Ask Bryan: Star in the making


Star Lotulelei seems to be getting better with every game. Do you believe he is quickly becoming one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL? – Stuart in Swansboro, N.C.

I believe he already is.

It's a beautiful thing when talent and position need come together on draft night, and I still remember my excitement during the 2013 NFL Draft when the stars (pun intended) aligned. Lotulelei, viewed at one point as the top prospect in the draft class, lost some momentum when he sat out the NFL Scouting Combine after a misdiagnosis led to concerns that he might have a heart condition. I hate that Lotulelei had to endure such a scare, but it turned out to be a blessing for the Panthers, who pulled off a coup by getting him with the 14th overall pick.

Lotulelei didn't play like a rookie while starting every game last season, and he's off to a strong start this preseason. He's often requiring the attention of two opposing offensive linemen, which creates opportunities for his teammates, and he's capable of wreaking havoc if opponents don't throw extra resources his way. In a word, he's a handful – exactly what you want from a defensive tackle.

Do you think Cam's injury will change how he plays in Week 1, assuming he is cleared to play? – Chris via Twitter

That's obviously hard to predict, though I know the injuries certainly won't change Newton's all-out approach to doing whatever it takes to win. As I understand it, rib injuries are often about pain management as much as anything, so how close Newton is to fully healed could determine how much he's able to move and play like the player we know and love. At this late point in the healing process for his surgically repaired ankle, it's much the same story.

The other impact of the injuries, of course, is how they have or will limit Newton's practice time. The ankle injury clearly cut into Newton's chances during the offseason to work with his new receivers, and now the rib injury is doing the same as the Panthers begin to game-plan for the regular season opener. But Newton did get mental reps throughout the offseason and now during game-planning for Tampa Bay, and we know his penchant for rising to the occasion come kickoff. If Newton needs to pick up three yards on the ground to help the Panthers win, he won't let an injury hold him back.

I'm glad that Kelvin Benjamin is having a great preseason. What worries me is will he be doubled-teamed and taken out of the game? – Mike in Flat Rock, N.C.

I understand your concern, especially with Benjamin being a rookie, but such treatment by opposing defenses comes with the territory. The Panthers have been preparing him for that possibility by throwing the kitchen sink at him in practice. Benjamin's height and athleticism can render a double-team moot at times, plus the added attention he draws will only open up opportunities for others.

What are your expectations for our brand new safety corps of Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud? I was very happy about these two! – Brandon via Twitter

Anytime you add a pair of players with the track record of Harper and DeCoud to support one of the top front sevens in football, you have to be excited. Add to it their Pro Bowl pedigree and their long histories with NFC South rivals that could come in handy, and it has the potential to be a great situation.

That being said, Harper has to get up to speed after recently returning from a toe injury that sidelined him for three weeks. But given that veteran Quintin Mikell was productive as a starting at safety in Week 1 last season, six days after signing with Carolina, Harper should be fine.

If the team were to keep five linebackers, who do you think will take that fifth spot? Williams? Jacobs? – Travis in Fresno, Calif.

The team's top linebackers get top billing, with good reason, but there is considerable talent behind Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein. Jason Williams is a key contributor on special teams who has spent parts of the past four seasons with the Panthers, while Ben Jacobs is an interesting prospect who spent most of last season on the practice squad. The competition intensified with the addition of Charlotte native and Appalachian State product D.J. Smith, who started nine games for the Green Bay Packers between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, as well as undrafted rookies Denicos Allen and Adarius Glanton. It's too close to call and there's not enough room for everybody, though the Panthers could very well choose to carry six linebackers as opposed to five.

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