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Mitchell seeks starting safety spot


CHARLOTTE – Mike Mitchell has only been a Carolina Panther for about three months, but the safety already feels at home.

"I'm loving the team," Mitchell said. "I love it. It's a new team, a new atmosphere with a lot of young guys that are hungry."

Free safeties Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura both have more NFL experience, but Mitchell – a leading candidate to start at strong safety – has logged more games played (61) and starts (9) than the other four safeties on the roster combined.

Still, he eagerly counts himself among the young and restless.

"I definitely still consider myself a young guy – I'm only 26 years old – and I'm excited for the opportunity to be here," Mitchell said. "I want to be able to get on the field and be an every-down player."

That was Mitchell's goal with the Oakland Raiders as well, but he had to settle for being a prominent backup throughout his four seasons there. When Mitchell was a rookie, Tyvan Branch established himself as a top-notch strong safety, and former first-round pick Michael Huff held down the free safety spot.

Mitchell is a former second-round selection himself, albeit a somewhat surprising one after the Ohio University product wasn't invited to the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock assigned Mitchell a seventh-round grade heading into the draft, and ESPN analyst Mel Kiper didn't project him to be drafted. Mitchell himself was surprised by his selection, too, but only by what team drafted him.

"Chicago had actually called and said they were taking me at 49, so for the Raiders to select me at 47 without even calling was a bit of a shock but definitely a blessing," Mitchell said. "I had a good experience in Oakland, but I'm happy here in Carolina with my new teammates."

One of those new teammates is D.J. Campbell, the Panthers' seventh-round draft pick in 2012 who didn't appear in the Panthers' first 11 games but played well down the stretch as the starter at strong safety when Nakamura suffered a season-ending injury and Godfrey moved to free safety.

Campbell and Mitchell are expected to vie for the starting spot alongside Godfrey throughout training camp. Mitchell is embracing the competition.

"It's not about me versus D.J.; it's me versus the offense, and whoever plays better will end up getting more playing time when the season comes," Mitchell said. "He's got skills. I've got skills. It's just a matter of what the coaches want to have out there. The best man will play."

Mitchell flashed some of his ability during organized team activities and the Panthers' recent minicamp, but he referred to such practices to "basketball on grass." He expects to hit his stride at training camp when players are allowed to hit each other.

"I'm a student of the game, so I understand things pretty well, and you'll be able to see when we put the pads on that I'm a physical safety," Mitchell said. "I'm not the biggest guy in the world, but I think I pack a pretty good punch for 210 pounds.

"I really can't wait to get the pads on and play against somebody else when we actually can hit."

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