By Brian Kalchik @BrianKalchik on April 14, 2014
For an upstart team that went from worst to first this season in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers have a bright future ahead of them. Even after the losses of receivers Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., this team is still loaded with talent.
However the younger Panthers players will have to step up for all the departing players. Here now are my five biggest breakout candidates.
I would not be counting on Jonathan Stewart from here on out. Stewart's injury history has been so noteworthy that I can't trust him anymore.
While Barner predictably struggled as a rookie last year, his speed is something that you just can't teach. With power runners like Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert in the backfield, a change-of-pace runner like Barner would make the Panthers' offense more explosive.
Carolina's secondary was appropriately named "The Legion of Whom" last year as most of their secondary was comprised of no-name players. Among the no-names that stepped up last year was Melvin White.
As an undrafted free agent, White was a solid player last year for Carolina's young and talented defense. After losing Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence this offseason, I expect White to be a major contributor next season.
A third-round pick last year, Kawann Short was expected to team with fellow rookie Star Lotulelei to give the Panthers a stout front four. Unfortunately, Short didn't crack the lineup much as veteran Dwan Edwards had a outstanding season last year.
While I expect Edwards to retain his starting spot, I fully expect Short to bounce back and get some more meaningful snaps this year.
Reserve linebacker A.J. Klein saw plenty of significant snaps last year as a fifth-round draft pick in 2013. With Thomas Davis having a history of injuries and Chase Blackburn having his struggles, don't be surprised if Klein cracks the starting lineup in 2014.
Klein reminds me a lot of his fellow linebacker mate in Luke Kuechly. Klein is a hard-nosed physical linebacker who somehow always makes a play when necessary.
After the retirement of left tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers have a major hole to fill at left tackle. As of now, Nate Chandler will be the next left tackle to protect Cam Newton's blind side.
While I expect Carolina to address their offensive line early in next month's draft either at guard or at tackle, I also expect Chandler to be the next "blind side" protector in Carolina.
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