NFL Nation: Robert Lester

Losing free safety Mike Mitchell to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday was a big loss for the Carolina Panthers.

Godfrey
Mitchell brought a lot of fire and aggressiveness to the league's second-ranked defense last season. The Panthers wanted him back, but were willing to risk him testing the market in hopes of getting him at a price that would work under their salary-cap restrictions.

That didn't happen as Mitchell got a five-year, $25-millon deal, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Fortunately, Carolina had a backup plan that included a starter.

Charles Godfrey is on target to return from an Achilles injury that ended his 2013 season in the second game. The seventh-year player out of Iowa was the starter at free safety before his injury allowed Mitchell to move there from strong safety.

Depending on what Carolina does in free agency and the draft, Godfrey could be paired with Robert Lester, who last season started four games at strong safety as an undrafted rookie.

The Panthers also could look at bringing back free agent Quintin Mikell, who played 14 games at strong safety this past season.

Regardless, losing Mitchell didn't leave the cupboard bare. Godfrey has 74 career starts and 11 interceptions. He was so impressive after posting five interceptions and 84 tackles in 2010 that Carolina signed him to a five-year, $27.5 million extension.

There has been speculation with Mitchell's strong play that Carolina would either cut Godfrey after June 1 to save about $5.1 million under the salary cap or get him to renegotiate his deal. A renegotiation remains a possibility as Godfrey is to count $7.1 million against the cap.

But with Mitchell gone, Godfrey's immediate future with Carolina is secure.

Statement win for Newton and Panthers

November, 19, 2013
11/19/13
1:55
AM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The song "Sweet Caroline" began blaring over the Bank of America Stadium loudspeakers to signal a Carolina victory Monday night when rookie safety Robert Lester intercepted New England quarterback Tom Brady on the final play of what appeared to be, and ultimately was, a 24-20 win.

But then there was a flag, and the music stopped.

Then the officials gathered to discuss an apparent pass-interference penalty against Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly on tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone.

Then they waved it off, saying the pass was uncatchable, and the music started again.

Tears turned to cheers.

And the magic continued.

For those who had any doubt about whether or not the Panthers (7-3) were legitimate playoff contenders, it's time to stop doubting.

In consecutive weeks, they have beaten reigning NFC champion San Francisco on the road and AFC powerhouse New England at home.

For those who had any doubt about whether or not Cam Newton can be a leader and a winning quarterback in the NFL, it's time to stop that as well. Newton showed the poise of his counterpart -- using athletic skills that Brady can only dream about -- to pull off the biggest victory of his career.

It was a statement win for the Panthers, who have won six consecutive games and seven of their past eight to establish themselves as one of the hottest teams in the league.

It was a statement game for Newton, who completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left for the go-ahead score.

The Panthers won with guts, playing much of the second half with sack leader Charles Johnson on the sideline nursing a knee injury. He returned for the final series just to give his team a motivational boost.

They won with spectacular playmaking from Newton, who accounted for all but 8 of the 83 yards on the game-winning drive.

"We're letting the world know we're a great team,'' Lester said.

It's starting to look that way. Even those who doubted Carolina after a four-game winning streak against teams that at the time were 8-33 can't deny the accomplishments of the past two weeks.

"You have to pay attention to what we're doing in Carolina now,'' safety Mike Mitchell said. "This is a new day; it's a new team.''

But it's not a satisfied team.

"The thing that I'm satisfied with right now is that we're 7-3,'' Newton said. "No one has time to just sit back and say, 'Oh, man, we just beat the New England Patriots.' No, you don't have time for that.

"This is the NFL and we've got to continue packing our lunches and saying that we've got to hold ourselves accountable, and go do it again next week.''

But this one was special. It was a second straight close victory for a team that two weeks into the season was 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under coach Ron Rivera.

Monday was a victory that one day we all could look back at as the one that propelled Newton to the type of greatness he achieved at the college level.

He carried the offense on this day, leading the team in rushing, with 62 yards on seven carries, and compiling a 125.4 passer rating. At no point was he more spectacular than on a third-quarter play on which he eluded six defenders and covered 75 yards while scrambling to gain 14 on third-and-7.

That led to a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen after Brady had pulled the Patriots to 10-10 on the previous series.

"Seventy-five yards of fantasticness,'' wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It was unbelievable.''

But perhaps more impressive was Newton on his final series. He had a 15-yard run on third-and-6. He gained 3 hard yards up the middle on third-and-2.

And on second-and-15 from the New England 25, he floated a perfect pass to Ginn near the 10 that the speedster was able to convert into a touchdown.

"I hear the statistics of all the other guys having game-winning drives; now Cam has his game-winning drive against a worthy opponent,'' Smith said. "Watching that young man grow, that 24-year-old Cam Newton just chipping away, and a little bit of his greatness is starting to shine through.

"And it was fun to be a part of.''

As dramatic and nail-biting as this was, there was a normalcy about it that was impressive. Unlike after Carolina's victory over the 49ers, when players were so excited that Newton said it was like Jesus was in the locker room, Monday's celebration was much more subdued.

"You definitely could tell last week we won a big game,'' left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This week, it was a little less surprising.''

Well, for the players it was. Rivera was so emotional he barely could speak afterward.

"You can tell I'm a little speechless about this game,'' he said. "I'm excited for our players. They won the kind of game that a lot of people don't think we can win.

"That proved a lot today. We are relevant.''

And the music keeps on playing.
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.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina coach Ron Rivera had some concerns over the officiating in Sunday's 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, but he didn't articulate them as loudly as wide receiver Steve Smith.

Smith called umpire Dan Ferrell "garbage'' on Monday for missing at least one pass interference call and for not giving him the proper spot on a third-down play.

"To be honest, I make enough money where if Roger [Goodell] wants to fine me, he can,'' Smith said of the NFL commissioner. "I really think that referee probably was the sorriest referee I have ever met.''

Rivera wouldn't get into specifics, but said he sent in "things that we're concerned with'' as the league allows coaches to do following games.

"I took advantage of what I'm allowed to do through the league, and they handle it in a very professional manner as was our approach,'' Rivera said.

Asked if they were specific plays such as the ones Smith addressed, Rivera said, "There were plays. Again, it's what we do. We send them in, we talk about them and we try to get those things worked out."

As for Smith, Rivera said, "I know this. Steve speaks from the heart and Steve made his comments and he's sticking with them. We'll go from there."

As of Wednesday's open locker room period, Smith had not been notified by the league of a fine.

Sticking with Lester: Robert Lester was held out of Wednesday's practice with a sore hamstring, but Rivera said the undrafted rookie out of Alabama will continue to start at strong safety even though veteran Quintin Mikell returned from an ankle injury.

Other injury updates: Tight end Greg Olsen, who leads Carolina in catches with 21, missed practice with a foot injury. Rivera said it was just precautionary and he had no doubt that Olsen would play on Sunday at Minnesota.

Travelle Wharton is expected to start at left guard for Amini Silatolu, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL on Sunday. Silatolu hasn't been placed on injured reserve yet. Rivera said it's just a matter of time as the team continues to look for the right player to replace him in the lineup.

Locker Room Buzz: Carolina Panthers

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
5:45
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 38-0 victory over the New York Giants:

Smiles: For the first time after an 0-2 start players actually were happy to see reporters and talk about the game. "More than anything I wanted our young players to feel success,'' tackle Jordan Gross said.

Payton
Rivera
Oh say can you see? This wasn't in the locker room, but it is worth sharing. Coach Ron Rivera apologized to reporters before his opening postgame comments for having his sunglasses and not his reading glasses so he could see the final stats. No apologies were necessary, and he would have liked everything he saw.

Lost at sea: Rookie strong safety Robert Lester, a week removed from being on the practice squad, was buried behind a sea of cameras and reporters after collecting five tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery in his first NFL start. How did it feel? Like after an Alabama game.

Alone time: Steve Smith sat alone in front of his locker, no reporters around, and read messages on his cell phone. For once he wasn't the center of attention during or after a Carolina game as his fellow receivers finally stepped up.

Carolina DBs take wounded dog approach

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
4:45
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers' secondary situation might not be as dire as advertised.

Starting left cornerback Josh Thomas told ESPN.com he expects to be cleared to play on Thursday. Thomas suffered a concussion in the second quarter of Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills and has been undergoing the league's mandatory testing.

Mike Mitchell, who was the starting strong safety throughout most of the preseason until suffering a calf injury and losing the job to Quintin Mikell (ankle), will move to free safety to replace Charles Godfrey (Achilles, injured reserve).

Starting right cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is healthy.

So that leaves strong safety as the only spot where the Panthers will be inexperienced. Robert Lester, who was signed from the practice squad on Tuesday, will start as things stand now.

There's also a chance backup cornerback Josh Norman (thigh, knee) could be ready. And James Dockery is back after missing the first two games with a thumb injury.

In other words, the Panthers (0-2) believe they'll be ready on Sunday for the New York Giants (0-2) and quarterback Eli Manning, who is second in the NFL in total passing yards.

"If you're sleeping on our secondary, you'll get a rude awakening,'' Mitchell said defiantly on Wednesday.

Coach Ron Rivera wasn't that enthusiastic. He admitted the secondary is a concern, but it has been throughout the preseason when everybody was healthy.

What Rivera likes is the way players have stepped up, particularly Mitchell.

"He was solid,'' Rivera said of Mitchell's practice. "I'm excited about that.''

The injuries will impact the depth and ability to run nickel packages. But it shouldn't be as bad as it was on Sunday at Buffalo when the Panthers were so thin that they couldn't play nickel for a quarter, and at times had linebackers playing the slot receiver out of a base defense.

Rivera said the team will duplicate those reps in practice this week just in case. He also will rep a cornerback to play safety with the potential for only three healthy players if Mikell is sidelined.

For the most part, the Panthers are taking the wounded animal approach -- as in, you don't approach a wounded animal.

"I was a starter,'' Mitchell said. "I am a starter. I'm going to continue to be one. I love the guys in our secondary. I love the men we have. I want the guys that I have in my room.

"I cannot wait to get out and play this game. Right now we have that underdog, back-against-the-wall mentality. You've got to live for this, man.''
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the NFC South as summer break looms.

Atlanta Falcons. Is the pass rush good enough? The Falcons replaced John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora. That might end up being something close to an even trade. But, just like when the Falcons had Abraham, you have to wonder who else might be able to generate a pass rush. Kroy Biermann is versatile and could bring some pressure from either defensive end or outside linebacker. But the Falcons really need one of their young defensive ends to step up. Second-year pro Jonathan Massaquoi appears to be the leading candidate for that.

Carolina Panthers. Who will be the starters in the defensive backfield? Aside from Charles Godfrey at one safety spot, that question remains wide open. The Panthers don’t have a clear starter at the other safety spot or at either cornerback spot. Veteran Mike Mitchell is one option at safety, but the team has been very impressed by rookie Robert Lester. The cornerback situation is even less clear. Captain Munnerlyn is a lock to be among the top three corners, but Drayton Florence, Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and D.J. Campbell appear to be competing for the other spots. The winners will have to distinguish themselves in training camp and the preseason.

New Orleans Saints. Where’s the pass rush going to come from? Just when it seemed like we were getting some clarity on this, it’s become a bigger question than ever before. Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who had a strong minicamp and played for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas, went down with a torn ACL this week. The Saints firmly believed Butler was going to be a force. Now, they have to look at alternatives. Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and rookie Rufus Johnson all have some potential. But none of them are a sure thing. The Saints could end up bringing in a veteran that’s released somewhere else in the preseason if they don’t like what they’re seeing from the young linebackers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Are they really set at tight end? All indications are the Bucs are planning on going with Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree as their top two tight ends. That sounds a little dicey because Stocker hasn’t distinguished himself to this point of his career and Crabtree was used sparingly in Green Bay. But the Bucs appear to believe Stocker might be ready to elevate his game and they seem to think Crabtree has upside as a pass-catcher. It still is possible the Bucs could bring in a tight end, but that position doesn’t appear to be all that important in their passing game.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Some random observations and thoughts out of the Carolina Panthers’ minicamp:
  • Coach Ron Rivera was vague on this topic, but I get the sense that there’s a good chance running back Jonathan Stewart, who is recovering from surgery on both ankles, might not be ready to go at the start of training camp.
  • I don’t think the Panthers will scrap the read-option completely, but I came away with a strong sense they’ll be leaning much more heavily to a traditional running game. I think that’s a wonderful thing. Let Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert truly be running backs, and let Cam Newton be a true quarterback. Let him use his mobility when receivers aren’t open and plays are breaking down. But don’t ask your quarterback to be your leading rusher.
  • Speaking of running backs, rookie Kenjon Barner seems to have plenty of explosiveness and speed. The Panthers might have to figure out a way to get him into the backfield rotation.
  • After starters Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, the Panthers are going to have some very intriguing competition for the other receiver spots. Free-agent pickup Ted Ginn Jr. stood out during minicamp. Ginn has great speed, and I saw him catch several deep passes from Newton. I also thought Armanti Edwards, a former college quarterback, finally looked comfortable at receiver. But Ginn and Edwards will be competing with Kealoha Pilares, Joe Adams and David Gettis in training camp for playing time and roster spots.
  • Speaking of Ginn, the Panthers have plenty of options in the return game. But I get the sense that what they ideally would like to do is have Ginn handle both punt and kickoff returns.
  • Safety Robert Lester was signed as an undrafted free agent, but it’s obvious the Panthers are very high on what he has shown so far. There have been times when Lester has gotten some work with the first team.
  • I wish I could give you a clear picture of the situation at cornerback. But I can’t, and that’s mainly because the Panthers still don’t have a clear picture. Captain Munnerlyn hasn’t participated in minicamp as he recovers from an injury. The Panthers were giving a bunch of different cornerbacks work with the first team. I didn’t see any of them really stand out, and that means the competition will continue into training camp.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A first-year player who has turned heads in OTAs/minicamps:

Atlanta Falcons: Second-round pick Robert Alford has made a very positive impression in the OTAs and could be putting himself in position to challenge for a starting cornerback spot. First-round pick Desmond Trufant isn’t allowed to take part in OTAs until his University of Washington class graduates, and veteran Asante Samuel hasn’t been around for all of the voluntary sessions. That has allowed Alford to get plenty of first-team reps, and he’s made the most of them. He’s held his own against receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and the coaching staff has been very impressed with his speed and quickness.

Carolina Panthers: Every time coach Ron Rivera is asked about young guys who are making a good impression, he mentions safety Robert Lester and cornerback Melvin White, who were signed as undrafted free agents. Lester is the one I think is worth keeping a close eye on. Though he wasn’t drafted, Lester has some pedigree. He played on two national championship teams at Alabama and was an important part of the defense. Charles Godfrey is the only sure thing the Panthers have at safety. Lester has a chance to compete with D.J. Campbell and Mike Mitchell.

New Orleans Saints: Outside linebacker Rufus Johnson stood out during this week’s minicamp. He’s the product of a small school (Tarleton State), but he certainly looks like he has the tools to play in the NFL. He has a nice combination of size and quickness and has been working at the “Jack" linebacker spot behind Will Smith and Martez Wilson. Smith is nearing the end of his career, and Wilson is unproven. Johnson appears to have the potential to develop into a strong pass-rusher and could take on a bigger role in the future.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: While Darrelle Revis works with the trainers on the sideline to rehabilitate his knee, rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks has been getting a fair amount of first-team work. Banks hasn’t been flawless. But at times he’s held his own against starting receiver Mike Williams, and that is an encouraging sign. At 6-foot-2, Banks has the size to match up with the division’s bigger receivers like Marques Colston, White and Brandon LaFell. If Banks can continue to impress, there’s a good chance he’ll end up starting opposite Revis, and Eric Wright will slide inside to play the nickel position.

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