-4 season.

Smith
That is understandable. Even Rivera was a bit nervous when it became obvious the Panthers would not have their top four wide receivers from last season and quarterback Cam Newton needed ankle surgery.

But as I said early in the process, what did they really lose? Not that Rivera wanted to lose Brandon LaFell, or even Ted Ginn Jr. But when he explained that Carolina averaged more than 100 yards rushing in 15 of 16 games last season, and in doing so the wide receivers collectively averaged 10 catches a game, you knew what he meant.

Ten catches? That's not much to replace.

The likes of veteran Jerricho Cotchery, along with his kiddie corps of Tiquan Underwood, Marvin McNutt, Tavarres King and whoever else you want to throw into the mix, surely can catch 10 passes cumulatively.

Now, many of those have to be the big catches. While Smith's numbers were down last season, he still made many of the big third- or fourth-down receptions that made 2013's turnaround possible.

None were bigger than the 19-yard catch into double coverage on fourth-and-10 from deep in Miami territory with 2:33 remaining. That led to a last-minute 20-16 victory that extended Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

But surely Cotchery, 31, can replace that. He had 10 touchdown catches last season for Pittsburgh. That is more than Smith (4) and No. 2 LaFell (5) combined for in 2013.

A funny aside. The Panthers never intended to go an entire week after releasing Smith without signing a wide receiver, which added to the anxiety of many. They wanted to bring Cotchery in early, but he was on vacation and couldn't.

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCoach Ron Rivera is confident the additions of veterans like safety Roman Harper will keep Carolina on track despite its losses in free agency.
"I really do wish people and hope people will understand there's a process," Rivera said of the team's plan. "If you do things the right way you have a chance going forward. That to me is what we've done."

And the Panthers aren't done. They plan to add other pieces in free agency and the draft. Some of them will be key.

But with the front seven of the league's No. 2 defense intact, and with Newton expected to be better than ever after surgery for a left ankle issue that has been lingering since college, Rivera has just as much or more to work with now than he had a year ago.

It's not like he has the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster.

There still are some key areas -- the secondary and offensive line at the top of the list -- that must be addressed. If the season started today, right tackle Byron Bell likely would start at left tackle, with Nate Chandler or Garry Williams on the right side.

But is that so bad? Rivera really likes Bell, who played left tackle in college, even though public sentiment is that this is a disaster. Sometimes you have to trust the coach's instinct.

The Panthers already have a Pro Bowl center in Ryan Kalil, and the guard situation is solid with Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila back from injuries that kept them from starting last season.

So the line could be as good or better than a year ago.

The biggest concern in the secondary is the nickel back. Rivera likes the competition he has for the two cornerback spots in Antoine Cason, Melvin White, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas.

He believes Charles Godfrey, if he returns healthy from last season's Achilles injury, can play the nickel as well as free safety. He's thrilled to have New Orleans free agent Roman Harper at strong safety, and if Godfrey doesn't return, Rivera has Robert Lester and a few other young players who played well in spurts last season.

It's really no different than it was this past August when the big questions were the offensive line and secondary.

So Rivera is upbeat. He's ready to talk about something -- no offense -- other than Smith.

"We're headed in the direction of being a better team," he insisted.

Think of it like his breakfast. Sometimes you have to eat fresh fruit instead of bacon and eggs that taste good but aren't exactly good for you in the long run.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Welcome to another edition of the Carolina Panthers' Mailbag.

There were a lot of questions about the future of defensive end Greg Hardy, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. I apologize up front if yours wasn't among those that were chosen.

Carolina's free agents in general remain a hot topic.

Once the Super Bowl is over and general manager Dave Gettleman has completed his evaluation of the roster, you'll start to see some movement on a lot of fronts. For now everything is pretty much in a wait-and-see mode.

To the mailbag:
 
Next up on my ranking and evaluation of Carolina's 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents are Nos. 18 and 19, guard Geoff Hangartner and cornerback Drayton Florence.

Both were released at the end of training camp and brought back during the season because of injuries. Both wound up being invaluable in terms of experience and leadership.

Both are at the bottom of the list because they are near the end of their careers. Florence would be entering his 12th season. He told me before Carolina's playoff loss he wasn't sure he wanted to return, saying he might retire after the Panthers won the Super Bowl.

That obviously didn't happen.

Here's a look at both:

18. Geoff Hangartner: The Panthers let him go in August because they wanted to build around young players such as Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila. Silatolu suffered a season-ending ACL knee injury in the fourth game and Kugbila was placed on injured reserve before the season. Hangartner will be entering his 10th season. He was on the field for only two plays in the regular-season finale. With Silatolu and Kugbila back, along with Chris Scott and Nate Chandler, making the roster and guard would be a long shot.

19. Drayton Florence: The Panthers were 0-2 when the Panthers had a rash of injuries to the secondary during a Week 2 loss to Buffalo. They were 12-3 with him, including the playoffs. He played a big role in nickel coverage, but more importantly helped bring stability and a sense of camaraderie to the unit by taking them out to team dinners and building team unity. He brought the Ric Flair "Wooooo!'' chant to the team that was inspirational until Flair became a San Francisco fan. But he'd be returning for a 12th season, and he's already hinted at retirement. This could be the end of the line for him.

Locker Room Buzz: Carolina Panthers

October, 6, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Smith
It's my fault: Wide receiver Steve Smith doesn't usually drop touchdown passes or avoid answering questions after losses. He did both on Sunday. "Blame the loss on me," he said without answering questions. "I'm the scapegoat. It's all I got."

Life Savers moment: Center Ryan Kalil had his arm around the shoulders of guard Amini Silatolu, whose right leg was wrapped and in a brace after a second-half injury that the Panthers are hoping isn't as serious as it appears.

Iceman cometh: It looked worse than it is. Bandages were wrapped around wide receiver Brandon LaFell's upper torso to support a huge bag of ice on his back. He was hurting worse from a dropped first-down pass inside the Arizona 15. "It's bad, man," he said.

Lot going on: Quarterback Cam Newton has a reputation for being a flashy dresser, but there was a lot to digest in travel attire that included a blue plaid jacket, blue sweater, red plaid shirt and red tie. It was kind of like his game that included three interceptions, a fumble and two tackles.

Double Coverage: Panthers at Bills

September, 12, 2013
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Manuel-NewtonGetty ImagesRookie QB EJ Manuel guides rebuilding Buffalo; Cam Newton's under pressure to win now in Carolina.

Following tough home losses Sunday, the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers look to get back on track in Week 2.

This game offers an intriguing quarterback battle between Bills rookie EJ Manuel, selected 16th overall this year, and the Panthers' Cam Newton, the top overall pick in 2011.

We'll hit on that matchup and more in our weekly "Double Coverage" conversation, so let's get it started:

Mike Rodak: David, it seemed like the Bills and the Panthers opened their seasons in similar ways. Both teams faced superior opponents: The Patriots and Seahawks are near the top of the AFC and NFC, respectively, while the Bills and Panthers are bottom-dwellers in their conferences. Yet, both teams kept it close. The Bills lost by two points on a late field goal, while the Panthers kept it within five points. There is a cautious sense of optimism around the Bills locker room right now. Is that also true down in Charlotte?

David Newton: Definitely optimism, which wasn't necessarily the case a year ago. The team feels it has more of an identity, an awareness of where it can go from here. Much of that identity is based around the defense, which established itself as one of the more solid units in the league by holding the potent Seattle offense to 12 points. Wide receiver Steve Smith, whether he was trying to inspire the rest of the team or because he actually believes it, set the tone by predicting that the Panthers will face Seattle again deep in January. I still don't see Carolina as a playoff team based on what its offense showed, but there is potential.

So both teams played top opponents close and lost. Now what? Is this a must-win for both if they have any hopes of being playoff contenders?

Rodak: I think it’s more of a must-win for Carolina. You look at the NFC South, and it’s stacked. If the Panthers want a shot at a wild-card spot, they might need to finish ahead of either Atlanta or New Orleans, and that’s a tall task. The Bills are in a weaker division, where an 0-2 start could have less of an impact. But still, not a good sign for Buffalo if it drops its first two, both at home.

The Bills spent a first-round pick this season on a quarterback in Manuel. The Panthers selected a quarterback, Newton, first overall in 2011. He’s now entering his third season. How does the team (and fans) feel about Newton’s development?

Newton: Agreed, it's much more of a must-win game for Carolina. An 0-2 start after getting out of the gate 1-6 a year ago will have the vultures swarming for coach Ron Rivera. It will have the critics pounding on Newton. As new general manager Dave Gettleman said before the season, it's time for Newton to win. Buffalo can write this off as a rebuilding season with a rookie quarterback; Carolina can't do that with Newton. I said before the season the Panthers had to start no worse than 2-1 to have a chance to be successful. The Seattle loss, as close as they came to pulling it out, wasn't unexpected. Sunday's is one of those winnable road games they can't afford to lose. There aren't many out there.

So what do you see this game coming down to?

Rodak: I think the Bills will need a better game out of C.J. Spiller. If he can get it going -- the Patriots shut him down Sunday, holding him to less than 3 yards per carry and per catch -- it opens up the Bills offense and gives Manuel a chance to take more shots downfield. The Panthers held the Seahawks to just 70 yards rushing and have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, so it won’t be easy. If Spiller has another quiet day, not only will it upset his fantasy owners, but it will also be tough for the Bills to win.

What about for the Panthers?

Newton: It's going to come down to the Carolina offensive line and whether it can establish the run as well as New England did in Week 1 against the Bills. Right guard Garry Williams is gone for the year with an ACL/MCL tear. His replacement, Chris Scott, played well against Seattle. But Scott started on the left side, where Amini Silatolu was out with a hamstring injury. Silatolu is expected back this week, so if he holds up, the Panthers should be OK. But Carolina has to run effectively to make the offense under new coordinator Mike Shula click.

Edwards to play; Mitchell, Silatolu out

September, 8, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The good news for the Carolina Panthers is starting defensive tackle Dwan Edwards is active.

Edwards was listed as questionable on Friday with a thigh injury, but was cleared to play. Look for Edwards and former Seahawks Colin Cole to rotate.

The bad news -- but not a surprise -- is starting strong safety Mike Mitchell and starting left guard Amini Silatolu are inactive.

Veteran Quintin Mikell, signed on Monday, will start at strong safety and Chris Scott is expected to make his first NFL start at guard. But look for veteran Travelle Wharton and Scott to play that position by committee.

Carolina's inactives are: RB Kenyon Barner, LCB James Dockery, C Brian Folkerts, OG Amini Silatolu, SS Mike Mitchell, WR Domenik Hixon, DE Wes Horton.

Five keys for Seattle vs. Carolina

September, 7, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On paper, Sunday's 1 p.m. game between the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks looks like a mismatch.

Here are five things that will determine if that's the case:
  • Newton vs. Wilson -- Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was the league poster boy going into last season. But after two straight losing seasons that honor has shifted to Seattle's Russell Wilson. For the Panthers to avoid another slow start Newton must steal the spotlight back from his counterpart and show the poise and efficiency that Wilson did in leading Seattle to the playoffs a year ago. The Seahawks say they have to force Newton to beat them with his arm. Newton has to prove that he can.
  • The line of fire -- Carolina left guard Amini Silatolu has been limited the past two weeks with a hamstring injury and is a long shot to play. Carolina appears ready to go with a committee of journeyman Chris Scott, who hasn't started an NFL game, and veteran Travelle Wharton, who hasn't played in a year. How well they do against a tough defensive front could determine the effectiveness of the offense.
  • Double Trouble? -- Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams came up with the nickname "Double Trouble'' for himself and Jonathan Stewart after they combined for 2,351 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in 2008. But with half (Stewart, ankle, PUP) of trouble out, Williams must cause the Seahawks enough problems that they can't fire off on Newton every play. If they can, Carolina is in double trouble.
  • Secondary, but not really -- Seattle's secondary that features three Pro Bowlers is considered by some as the best in the league. Carolina's secondary that allowed opponents to complete a league-high 66.8 percent of their passes a year ago is a major question mark even though the defense had a league-high 10 interceptions during the preseason. Starting strong safety Mike Mitchell (thigh) remains a question mark. This group has to step up in a big way.
  • Intangibles -- All the pressure, really, is on the Seahawks. They are the team picked by many to go to the Super Bowl. Carolina is the team with tempered expectations and ranked 23rd in ESPN's preseason rankings. A team with nothing to lose and out to prove the critics wrong could be dangerous in front of a home opening crowd.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers could start a defensive tackle who has been out of the NFL since 2010, a safety who was signed on Monday and an offensive lineman who never has started -- all in Sunday's opener against the Seattle Seahawks.

Let's break it down:

• Starting defensive tackle Dwan Edwards (thigh) missed Friday's practice with a thigh injury. He is listed as questionable. If he can't go, the Panthers will turn to Colin Cole, an eight-year veteran who has been out of the league the past two seasons.

Cole last played for the Seahawks in 2010 before injuring an ankle toward the end of the season. He was the first player signed by new general manager Dave Gettleman.

"He had a great camp and really dedicated himself to getting back," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Friday. "We have that confidence he can be that guy again.''

• Strong safety Mike Mitchell (calf) is "definitely doubtful," according to Rivera. If he can't go, Carolina will start Quintin Mikell, who joined the team on Monday after being released by the Rams earlier this year for salary cap reasons.

Rivera is upbeat because Mikell is a veteran who has played in a similar scheme before.

"But also because of the guys that are around him," Rivera said. "One of the things I really like is how [free safety] Charles Godfrey has really stepped it up. The corners have gravitated towards him. And then all the linebackers [have stepped up].

"It's one of those classic things when somebody comes in to replace somebody the other 10 guys pick it up. That has been outstanding.''

• Starting left guard Amini Silatolu (hamstring) also remained sidelined and is listed as questionable. Journeyman Chris Scott and Travelle Wharton will share the load even if Silatolu can play some. Scott has begun each of the last two practices with the first unit.

Out for Sunday are reserve backup running back Kenjon Barner (foot) and backup cornerback James Dockery (thumb). Domenik Hixon (hamstring), in the mix for the third receiver spot, is questionable.

Starting fullback Mike Tolbert (hamstring) and weakside linebacker linebacker Jon Beason (knee), as well as backup tight end Ben Hartsock (foot), are good to go.

Great Scott, journeyman could start

September, 6, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Apparently, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was dropping a hint earlier this week when he said the media was overlooking Chris Scott in the battle at left guard.

Royster
Scott
Scott worked with the first-team offense during Thursday's warm-ups, a good indication of what the staff thinks of him. He was ahead of veteran Travelle Wharton as Amini Silatolu -- the projected starter who is nursing a hamstring injury --watched.

If Silatolu is a no-go -- and coach Ron Rivera called him a long shot -- for Sunday's opener against the Seattle Seahawks, Scott may get his first NFL start.

Quite an accomplishment for a player who isn't listed in the team media guide.

"He's a guy who has really come in -- I don't want to say skyrocketed up the depth chart,'' left tackle Jordan Gross said. "But [he] kind of came in as a body after (Geoff) Hangartner got let go, and now he is getting reps with the ones.

"If you haven't noticed, maybe he has been overlooked.''

Scott is a physical 6-foot-4, 320-pound player with his sixth team since the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft out of Tennessee. The Panthers signed him in August after he was waived by Buffalo.

"Chris Scott is solid,'' Rivera said. "He's done a lot of good things for us, and he's a little bit of a find for us.''

Even if Scott doesn't start, Rivera said he and Wharton will rotate against Seattle's tough defensive front.

Apparently, that's what Gettleman was trying to say when he said Scott was being overlooked as questions loomed about the injury-plagued offensive front.

“I don’t think there’s any issue,” Gettleman said of the line.

In other injury updates:
  • Starting strong safety Mike Mitchell did not practice on Thursday as he recovers from a calf injury. Rivera called it a setback, but said he likes what he's gotten out of veteran Quintin Mikell who was signed on Monday.
  • Weakside linebacker Jon Beason, who missed most of last season after undergoing microfracture knee surgery, returned to practice on Thursday after getting Wednesday off. Rivera expects Beason to play 25 to 35 snaps against Seattle.
  • Starting defensive tackle Dwan Edwards did not practice on Thursday because of a tight hamstring. Rivera said Edwards will be re-evaluated on Friday, but he didn't seem overly concerned.

Panthers start season with unknowns

September, 2, 2013
9/02/13
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's not ideal to have question marks among multiple starters less than a week before the opener, but that's what the Carolina Panthers are dealing with heading into Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks. Let's break it down:

Strong safety: A calf injury to starter Mike Mitchell in practice last week and concussion to backup Haruki Nakamura (waived injured) forced the team to sign free agent veteran Quintin Mikell on Monday.

Mitchell sat out of Monday's practice and will be re-evaluated on Wednesday, so Mikell potentially could start after being unemployed since the St. Louis Rams released him in March.

The good news is Mikell has spent the past two seasons with the Rams, so he played the Seahawks four times as an NFC West opponent. Mitchell sounded optimistic he would be ready to go by Wednesday, saying he's the starter "until somebody tells me I'm not.'' Long-term, this could be a good thing because Mikell is an improvement over Nakamura.

"The league is about competition, so the more competition they add at every spot the better we're going to be, the deeper we're going to be,'' Mitchell said. "Maybe I was so far ahead of the competition they had to bring somebody else in.

"I'm not taking it in a negative way at all."

Left guard: Good news here as Amini Silatolu (hamstring) returned to practice on Monday. He looked so good that coach Ron Rivera backed down from last week's expectation that the second-year player wouldn't be ready for the Seahawks.

"I don't feel that way anymore, especially after seeing him today,'' Rivera said.

Rivera said Amini will start if he doesn't show signs on Wednesday that the hamstring is bothering him and gets through the rest of the week without backsliding. If he can't go, then Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott will play the position by committee.

Left cornerback: Veteran Drayton Florence's release left either Josh Thomas or Josh Norman as the starter. Rivera wouldn't say which he'll go with on Monday even though Thomas took a majority of the first-team snaps.

"They're both good, solid young football players and they need to get on the field,'' Rivera said in addressing why Florence was released after working most of the preseason with the first team.

In all likelihood you'll see both Norman and Thomas on the field at different times. Rivera said the team needs a rangy back like Norman to cover many of the tall receivers they'll face in the NFC South. Norman showed his ability in the preseason with a league-high four interceptions.

Rivera also said the Panthers need more compact, physical corners like Thomas. So it could come down to matchups.

Running back: More good news as fullback Mike Tolbert (hamstring) returned to practice and took the full load. Rivera remains optimistic he'll be ready by Sunday.

He'll need him with DeAngelo Williams the only experienced back left after Jonathan Stewart was placed on the physically unable to perform list last week.

Extra point: Rivera said the staff considered adding a quarterback to the practice squad to run the scout team after Jimmy Clausen was released. That didn't happen, so backup Derek Anderson will get the scout team snaps.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Good pass protection. Decent run blocking. A quick touchdown.

Who were those guys on the offensive line in the Carolina Panthers' preseason finale?

You probably needed a roster to keep track since most of the starters got Thursday night off or moved to a different position in an effort to develop depth and flexibility during the 25-10 victory over Pittsburgh. And it wasn't like they were facing the "Steel Curtain'' of yesteryear.

But the end result was promising for a unit that has been much maligned throughout the preseason due to injuries. Even though only left guard Travelle Wharton started at the position, he'll likely play on opening day.

"There were a lot of good things that went on and a lot of real positives for us,'' coach Ron Rivera said.

Rivera hasn't said that often during the preseason, and it's still too early to tell whether this unit will be an improvement over last season's that wasn't highly thought off.

The line definitely will get a large dose of attention as general manager Dave Gettleman and the staff trim the roster to 53 on Saturday. Expect them to keep nine players, with two -- guard Amini Silatolu and guard/center Jeff Byers -- nursing injuries that could sideline them for the opener.

Veteran Jordan Gross is set as the left tackle, with Wharton likely to start beside him as he did for many of his first eight seasons in the league at Carolina before being waived. Three-time Pro Bowl selection Ryan Kalil is again at center, with Garry Williams expected to start at right guard and Byron Bell at right tackle.

After that, depth becomes a concern, so the thinking on cut day is strength in numbers.

"We're in a lot better spot than we were in a couple of weeks ago,'' observed Gross, one of those who was given Thursday night off.

One reason is Wharton. Signed on Sunday as a free agent, the former and now current Panther played six snaps against Pittsburgh, the first time he'd been in a game in a year after suffering a knee injury. He more than held his own and the drive ended with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Derek Anderson to Ted Ginn, so that was a positive.

"He's a big addition for us,'' Gross said of Wharton. "As soon as he came in the building everybody knew he was a guy we could count on.''

Whether quarterback Cam Newton can count on this group to give him the protection he needs to take the offense to another level remains unclear.

"We're getting better,'' Anderson said. "Obviously, Travelle's going to help us a lot. Every year is different. You've got to evolve and fit guys in where they fit.''

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