CHARLOTTE -- Everybody knows the Carolina Panthers need bounce-back seasons from Julius Peppers and Jake Delhomme if they're going to contend this year.
But with players reporting to training camp today, there are a number of mystery men this season, guys whose roles should be clearly defined as long as they meet expectations. At the same time, these 10 could easily fall into lesser roles based on their own play, since the competition for spots seems to be at an all-time high.
Here's a look at the guys whose roster spots appear secure, or at least close, but their hold on significant roles rests heavily on how they perform the next few weeks:
• 1. CB Chris Gamble: Of all the cornerbacks on the Panthers' roster, Gamble's clearly the most athletically gifted. That doesn't mean he's the best player.
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This is a big year for Gamble in many respects, not the least of which is he's about to become an unrestricted free agent at a time when cornerback contracts are going through the roof. A season in which his stats match his natural cover ability will make him a rich man somewhere.
Still, it's no guarantee that he'll start. Ken Lucas remains one of the most undervalued players on the team, a force when he's healthy, who plays the run and the pass equally well. And Richard Marshall (Steve Smith's fiery defensive soul-mate) continues to play with a swagger and improving fundamentals. If they threw the doors open for both starting jobs and judged them with clear eyes, it's hard to imagine Marshall not winning one of the jobs.
• 2. LB Thomas Davis: It's not that he's going to lose a job quickly -- they've invested too much time turning him into a linebacker. It's just that the demands of his position got greater this week with the Saints acquiring tight end Jeremy Shockey, fortifying a position the Panthers have traditionally struggled defending.
Like Gamble, Davis has all the talent he needs to play his position effectively. But at a time when the Panthers are deeper at linebacker than ever before, he can't regress, or there'll be a Landon Johnson or a Dan Connor knocking at the door.
• 3. LDE Tyler Brayton: With Julius Peppers swapping sides, the de facto replacement for Mike Rucker needs to make a jump, and make it quickly.
The former Oakland first-rounder's actually compared often to the just-retired Rucker, because of his work ethic and intensity. But at his current pace, Brayton would need another 41.25 seasons to catch Rucker on the all-time sack list (Rucker leads 55.5 to 6.0).
Word is Brayton will look better in pads than he did in the spring workouts. They say his technique is good, good enough to keep linemen out of his lanky frame and making him a non-factor.
It better be, because the Panthers need him to be more than just a guy, since it's hard to tell if either Charles Johnson or Stanley McClover are ready to make a step.
n 4. RG Toniu Fonoti: Once an All-Pro with San Diego, Fonoti pretty much ate himself out of the league. He appeared to run out of chances before the Panthers gave him one last one.
He showed up in Charlotte in shape (a mere 340-ish), and since he's still only 26 years old, he's got the best chance to win the right guard job over solid vet Keydrick Vincent.
The key with Fonoti is that his age gives him potential to be more than a short-term rental. If he can keep looking the way he looks now, they'd be wise to let him take the job for the next few years.
n 5. WR Ryne Robinson or CB Ricardo Colclough: One of these two needs to win the return job, since the Panthers would be best served not using more valuable assets on special teams.
There were moments late last year when Robinson appeared to get it. But with all the promise he's shown on offense, it's unclear if he poured himself fully into the kicking game. Colclough, once a second-round pick in Pittsburgh, has plenty of speed. There's more to returning than flash, however, and he hasn't displayed it.
The bonus incentive for these two are NFL uniforms.
If Robinson's not returning kicks, it's unlikely he'd ever be active on game day in a receiving corps that saw the additions of established players Muhsin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett.
For Colclough, it might be a roster spot, since there are guys the coaching staff knows can contribute to some degree on defense and special teams (Dante Wesley and Curtis Deloatch).
n 6. K Rhys Lloyd: His task is really simple. He has to be so good at kicking off that he convinces coaches to boot a guy who can do more than one highly specialized thing.
Lloyd has a huge leg, and benefits from the fact neither John Kasay nor Jason Baker are particularly good at kicking a stationary object far when no one's rushing you. But he's fighting for the 53rd and final roster spot with backup linebackers and corners and safeties and running backs and receivers (or maybe third quarterbacks). That means he has to surpass the simple objective of being the best at his specialty, which he already is by a mile.
n 7. LB Landon Johnson: He got the biggest contract of all the Panthers' free-agent pickups (three years, $10 million), though there's a tallest midget factor at work since they decided to go cheap again.
But as soon as incumbent Na'il Diggs got over his latest lingering lower-body injury in the spring, Johnson became a well-paid reserve.
Cincinnati was willing to let Johnson walk after he led the Bengals in tackles three of the last four years. That might tell us something. He's smart and fast and versatile, but those qualifications might make him a younger Chris Draft rather than a new Will Witherspoon.
n 8. OL Jeremy Bridges: About 53 weeks ago this time, Bridges was a feel-good story, a scrap-heap find who blossomed when forced into the starting lineup.
Then he waved a gun at a stripper, got arrested the day before camp (and ultimately convicted) and lost two week's pay, eventually his starting job and momentum as his 2007 season spiraled downward.
As much as they liked the way he played in 2006, they were dismayed with his lack of progress last year, as evidenced by his late-season benching. And with added competition on the offensive line, there's no promise that he's safe when it comes down to picking the roster.
n 9. RB Jonathan Stewart: The Panthers' first first-rounder presents an intriguing psychological case study -- of the head coach.
Stewart's bullish style seems a natural fit for John Fox's preferred smash-mouth running game, far more so than shifty DeAngelo Williams. However, Fox prefers a guy he's seen before. Witness his treatment of a simmering DeShaun Foster behind a used-up Stephen Davis in 2004, and of Williams behind the eternal tease Foster last season.
Stewart could probably take this job and make it his own easily. But he's going to have to do more than just be better than Williams. He's going to have to prove to Fox and assistant Jim Skipper that he can handle the pass protection and the receiving tasks if he's going to see the majority of the carries.