With the 2014 season on the line in late December, the Carolina Panthers started seven rookies – an unusually high number for a must-win game – against the Cleveland Browns.
Carolina’s 17-13 victory moved the Panthers to 6-8-1 and kept their playoff hopes alive.
In 2015, the Panthers (4-0) haven’t started more than one rookie in a game, because they haven’t had to.
“This is probably one of the few times where we’re only starting one rookie for the most part,” coach Ron Rivera, in his fifth season, said Monday. “In the past we’ve started two or three or four or five. It’s a little bit comforting to know we’ve done a good job at finding depth and developing it and then having it as part of our football team.”
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The Panthers have eight rookies on their 53-man roster – five draft picks and three undrafted free agents – and their results have been mixed.
A look at what each has done so far.
LB Shaq Thompson, first round: Thompson has started all four games this season, making those who questioned the Panthers drafting him look silly. He is tied for seventh on the team with 16 tackles and is one of six Panthers with a sack.
Thompson has shown his ability to fly to the ball and make hits. But the most recent game was his worst – he missed three tackles after being overly aggressive at Tampa Bay.
“Shaq played well and he’s getting more and more confident and comfortable in what we’re doing,” Rivera said. “He made some mistakes. A couple of times he got upfield a little bit too far. A couple of times he was in the wrong crease, didn’t make the proper check one time. I thought he did a good job in coverage and dropped with good zone awareness. He breaks on a lot plays, he’s very physical. And that’s been a big plus.”
Also benefiting Thompson has been the absence of Luke Kuechly for 14 of the 16 quarters. The Panthers like their nickel defense, which takes a linebacker off the field and replaces him with cornerback Bené Benwikere.
With Kuechly sidelined, the team has used different defensive packages – pairing Thompson with Thomas Davis, or using Thompson, Davis and A.J. Klein.
A big question will be how much time Thompson sees once Kuechly returns.
WR Devin Funchess, second round: Funchess came to the Panthers with the “tweener” label – not exactly a wide receiver, but not a tight end either.
He played both positions at Michigan, but Carolina was clear that he would be a receiver.
He missed a good chunk of the preseason because of hamstring issues that limited his reps with Cam Newton. When Kelvin Benjamin went down at training camp, it was thought Funchess’ learning would have to catch up.
But through four games he has three catches for 38 yards. Only newly acquired receiver Kevin Norwood (with zero) has fewer.
Funchess stands 6-foot-4, but he doesn’t always play that big. Film review shows Funchess needs to be more explosive and physical coming off the line of scrimmage to get himself open sooner on routes.
A good example of this came late in the fourth quarter of last week’s victory over the Bucs. With the Panthers at the Tampa Bay 9, Funchess ran a slant and Cam Newton fired a low pass to him that went incomplete.
While Newton could have probably thrown a better ball, Funchess could have also been more physical with the defensive back, who got his hands on Funchess just as he broke. Funchess should have opened his body up more to Newton to make himself a bigger target, but he stayed narrow and made the throw tougher on his quarterback.
“He’s working hard and just trying to shore up all of the details of routes and plays,” veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “It’s a long season. He’ll have plenty more opportunities.”
OT Daryl Williams, fourth round: Williams, an Oklahoma product, showed great promise in the preseason as one of the highest-graded offensive rookies in the exhibitions, according to Pro Football Focus.
But an MCL sprain in the first quarter of the first regular-season game has sidelined Williams. The Panthers lack tackle depth but so far Michael Oher and Mike Remmers have stayed healthy enough that it hasn’t been an issue.
It might be a stretch for Williams to return by the Seattle game on Oct. 18, but he should return sometime around then.
LB David Mayo, fifth round: Mayo has two tackles in limited time on defense side but a handful of tackles on special teams.
He came to the Panthers with little special teams experience but a lot of tackling talent. That has translated, and that’s what made the Panthers get him on the third day of the draft.
Plenty of players in this league have made a name on special teams, and that may be the route Mayo has to take this season and next with a loaded Panthers linebacker depth chart.
RB Cameron Artis-Payne, fifth round: Artis-Payne, out of Auburn, hasn’t gotten a lot of touches this season because there haven’t been many to go around.
He showed a great burst in the preseason, but he’s only had 11 carries for 31 yards, with eight of those carries for 25 yards coming in junk time at Tampa Bay.
He’s been on the outside looking in once already this season as the Panthers made him inactive to accommodate other players at less-healthy positions.
Cam Newton is running the ball as well as he ever has while teams are daring the Panthers to throw by regularly loading the box with eight defenders. That’s made running tough on Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, who together have 54 percent of Carolina’s rushing total.
As long as Carolina keeps getting comfortable late-game leads, Artis-Payne will get time. But if the Panthers are in close games and Stewart and Tolbert are healthy, Artis-Payne will be on the bench.
DE Ryan Delaire: Every Panthers fan got acquainted with Delaire last weekend, but no one knew him better than Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston. Delaire sacked Winston twice, and it would have been three times if not for an intentional grounding penalty.
Delaire, who went to Towson, signed with the Bucs after the draft, was cut, signed to Washington’s practice squad and was plucked by the Panthers last week.
Rivera isn’t sure he’ll always have two sacks in a game, but clearly Delaire is a disruptive player from either side of the line.
S Dean Marlowe: Marlowe is still a work-in-progress. It was a bit of a surprise he made the final roster, but the Panthers didn’t want to expose him on the practice squad.
Marlowe, who went to James Madison, has good ball skills and a propensity for big hits. He just has to put it together consistently. He’ll likely spend most of the year inactive unless there’s an injury in the defensive backfield.
RB Brandon Wegher: Wegher is in the same boat as Marlowe. Wegher, who played two seasons at Morningside College after a year at Iowa, has been inactive for all the games despite showing promise in the preseason and that will continue so long as the people in front of him stay healthy.
Artis-Payne is hardly getting a shot, and the Panthers spent a draft pick on him. The Panthers likes what they have in Wegher, and they’ll always have an eye on the future. Right now, he’s not fitting into Carolina’s week-by-week plans.