CHARLOTTE – Charles Godfrey will be the Carolina Panthers starting free safety this season. That much coach Ron Rivera knows.
As for the rest of the secondary, Rivera said that’s up in the air.
“It’s wide open, it’s a battle,” Rivera said after Thursday’s practice. “Nobody has been anointed until we get pads on and play more physical and jam receivers at the line.”
That won’t happen until the Panthers head to training camp in Spartanburg, S.C., on July 25 and are free to begin full contract drills in complete pads. The recent NFL collective bargaining agreement restricts how much contact is allowed during organized team activities.
The Panthers will need to find some answers if they hope to slow down the likes of NFC South receivers like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson and talented tight ends Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez.
Carolina was 13th in the league in pass defense last season and 18th in points allowed.
They finished 7-9, failing to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
The Panthers are looking to replace long-time starting cornerback Chris Gamble, who was released earlier this offseason in a salary cap move. Their No. 2 cornerback spot has been a revolving door for years and nobody has stepped up to secure the strong safety spot.
New general manager Dave Gettleman addressed the cornerback situation in the offseason by adding free agents Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore.
While neither is the big name cornerback many fans clamored for, both bring plenty of NFL experience to the table. Florence is entering his 11th season and has started 99 career games, while Moore is an experienced nickel back beginning his fifth season.
The Panthers were able to re-sign free agent Captain Munnerlyn and also return youngsters Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and James Dockery.
Which two starters emerge from that group remains to be seen.
Norman and Thomas were working with the starters Thursday while Moore was the nickel back. Florence was working with the second team, and Munnerlyn is out with a leg injury.
But Rivera said that doesn’t mean much.
He said defensive backs coach Steve Wilks has been rotating cornerbacks in and out of the starting lineup since the start of OTAs three weeks ago by design.
The reality, he said, is he won’t know who the starters are until he sees guys practice at training camp.
“Everybody talks about Josh Thomas, but right now he can’t play to his strengths if he can’t get up and jab” in OTAs, Rivera said. “That’s his strength. If you look at the tape, he’s a physical player but in these OTAs he can’t rely on his strengths.”
The Panthers entered last season high on Norman, a fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina.
The rookie showed a play-making ability and an intense competitive fire last summer, once intercepting five passes during a single training camp practice. He started right away, but his confidence eroded and he was benched for Thomas 12 games into the season.
Norman said he’s out to regain that starting spot this year.
“It’s my second year, and I understand the game a lot better,” Norman said. “I’m taking notes, working on my leverage and putting different pieces of my game together.”
The wild card is Munnerlyn.
He’s resting a leg injury but plans to be back at full strength by training camp. He’s often overlooked – perhaps because of his 5-foot-8 frame – but continues to find ways to make it to the playing field. Munnerlyn has started 34 games for the Panthers over the past four seasons.
“He’s our little big man,” linebacker Jon Beason said of Munnerlyn. “He’s a big part of what we do.”
At strong safety, Haruki Nakamura, who struggled last season, is competing for a starting spot with last year’s rookie D.J. Campbell and free agent newcomer Mike Mitchell from Oakland.
Campbell was running with the first team during Thursday’s workouts.
But like everything else in the Panthers secondary, that can change in the next couple of months.
“We’re going to try to even out the reps as much as possible (in training camp), because we have to find out what we got,” Rivera said.
Notes: Two key starters on the Panthers offensive line — left tackle Jordan Gross and center Ryan Kalil — returned to practice this week for the first time after sitting out the previous two weeks of OTAs with injuries.