Last year, defensive end Everette Brown and fullback Tony Fiammetta were understudies, playing in the shadows of Julius Peppers and Brad Hoover. This season, they will be counted on to take on bigger roles for the Panthers after Peppers signed with Chicago as an unrestricted free agent and Hoover was released during the offseason.
Brown and Fiammetta are among 15 players on the roster entering their second season with Carolina.
"A large percentage of our roster is built through draft choices and rookie free agents," said general manager Marty Hurney. "We have a group of young players that we really think are very good players and at some point in some way have to give attention to."
And that time is now for Brown and Fiammetta, who were selected in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Panthers. The rookie growing pains are gone and are no longer an issue. The biggest difference between last year and this year for them is their mental understanding of the game.
"Mentally it's like night and day," Brown said. "In college you think you know a lot but when you get in the league and you're working with vets that have been playing eight, nine, 10 years and even guys who've been in it for three or four years, you still learn a lot. You're able to translate it on the field just paying attention to detail. I feel like I'm a lot smarter on the field. I can adjust things for myself a lot quicker, and it just makes me an all-around better player."
Brown played in 15 games with one start as a rookie and compiled 25 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 16 quarterback pressures - the third highest total on the team - and two forced fumbles. His offseason goals were to rest for a little while and then get into the weight room and strengthen his 256-pound frame. Now he is focused on competing for a starting position on the defensive line.
"You just want to be consistent. Consistency is what is going to keep you here and keep you playing early," Brown said. "One of the terms that vets always threw at me is longevity. You want to be able to be consistent and keep going."
After playing a full 16-game season for the first time, the second-year players now understand how to manage the rigors of a full season, both from a mental and physical standpoint. As result, the expectations are higher for them as they enter their sophomore seasons in the NFL.
"There is usually a big growth spurt from year one to year two or year two to year three, and we're counting on that with a bunch of guys," said head coach John Fox. "This game is about playing fast. It's a lot mental, and the more you know the faster you can anticipate things happening and you end up playing faster. That's why these OTAs are important to get the young guys out here to learn the system, so by the time we get to camp and start the preseason games they are playing faster."
Playing faster will definitely be important for Fiammetta as he serves as the lead blocker for running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who became the first set of teammates in NFL history to each rush for more than 1,100 yards in the same season in 2009. He will have to make split-second decisions at the line of scrimmage to help them find the open holes.
"I'm a mile ahead of where I was (last year). In the mental part of the game, everything is slowing down. I'm more comfortable with the playbook. So I can think a little bit outside of the box and start forming my game," Fiammetta said. "The more you see things the better you're going to get."
Fiammetta played in 10 games with two starts as a rookie, appearing primarily on special teams. But those two starts and the opportunity to learn from a veteran like Hoover provided Fiammetta valuable experience.
"Jim Skipper, our running backs coach, brought him along last year," Fox said. "The fullback position is a pretty heads up position as far as how it fits in the running game, cleaning up for the o-line and making adjustments on the move. Tony showed that ability as the season wore on last year a lot in practice to pick that stuff up and understand what we're doing in the run game. I think he's ready to take that next step."