Just about any time Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera would compliment someone for a nice play during organized team activities and minicamp, he would temper his enthusiasm with some version of the following caveat:
“Well, we’ll get a better feel for things at training camp.”
It’s not that the coach known as “Riverboat” was trying to throw a wet blanket on his team’s springtime work in Charlotte.
He just knows jobs really won’t be won or lost until players put on the pads and start hitting in the Spartanburg steam bath.
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With players off for the next five weeks, the Observer looks at several key position battles that will begin in earnest when the Panthers reconvene at Wofford in late July.
Several players rotated during OTAs and minicamp at the position formerly held by All-Pro Andrew Norwell. But the guy who received the bulk of the first-team reps is the one with the most experience.
Amini Silatolu, 29, has 31 career starts in five seasons — one more than the other four players competing at left guard have combined. But 15 of Silatolu’s starts came as a rookie in 2012 before injuries slowed the development of the 2012 second-round pick from Midwestern State.
Rivera said Silatolu would get the first opportunity to win the job at camp, before adding:
“But we have a group of guys that all performed very well during OTAs and minicamp. So all those guys will get a real serious look at it.”
That group includes free agent acquisition Jeremiah Sirles, Greg Van Roten, 2017 second-round pick Taylor Moton and Tyler Larsen, who started 15 games at center the past two seasons when Ryan Kalil was injured.
Rivera said coaches will start paring down the left guard repetitions for some of the above players within the first week at Wofford.
No. 2 cornerback
While James Bradberry aims to take his game to a Pro Bowl level, the Panthers are still searching for a corner to line up opposite him after trading Daryl Worley and seeing would-be free agent acquisition Bashaud Breeland fail his physical.
Former Bills CB Kevon Seymour received a lot of first-team work during the spring, and says he hopes having a full offseason with the Panthers will help him play faster.
No one on the roster has as much speed as second-round pick Donte Jackson, the former LSU sprinter who plays both nickel and outside corner.
Charlotte native and five-year veteran Ross Cockrell is in the mix, as is ex-Broncos defensive back Lorenzo Doss, who seemed to make a big play everyday at OTAs and minicamp. Nickel Captain Munnerlyn has trimmed down after a disappointing 2017 and could be a fallback option on the outside.
The Panthers will begin camp with veterans Mike Adams and Da’Norris Searcy as the starting safeties (unless new owner David Tepper wants to make a statement by signing off on Eric Reid).
Adams turned 37 during the offseason, but — like Julius Peppers — has remained productive late in his career. Searcy, a former Tar Heel, was an effective run-stopper in Tennessee before losing his starting spot.
Rookie Rashaan Gaulden leads a list of young players vying for time behind Adams and Searcy. Gaulden, a third-round pick from Tennessee, showed progress during the spring while seeing action at both safety spots.
Demetrius Cox had four tackles off the bench in a Week 4 victory at New England before an ankle injury ended his rookie season. Veteran Colin Jones has been a valuable backup who remains one of the fastest players on the team.
Mario Addison has quietly developed into one of the most consistent edge rushers in the league and will man one of the defensive end spots. Like they did last year, the Panthers will limit the snaps for 38-year-old Julius Peppers, who only started five games last year.
Wes Horton has started 27 games in five seasons with the Panthers and has long been regarded for his ability to set the edge against the run. But Horton’s career-high 5.5 sacks last season suggest he’s more than just a first- and second-down end.
The interesting competition will be among a group of young pass rushers trying to win the final defensive end spot. The Panthers used fairly high draft picks on Daeshon Hall (third round, 2017) and Marquis Haynes (fourth round, 2018), while Bryan Cox Jr. flashed potential at times last season as an undrafted free agent.