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Lester preparing to start at safety

CHARLOTTE – When Charles Godfrey's season-ending injury left the Panthers with just three safeties on the roster and just one completely healthy, the front office had a decision to make.

With rookie Robert Lester on the practice squad, the decision actually wasn't that difficult.

"We talked a little bit about what our options were, but we had a safety at training camp that we liked," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a guy that I think has got a chance in this league. He's going through a developmental process, but now that process is here. I'm excited for his opportunity."

Cornerback D.J. Moore, who filled in some at safety last Sunday but suffered an injury of his own in the game, isn't quick to give compliments to former Alabama players. But Moore, an All-American at Vanderbilt, is willing to make an exception in the case of Lester.

"Nick Saban was his coach, and he's supposedly the mastermind, so he'll be fine," Moore said. "He knows everything. I don't think they'd be putting him out there if he didn't.

"You always have the opportunity to go get an older guy from somewhere else but we didn't, so you know he's capable."

Lester, an All-SEC performer who helped the Crimson Tide win three national championships, has been on his share of big stages. He will find himself on a different stage entirely Sunday, when he is expected to start at strong safety in his NFL debut against the New York Giants and two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Eli Manning.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime," Lester said. "My first NFL game will be against a great quarterback, and if I don't bring my 'A' game, he's going to make plays out there.

"I'm real excited. My phone was blowing up yesterday from family, friends and fans that can't wait to see me on the field. I'm ready to go to out and show them that I can play."

Lester showed the Panthers coaching staff he could play shortly after the team signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent, considered a coupe given that many analysts believed Lester would be drafted.

Moore said that after organized team activities, he believed Lester had a chance to be a starter for the Panthers. But Mike Mitchell – who will now move over to Godfrey's free safety spot - established himself opposite Godfrey early in the training camp, and Lester began to look like a rookie.

But Lester had already done enough to earn a spot on the practice squad, where he's in effect been an active member of the team every day except game day.

"On the practice squad, you go into every meeting like you're about to play a game," Lester said. "That's exactly what I've been doing, so now that I'm actually active I'm not too far behind. I know exactly what's going on."

Lester, at 6-1 and 215 pounds, has the game to fit right in.

"He's a big, physical safety," Rivera said. "I like his size and I like his downfield approach. I like the way he plays. He's a good, solid tackler.

"He's got a lot to learn obviously, and he's got to play. We can put him in positions that limit his exposure in certain things and that use his ability in other things."

The Panthers have been in this situation before under Rivera. Late in the 2011 season, the team promoted rookie Jonathan Nelson from the practice squad the day before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A pregame injury to Jordan Pugh then thrust Nelson into the starting lineup, and he responded with an interception and nine tackles in the victory.

Lester and the Panthers would welcome just such a scenario Sunday.

"Every rookie looks for an opportunity to make a name for himself, and that's exactly what I'm planning on doing," Lester said. "I'm going to go out this week and I'm going to show the world that I'm here to play, that I belong in this league."

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