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Carolina Panthers

Strickly Panthers: Spirited youth


A reporter asked Panthers head coach Ron Rivera on Monday if he was concerned about the team's lack of experience at defensive tackle.

"Definitely there's concern," Rivera said. "Shoot, I've got more experience than half the defense put together."

The response drew laughter. My first thought was, "Surely he's exaggerating."

As it turns out, he was not.

The Panthers have experience throughout their linebacking corps; cornerback Chris Gamble has been around for seven seasons; and defensive end Charles Johnson and safety Charles Godfrey are established starters.

Even so, Rivera is right.

Johnson may be established, but he still has just 20 NFL starts while playing in 48 games. That is more experience, however, than the rest of the starting defensive line on the unofficial depth chart: Tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain are rookies, and end Greg Hardy is entering his second season after playing in 15 games with no starts as a rookie.

Then in the secondary, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Sherrod Martin have 29 starts and 62 games between them. That means that Munnerlyn and Martin along with the projected four starters on the front – so six of the 11 starters – have combined to play in 125 NFL games with 49 starts.

Rivera, over his nine seasons as a linebacker with the Chicago Bears, played in 149 games with 62 starts.

Beyond the starters, second-year pro Andre Neblett is the only backup at defensive tackle currently on the roster, and second-year players Eric Norwood and George Selvie are the backups at defensive end. In the secondary, three of the four reserves are in their second season and the other one is a rookie.

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers have plenty of experience, except at the most critical position of them all – quarterback, where rookie Cam Newton is the starter.

If you're a Panthers fans and you're a big proponent of the saying, "There's no substitute for experience," your personal panic meter might be going crazy heading into Sunday's season opener at the Arizona Cardinals.

The man who made the statement about the team's inexperience, however, isn't pushing the panic button.

"That's just the way it is," said Rivera, a rookie head coach. "We're looking to build, and we're going to grow up. These young guys will grow in our system, and our system will grow around them."

The Panthers are in a rebuilding phase, but Vegas-style rebuilding is possible these days in the NFL. Outdated structures can be replaced by young but successful ones in seemingly no time flat.

Also keep in mind that Gamble and starting linebackers Thomas Davis, Jon Beason and James Anderson have combined to play in 303 games with 241 starts.

Last season, with just as many questions along the defensive line (remember that Johnson wasn't yet established), and with Davis out all season, the Panthers still managed to rank a respectable 18th in total defense. They were in the top half of the league most of the season.

Davis is back, and once Beason returns to full strength from his heel injury, the linebacking corps will be loaded and ready to lead.

The Panthers ranked 11th in pass defense in 2010, and the secondary should again succeed if Gamble has a big bounce-back year.

Johnson is a disruptive force upfront and Hardy can be, leaving it to the rookies in the middle to use their young bodies to their advantage.

"We're going to be the little brother that's going to get punched a few times," Rivera said, "but eventually we'll start punching back."

PRACTICE SQUAD UPDATE: The Panthers completed their eight-man practice squad Tuesday by signing offensive lineman Bryant Browning and defensive end Thomas Keiser. Both undrafted rookies originally made the 53-man roster Saturday but were waived a day later.

Seven of the eight practice squad members attended training camp with Carolina, the lone exception being center Jeff Byers, who spent his rookie season in 2010 on the Denver Broncos' practice squad.

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