Carolina Panthers: Edmund Kugbila

I'm back from vacation, sunburned and peeling. Time to catch up on your Carolina Panthers questions:

@DNewtonESPN: Funny. While defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should be improved in their second season, defensive end Greg Hardy wouldn't come close to 50 sacks in a season if he had Hall of Famers Alan Page and "Mean" Joe Greene playing inside. He might have less than the 15 he had last season since those two got to the quarterback quite a bit during their prime. I imagine Lotulelei and Short might have a sack or two more this season as well, which would steal from opportunities. What's interesting about Hardy is most of his 2013 sacks came in bunches. He got 10 of his 15 in three games, including four in the finale against Atlanta. While nobody is complaining, the Panthers probably would be just as happy with him having 15 sacks spread out more evenly with others getting to the quarterback more. I will say this, Hardy will be hungrier than ever. He'll be playing for a new contract with the franchise tag on him this season. He'll also be playing to make people to forget the domestic violence charges pending against him. But since the NFL record for sacks in a season is 22.5 (Michael Strahan, 2001), expecting Hardy to get anywhere near 50 is as farfetched as Hardy saying he will get them.

@DNewtonESPN: Pretty sure Ryan Kalil will start at center (sarcasm here). As for the rest of the offensive line, I'm going with Nate Chandler at left tackle, Byron Bell at right tackle, Amini Silatolu at left guard and Trai Turner at right guard. Or, it could be Bell at left tackle and Chandler at right. As for the secondary, the safeties will be Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper. Predicting the starting corners isn't as easy. Much depends on whether Charles Godfrey has completely healed from the Achilles injury and can make the transition from safety back to corner. Leaving organized team activities, I would say Melvin White and Antoine Cason will be the corners, but Godfrey and maybe even Josh Norman could make it interesting.

@DNewtonESPN: No. It's too much money for a team trying to get salary cap healthy, and the Panthers seriously like what they have at wide receiver. It also doesn't make sense for the Texans to trade him, either.

@DNewtonESPN: Good question. The Panthers were high on fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila a year ago before he struggled with knee and hamstring issues in camp. He's still not showing the flashes the team had hoped, so right now it becomes a numbers game. Amini Silatolu appears ready to reclaim the left guard spot after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Carolina likes rookie Trai Turner at right guard and Chris Scott -- if he can stay in good shape -- has experience as a starter. Garry Williams also has experience at guard, so if he doesn't win one of the tackle spots he could be a flex player as a backup. I still believe Kugbila will make the cut. General manager Dave Gettleman likes his hog mollies, and at 6-4, 325 Kubgila is a big one.

@DNewtonESPN: I'm not sure about expanding the playbook, but it will be somewhat different in terms of Carolina's plans to run more two tight-end sets. Depending on whether Brandon Williams makes the roster, as I'm predicting he will, there will be three legitimate receiving threats there between Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson and Williams. With Steve Smith gone at wide receiver, that also opens the door for more receivers to be rotated in and out since Smith never left the field unless he was injured. You'll also continue to see a good rotation at running back between DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, a healthy Jonathan Stewart and now Kenjon Barner. If by expand you mean offensive coordinator Mike Shula will open things up more, I wouldn't count on that. The Panthers still want to run a ball control offense. But in terms of using more players, I definitely see that. 
The Carolina Panthers are halfway through organized team workouts and you are starting to see where players will fit in, particularly on the offensive line and at wide receiver where there are a lot of questions.

But as coach Ron Rivera said, it's way too early to know who will be where for sure until they put the pads on.

On to your questions:
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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.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The worst news of the day for the Carolina Panthers may not have been that running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) would miss at least the first six weeks of the season.

They were preparing or that.

But they didn't plan to lose for the year fourth-round pick Edmund Kugbila, expected to at the very least provide much-needed depth on the offensive line.

Kugbila was placed on injured reserve after hamstring and knee issues forced Carolina's hand. Until then, as coach Ron Rivera said, he had shown flashes that had the team optimistic he would contribute either as a starter or backup at guard.

"Disappointed,'' Rivera said. "We're going to miss a good young football player who could help us like the other four guys are getting ready to help us."

The loss of Kugbila made the signing of free-agent guard Travelle Wharton on Sunday even bigger. What hasn't been replaced is the depth Kugbila would have provided.

Meanwhile, Carolina waived injured defensive tackle Frank Kearse and wide receiver Joe Adams. Along with placing Stewart on the physically unable to perform list, that got the roster to 75-player limit.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Travelle Wharton has an opportunity to make an instant impact on the Carolina Panthers' injury-plagued offensive line after the team signed the 6-foot-4, 316-pound free agent Sunday to a one-year deal.

Wharton likely will compete with Garry Williams for the starting spot at right guard, but he also could factor in at left guard, where starter Amini Silatolu already has been ruled out of Thursday's preseason finale against Pittsburgh with a hamstring injury. Fourth-round draft pick Edmund Kugbila also is back on the sideline with a strained hamstring the day after his first practice after missing most of spring drills and training camp.

Coach Ron Rivera said after Sunday's practice that Chris Scott would start at left guard against the Steelers.

This is a homecoming for Wharton. A third-round pick in 2004, he spent his first eight seasons with Carolina, starting 99 games at guard and tackle.

He was released in 2012 and picked up by Cincinnati, where he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He hasn't played since.

The Panthers have struggled on the line in their three preseason games. Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams is averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. Kenjon Barner, second on the team in rushing, has a 2.8 average. The first-team offense has scored only one touchdown.

Wharton gives Carolina 79 players on its roster, meaning four players must be cut by Tuesday afternoon.

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