NFL Nation: Justin Medlock
Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 23-22 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field:
What it means: Carolina (1-6) has had some painful losses, but this one has to be the most painful so far. That’s because the Panthers finally showed some spunk in the aftermath of the firing of general manager Marty Hurney. They outplayed the Bears for almost the entire day and appeared to have the game won. But a defense that had swarmed Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler most of the day allowed him to lead a late drive that set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal as time expired. Things have been really bad for the Panthers for more than a month, but I think it is now fair to say they’ve entered sky-is-falling territory.
Roller-coaster day: Carolina quarterback Cam Newton finished with 314 passing yards and gained another 37 on the ground. But the stats don’t tell the real story. Newton had been playing well enough to win, but he threw a crucial interception with the Panthers holding a 19-14 lead with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter. Tim Jennings picked off Newton and returned the interception for a touchdown to give the Bears their first lead (20-14) of the day. Newton did lead a drive to set up a field goal that let Carolina reclaim the lead (22-20), but it was only temporary as the defense couldn’t stop Chicago’s last drive. Newton also lost a fumble on a scramble near the goal line in the first half, but receiver Louis Murphy bailed him out by recovering the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. But Newton has become a magnet for criticism and he got hammered by FOX television announcer Daryl Johnston, who said the quarterback did not thank Murphy for saving the play. The scrutiny of Newton is only going to intensify after this one.
Squandered sacks: The maligned Carolina defensive line played its best game of the season. The Panthers sacked Cutler six times and kept him under pressure most of the day. Defensive end Greg Hardy had the best game of his life with three sacks. Defensive end Charles Johnson had two sacks, including one on which he forced a fumbled that set up Carolina’s only touchdown.
Sevens are better than threes: A couple of days ago, we noted that the Panthers were in contention to break the modern NFL record for fewest field goals attempted in a season (12, by the 1999 Cleveland Browns). Carolina had attempted only two field goals entering the game. But the Panthers are off that pace now. Justin Medlock converted five field goals against the Bears. But if just one of those field goals had been a touchdown instead, the Panthers might have come out of this one with a victory.
What’s next: The Panthers play at Washington next Sunday.
Most significant move: The biggest move of the day wasn’t the release of a player. Instead, it was a trade. The Panthers will send a future draft pick to San Francisco for safety Colin Jones. I don’t think the Panthers are looking for Jones to come in and start at safety. This move was more about special teams -- and if you saw Pittsburgh’s Chris Rainey have a long punt return against them Thursday night, you saw why the Panthers still have concerns with the unit. Jones should help solve that problem. He was a regular on special teams for the 49ers and had eight special-teams tackles last season.
Onward and upward: Throughout training camp and the preseason games, there was a lot of buzz about undrafted rookie receiver Jared Green. Part of it came because he’s the son of Hall of Famer Darrell Green. But part of it came because the kid can play. The Panthers had a numbers crunch at receiver and wanted to keep guys like Kealoha Pilares and Joe Adams because they have invested draft picks in them in recent years, and both have abilities in the return game. But Green only helped himself with what he did in the preseason. Another team could take a shot and claim him off waivers. If not, Carolina almost certainly will try to get Green on the practice squad.
What’s next: As it stands, I’m not sure the Panthers are completely content with their cornerback situation. Chris Gamble and Captain Munnerlyn are the starters with rookie Josh Norman and second-year pro Josh Thomas as the backups. The Panthers really would like to move Munnerlyn inside and let him match up with slot receivers as the nickel back. Heading into camp, they though Norman might be able to step straight into a starting job. But his development was slowed a little when he missed some practice time with an injury. Brandon Hogan and Darius Butler also were guys the Panthers had high hopes for, but both got injured. I’m not sure the Panthers want to put too much on Norman's plate right away. They could look to bring in another cornerback. I could also see them at least checking to see what’s available as far as defensive-line depth. I know a lot of Carolina fans are shouting for the Panthers to do something at kicker after Justin Medlock missed two long field-goal attempts in the preseason finale. But all indications are the Panthers are planning to stick with Medlock.
- Coach Ron Rivera held out just about all of his starters and it showed. Charlie Batch and Pittsburgh’s offense went right through Carolina’s defense for a touchdown on the first drive of the night. But let’s keep in mind this wasn’t Carolina’s rebuilt -- and healthy -- first-team defense.
- Veteran backup Derek Anderson got the start at quarterback and played the first half. Jimmy Clausen replaced him. The Panthers already have decided Anderson will be Cam Newton's backup. I've been back and forth on whether or not the Panthers should even keep Clausen, a second-round draft pick in 2010, on the roster. After watching Clausen in extended playing time, I say keep him around. Clausen wasn't flawless, but he showed more than I've seen out of him in a long time (maybe since his Notre Dame days). He led the Panthers on a long touchdown drive on his first series. He also threw a long touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. I had been thinking the Panthers might be better off letting Clausen go, keeping only two quarterbacks on the active roster and bringing in a developmental project on the practice squad. But I think Clausen showed he still has some upside. I'd keep him around, just in case something happens to Newton or Anderson. If it does, I'd rather see Clausen than some developmental guy.
- The Panthers have gone to great lengths to improve the special teams. But I think there’s still reason for concern. It was negated by a penalty, but Pittsburgh’s Chris Rainey had what should have been a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown.
- One guy who continues to impress me is defensive end Thomas Keiser. He’s done some good things earlier in the preseason and he did it again against the Steelers. Keiser swatted down a Batch pass at the line of scrimmage. I think Keiser’s emergence was a big reason why Eric Norwood was released earlier in the week.
- I think receiver Joe Adams makes the team, mostly because the team used a fourth-round pick on him. But I think the Panthers might go slowly with Adams, who was a contender for some work as a return man. But I think Adam’s muffed punt return and lost fumble could prompt the Panthers to bring him along slowly. He did have a 20-yard punt return at the end of the first half.
- Speaking of rookie receivers, it’s going to be difficult to cut undrafted free agent Jared Green. He had a nice training camp and caught a touchdown pass from Clausen on Thursday night. I think the numbers make it almost impossible to keep Green on the 53-man roster. But I think he’s a strong candidate for the practice squad.
- The quick conclusion when the Panthers released veteran Olindo Mare was that Justin Medlock would be their kicker. He still might be. But Medlock missed two field-goal attempts on Thursday. Neither was a chip shot, but you still have to wonder if the Panthers might watch the waiver wire for kickers.
The Panthers announced Monday that Mare has been released. Presumably, that means former Canadian League player Justin Medlock has won what was a competition for Carolina’s kicking job throughout the preseason.
Mare’s signing last year caused controversy because the Panthers released John Kasay, the final remaining player from their 1995 expansion team, to make room for Mare. The thinking was that Mare was as accurate as Kasay and could also handle kickoff duties. But Mare had a disappointing 2011 season and missed some crucial field-goal attempts. The Panthers brought Medlock in as competition and decided to let Mare go.
Although the Panthers gave Mare a four-year, $12 million contract last year, the salary-cap implications of his release are minimal. Mare was scheduled to count $3.2 million against this year’s salary cap. By releasing him, the Panthers still will be responsible for $3.1 million.
The kicker job isn’t the only area where the Panthers are going in a younger direction. They also released veteran Nick Harris. That means the Panthers are ready to go with rookie Brad Nortman as their punter. The Panthers drafted Nortman in the sixth round. They brought in Harris to compete with him and Nortman won the job.
As Carolina trimmed its roster to 75 players, there were several other moves of note.
Receiver David Gettis, who missed last season with a knee injury, has been placed on the physically unable to perform list. Gettis, who had been considered a candidate to start, wasn’t able to get healthy enough during the preseason. By going on PUP, Gettis now can be activated after six games. The Panthers also placed cornerback Brandon Hogan on the reserve/injured list. Hogan had been considered a candidate for significant playing time, but he also was slow in recovering from a knee issue. In the next five days, it will be decided if Hogan will take an injury settlement, be placed on injured reserve for the entire season or be released.
The Panthers also waived receiver Darvin Adams, guard Roger Allen, receiver Michael Avila, receiver Brenton Bersin, guard Will Blackwell, defensive end Eric Norwood, running back Lyndon Rowells, tight end Greg Smith, running back Josh Vaughan and receiver Rico Wallace.
Let’s start with one thing that’s very atypical for the Panthers, who generally are the most conservative team in the NFC South when it comes to such matters. The Panthers are listing rookie Amini Silatolu as the No. 1 left guard. That probably will be the case come opening day, but the Panthers generally don’t list rookies as starters on their first preseason depth chart. Instead, they give veterans every benefit of the doubt. But I think this is a pretty good sign that the Panthers aren’t really counting on veterans like Mike Pollak or Bruce Campbell to start. I’d say an injury is about the only thing that would prevent Silatolu from being the starter when the regular season opens.
But the flip side of this is that the Panthers are listing first-round draft choice Luke Kuechly as the No. 2 weak-side linebacker behind veteran Thomas Davis. Kuechly has been working with the first team throughout training camp. This one purely is a courtesy to Davis, who is trying to come back from his third torn ACL. Kuechly is pretty much guaranteed a starting job in the regular season.
Another item worth noting is that Derek Anderson is listed as the No. 2 quarterback behind Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen is No. 3. Coach Ron Rivera was asked after Tuesday’s practice if Anderson was the backup and the coach didn’t hesitate to affirm that. It looks like Clausen, who started as a rookie in 2010, is looking at another season of being the third quarterback.
The Panthers are listing Sherrod Martin as their starting free safety and that could end up being the case in the regular season. But all indications out of Carolina’s camp are that Martin is very much in competition with free-agent addition Haruki Nakamura for the starting job.
I’ve also been told that the Panthers view the punter and kicker jobs as serious competitions. They’re listing veteran Olindo Mare No. 1 and Justin Medlock No. 2 at kicker and Nick Harris as the No. 1 punter with rookie Brad Nortman as No. 2. But the order at both spots could change, depending on what happens in the preseason games.
Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:
Carolina’s special teams were among the worst in the league last year. That’s why the Panthers didn’t sit still in the offseason. They went out and made a bunch of moves that should help their special teams.
Safety Haruki Nakamura, linebacker Kenny Onatolu and fullback Mike Tolbert all have been productive on the coverage units in previous stops. The Panthers also used two draft picks on two players they expect to be regulars on special teams. Wide receiver Joe Adams has excellent potential as a return man. The Panthers also drafted punter Josh Nortman. But the job doesn’t automatically belong to Nortman. The Panthers also brought in veteran Nick Harris to compete with Nortman, after they released Jason Baker earlier in the offseason.
Even kicker Olindo Mare, who had some big misses last season, is going to have to win his job. The Panthers brought in former Canadian Football League kicker Justin Medlock to compete with Mare. There’s competition everywhere. That’s a good thing. Injuries left the Panthers very short-handed on special teams at times last season. This offseason, general manager Marty Hurney has gone out of his way to make sure the Panthers have plenty of talent and depth on special teams. If the special teams and the defense can be better than last year, Carolina has a chance to challenge for a playoff spot.
All this activity across the border made me wonder whether we're seeing more CFL players than usual landing with NFL teams.
The numbers are slightly up, according to the CFL. Along the way, I learned how these signings generally work.
A typical CFL contract includes an NFL option window that usually begins Jan. 1 and always ends Feb. 16. Players with such options in their contracts can sign with NFL teams during that window. If later released from the NFL, the player's rights revert to his previous CFL team.
Thirteen CFL players with options in their contracts signed with NFL teams during their option windows, up from 10 last offseason. Four others -- all three added by NFC West teams so far, plus Ryan Grice-Mullen of the Dolphins -- agreed to NFL deals as free agents untethered to Canadian teams.
Six of the 10 from last offseason returned to the CFL.
The chart shows all 17 players added from CFL teams this offseason. The CFL confirmed 16 of them, but had no information yet on Foley's reported deal with Seattle, which might not be official yet.
Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat gets 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz to open up about his heart condition, Bill Walsh, the pressure he puts on players and the assertiveness he wants from a quarterback.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee follows up on his earlier blog item about Alex Smith's best friend, David Edwards, committing suicide. Barrows: "Smith said he would call Edwards whenever he needed to escape football. Edwards ran cross country and played golf with Smith. The two participated in fantasy baseball leagues together. According to Smith, Edwards also could talk about politics, music and other topics. And he always was available."
Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers answers questions from readers. One reader asked whether general manager Scot McCloughan's reputation would suffer if Smith, the first player drafted in 2005, failed to win the starting job. Maiocco: "Technically, Nolan had the 'trigger' in that draft. McCloughan wanted Smith, but so did Nolan. We'll have to let this thing play out. If Smith never gets another chance with the 49ers, McCloughan's rep will be determined by what Smith does in his next place of employment." I think Nolan's handling of Smith will be the enduring story.
More from Maiocco: The 49ers' receivers are having a hard time keeping up with the pace of Martz's practices. Also: Guard Tony Wragge signed a one-year contract extension with a $175,000 bonus, while Takeo Spikes signed a one-year deal worth $1.68 million.
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle checks in with 49ers fullback Zak Keasey. A former Ivy League linebacker, Keasey excels on special teams. That could give him an edge on veteran fullback Moran Norris as players fight for roster spots.
Also from FitzGerald: J.T. O'Sullivan keeps getting the first-team reps at quarterback, but 49ers coach Mike Nolan keeps saying the three-man race continues.
SI.com offers a Rams camp overview summing up pertinent developments.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with players on the fringes of the Rams' roster. Kicker Justin Medlock knows there isn't a roster spot for him, but he hopes to catch on elsewhere.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says tight end Joe Klopfenstein enjoyed perhaps his best camp with the Rams. I noticed the Titans blew up a Rams running play during the exhibition opener after Klopfenstein failed to hold his block, but one play does not make a training camp.
Elizabethe Holland of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams are taking steps to liven up their fans on game days: "To that end, the Rams have hired a drumline, are making fan-driven changes in game-day music and plan to have a disc jockey on the field during pregame warm-ups." The Seahawks also have a drumline.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says the Rams' linebackers wear a gaudy championship belt if they lead the team in sacks during a given week. Newcomer Travis LaBoy suggested the idea and even paid for the belt: "According to [Karlos] Dansby, LaBoy paid for the campy hardware, plunking down 'something between $10,000 and $20,000.' With the blessing of the coaching staff, the linebackers will take turns wearing it during the regular season, based on who has the most sacks from game to game."
Brian McIntyre of the Scout.com network updates his Seahawks roster analysis. He puts Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor and Jordan Kent ahead of Logan Payne and Michael Bumpus in the receiving race. I'm less certain about that position now than I was two weeks ago.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune looks at the Seahawks' move from their old, outdated facility into their palatial digs along the shores of Lake Washington. Former fullback Mack Strong will miss the old place.
Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times checks in with Seahawks receivers coach Keith Gilbertson, who has officially been around. Gilbertson: "I must be old school, like from the 1920s. I guess I've had a lot of jobs. But I'm 60 years old, too. If you look at most 60-year-old guys, they've been a few places."
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times was there when backup Seahawks quarterback Charlie Frye impressed by calling the correct audible. Frye, acquired from the Browns after the 2007 season opener, is getting work with the first team this week while Matt Hasselbeck rests a sore back. Seneca Wallace remains the No. 2 quarterback. Frye could get the start in the second exhibition game. He'll play extensively.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune has more from Frye. He quotes Wallace as saying Frye has definitely improved since last season.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer touches on Frye at the bottom of a story about new quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor. The Seahawks hired Lazor after longtime quarterbacks coach -- and franchise icon -- Jim Zorn became the Redskins' head coach. Lazor also offers advice on diaper changing. Seriously.
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