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CHARLOTTE, NC – DECEMBER 17: James Bradberry #24 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after forcing the game-clinching fumble during their game against the Green Bay Packers at Bank of America Stadium on December 17, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Panthers won 31-24. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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For a team that finished 11-5 in 2017, the Carolina Panthers had quite a few holes on their roster to fill this off-season. The Panthers lost a total of six starters and had a handful of key role players leave. Fortunately for Carolina, the front office stayed busy during free agency and drafted some intriguing rookies in the NFL Draft.

With the new additions via free agency and the draft, that should spark some compelling competition in Spartanburg, South Carolina come July 26th when training camp opens. Despite head coach Ron Rivera returning this season, there are quite a few new faces in the coaching staff – including offensive and defensive coordinator – which means even the returning veterans will have to battle and show their capabilities. Here are the five most intriguing position battles to look out for this upcoming training camp.

5. Backup Quarterback

A lot of people overlook the importance of a backup quarterback but every team regardless of their starter needs a reliable guy. For much of Cam Newtons career, he was backed up by veteran Derek Anderson who had experience as both a starter and backup in the NFL. Carolina decided to not to re-sign the 12-year veteran which now leaves a big question mark in the depth chart behind Newton. Newton has only missed four games in his career and Anderson was able to fill in nicely, posting a 2-2 record, a 66.7 percent completion percentage, 1,154 passing yards and a 7-5 touchdown to interception ratio.

The Panthers will enter training camp with Garrett Gilbert, Taylor Heinicke and rookie Kyle Allen battling for the backup spot; not the ideal list of guys you want to hear. Gilbert has bounced around from practice squad to practice squad the past three seasons, Heinicke has one career pass attempt and Allen elected for the draft even though he played only four games for Houston last year. Newton has been the most hit quarterback since coming into the league and with his style of play, it will be critical for Carolina to have a capable backup to lead the offense if Newton were to miss some time.

4. Wide Receiver

After the trade of Kelvin Benjamin last season, it was clear the Panthers were looking to head into a new direction with their passing game. Carolina then decided to draft wide receiver D.J. Moore with their first-round pick of the 2018 draft. The Panthers also brought in Jarius Wright via free agency and acquired veteran Torrey Smith via trade this off-season. Moore, Wright, and Smith will battle alongside Devin Funchess and Curtis Samuel for a spot on the depth chart.

Carolina enters training camp with no clear-cut number one receiver. Moore shined during OTAs and rookie minicamp and will be gunning for the top spot. Funchess served as the Panthers interim number one last year after the injury to Greg Olsen and the trade of Benjamin. Funchess finished 2017 with 63 receptions, 840 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns. While those aren’t stellar numbers, he proved to be a reliable red zone threat hauling in touchdowns against the tough secondaries of the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.

Smith has been a dangerous deep threat throughout his career and has a career average of 16.4 yards per reception. He has had back-to-back underperforming seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles but still could bring a deep threat presence the Panthers have not had since Ted Ginn Jr. Samuel got off to a slow start his rookie year but started to find his groove in weeks seven through nine until an ankle injury cut his season short. Wright has spent the past six years with the Vikings primarily serving as the third or fourth receiver. However, he is familiar with offensive coordinator Norv Turner‘s offense which should give him an advantage during camp. As stated before, the Panthers do not have a clear-cut number one receiver as of now so all five of these players should enter camp hungry and ready to ball out.

3. Cornerback

Since the departure of Josh Norman, the cornerback position has not been an area of strength for the Panthers. James Bradberry has emerged as the team’s number one corner but failed to take the next step many thought he would take in 2017. Carolina brought back Captain Munnerlyn last off-season and he served as the team’s nickel corner but showed he has lost a step in his game. Kevon Seymour was traded for last season and filled in nicely making two starts in 2017 proving his worth in limited action.

However, this off-season the Panthers brought cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Donte Jackson to provide some speed and much-needed competition at the position. Cockrell had a productive 2017 with the New York Giants recording 11 pass deflections and three interceptions. Jackson, on the other hand, is a rookie out of LSU that was selected in the second round of the draft. Jackson was one of the fastest players at the NFL Combine and has experience playing in NFL-level coverages while at LSU. Both Jackson and Cockrell should threaten Seymour’s, Munnerlyn’s and Bradberry’s spots on the depth chart which will lead to a lot of competition come training camp.

2. Safety

On paper, the most vulnerable position on the Panthers roster comes at the safety position. The team decided to cut ties with Kurt Coleman this off-season in order to save on cap space. Carolina’s secondary was already considered slow but now with the loss of Coleman, that only creates a bigger liability in the back end. On the roster is 37-year-old Mike Adams, eight-year veteran Da’Norris Searcy, special teams ace Colin Jones and rookie Rashaan Gaulden.

Adams started at strong safety last year and recorded 69 tackles and two interceptions but got beat often on deep passes. Searcy had a solid first two seasons with the Tennessee Titans but a disappointing 2017 campaign led him to the team releasing him.  Jones is one of the Panthers best special teams players and can provide some quality play against the run, but can be a liability in coverage due to his lack of speed. Gaulden is a versatile defensive back that played nickel, corner and safety in college. He can match up well against receiving tight ends but a lot of his skillset is unproven at the NFL level. If the Panthers want to avoid getting beat repeatedly by deep passes, one of these four – or a late free-agent pickup – is going to have to step up.

1. Left Guard

Arguably no position will be harder to fill on the Panthers roster for the 2018 season than left guard. Andrew Norwell was the starting left guard in 2017 and according to Pro Football Focus, he was the ranked as the third best guard in the NFL last season. Due to his stellar season, Norwell signed a lucrative five year, $66.5 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

For the Panthers, the potential starting left guard candidates are Jeremiah Sirles, Amini Silatolu, Tyler Larsen, Kyle Bosch, Taylor Hearn and Brandon Mahon. Bosch, Hearn, and Mahon were all undrafted free agents but do not let that fool you. The Panthers have worked some magic over the years with undrafted free agent offensive linemen including Norwell and Larsen.

Sirles was signed this offseason after spending the last two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He served primarily as a backup but had a very good 2016 season filling in for the injured starters. Silatolu has started 28 games at both right and left guard for the Panthers in his career and moved to right tackle last season. He may be asked to move back to guard to provide competition. Larsen has served as the primary backup center the past two seasons but has seen action as a swing guard as well. Winning the starting job alone will not be easy for any of the candidates, and the pressure of trying to replace a guy like Norwell will make the competition among them even more intriguing.

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