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Return game could help shape roster

Posted Jul 22, 2014

Hey Bryan, I'm excited to see what this season brings as far as new talent is concerned. However, special teams seems to be overlooked at times. Now that Ted Ginn is gone, who might be returning kicks this year? – Parke in Suffolk, Va.

Position battles are often significant storylines at training camp, and this year should be no exception. While many focus on battles for starting spots, the battle for roster spots can be even more compelling, and the return game could be a particularly big component in those battles at Panthers training camp over the next few weeks.

Last month during the minicamp that wrapped up the offseason workout program and set the stage for training camp, head coach Ron Rivera said the plan for kick returns was far from set. He highlighted wide receiver Kealoha Pilares and running back Kenjon Barner – players who will try to make the roster at crowded positions – as leading candidates for kickoff return duties. Pilares is the last Panther to return a kickoff for a touchdown (as a rookie in 2011), while Barner returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in college. Barner and wide receiver Tiquan Underwood (28 career kickoff returns) were among those getting reps as punt returners during Organized Team Activities, but training camp and preseason games will go a long way toward sorting it all out.

Last season, Ginn handled virtually every return while doubling as a key cog in the wide receiver rotation. This season, a player looking for a way onto the roster may have a chance to make his mark as a returner, or a player that sparkles at his position may earn one of the final roster spots because he can help in the return game. Stay tuned.

Bryan, with the additions of the nine undrafted rookie free agents, who do you see as being solid contributors just like Robert Lester, Melvin White and Wes Horton were last year? – Richard in Fayetteville, N.C.

Speaking of kick returners, undrafted rookie wide receiver Philly Brown has extensive experience returning punts, averaging nearly 10 yards a return on 47 attempts at Ohio State. Linebacker Denicos Allen, a three-time All-Big Ten Conference selection at Michigan State, crossed paths with Brown several times while racking up 278 tackles for the Spartans.

Brown and Allen are the most obvious candidates among the group, but surprises emerge seemingly every year at training camp. Guard Andrew Norwell is a big man with big hopes, and cornerback Carrington Byndom is among the fastest players on the roster, posting a 4.35 at his Texas pro day.

Still, there's a chance that the Panthers' next seemingly-out-of-nowhere contributor isn't even mentioned above. That's part of what makes training camp so intriguing.

I am sure you and the crew heard what Benjamin Watson said on NFL Network when he said the Saints aren't worried about the Panthers. I am sure the players and coaches have heard it also. What are your thoughts on the comments? – Richard in Fayetteville, N.C.

Watson, a tight end from Rock Hill, S.C., who played one year of college football at Duke before transferring to Georgia, recently said on "NFL Total Access" that "one team I'm not worried about is the Carolina Panthers" when it comes to competing for the NFC South title.

Before getting too bent out of shape, it seems obvious that Watson was poking a little fun at the fact that no team has ever repeated as NFC South champs. Now, if the Panthers were in a desperate search for bulletin board material, this could be molded into some. But the fact is that the Panthers aren't worried about the Saints, either. Not at this point, not with so much work to be done before the season kicks off. And when they do cross paths with New Orleans, motivation will be easy enough to come by.

I really want you guys to make the playoffs again this year, but it looks like they gave y'all the hard schedule. – Markus in Atlanta

The schedule certainly looks daunting, particularly a stretch of five games against 2013 playoff teams that comes on the heels of games against perennial playoff contenders Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago. But doesn't every schedule look formidable? How many sure things are there in the NFL?

Last preseason, Panthers fans lamented a three-game stretch against Atlanta, San Francisco and New England – three of the Super Bowl favorites entering the season. The Panthers swept those games, but only after going 1-2 in a stretch that seemed relatively innocuous in the preseason – Buffalo, New York and Arizona. And which game did they win in that stretch? The Giants – considered the cream of that crop in the preseason.

Carolina's schedule was ranked as the hardest entering last season based on the winning percentage of their opponents in 2012, but it only ranked 17th at the end of the season based on 2013 winning percentage (percentages deflated in part by the 12-4 Panthers). That's not to say strength of schedule means nothing – the Saints were the only team with an end-of-season strength of schedule in the top 10 that made the playoffs – but it is to say that analyzing the true strength of a schedule during the preseason is far from a science.

I would like to know what radio station is close to me that I can listen to for Panther news and games. – Jonathan in Norfolk, Va.

Jonathan, you're in luck, as the Panthers have added a radio affiliate in the Tidewater region for this season in the form of WXTG 1490 AM. That's one of four new radio affiliates on the now 55-station Panthers Radio Network, which includes affiliates in North and South Carolina as well as Virginia and Georgia. For those outside the covered markets, a good option might be flagship station WBT 1110 AM via the iHeartRadio app.

On the television side, the 14-station Panthers Television Network includes ABC affiliate WVEC that serves your neck of the woods as well as the Outer Banks. The television network extends to parts of the same four states covered on the radio side and also reaches parts of Tennessee.

And, of course, for all things Panthers throughout training camp and beyond, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Panthers.com as an essential source.

Panthers.com senior writer Bryan Strickland answers your questions. Fill out the form below to send it to him. The answer to your question could be posted on Panthers.com.
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