What might be the Carolina Panthers' most critical competition for a starting job on offense hasn't really started yet. But they're at least encouraged about the candidates, thinking they have enough pieces to cover themselves well into the future.
The only change on this year's offensive line - the quiet secret to their successful running game - is the right guard job vacated by Keydrick Vincent. At the moment, Mackenzy Bernadeau is taking all the reps there with the first team, but only because the other contestants are otherwise occupied.
Geoff Schwartz is running at right tackle since Jeff Otah hasn't started practicing yet, and Duke Robinson is yet to join the fray because of conditioning issues.
"I think we've got a good cast of characters there," coach John Fox said Sunday. "They'll take care of who plays."
That decision will be an interesting one, since the three players vying for time have different skills.
Bernadeau started the final seven games last year at left guard, when Travelle Wharton slid out to left tackle to replace the injured Jordan Gross. Schwartz got his chance the last three weeks of the season at right tackle, when Otah was lost with a knee injury. Robinson played briefly in the Giants game last December.
Bernadeau is the most athletic of the bunch. Robinson is the biggest and most powerful. Schwartz is a balance of the two.
Bernadeau, who doubles as the backup center, learned enough in his stint last year to feel somewhat comfortable, and said early on he has eyes on the job.
"The right guard spot's what I'm looking to do, what I want to do," he said. "If coach feels differently, that's whatever it is. I'm ready to compete and take care of business, because I want that spot."
Putting him there creates some changes for center Ryan Kalil, since the Bernadeau is so different from Vincent, in terms of quickness and experience. But he's comfortable with him there.
"Every guy is different," Kalil said. "We're coached to do the same things, but how they execute the different techniques and blocking assignments varies from guy to guy.
"Mackenzy's definitely different from Keydrick. Definitely younger, definitely quicker, gets into the blocks a lot faster, so it really changes how I react when we have combination blocks and pass-setting together."
While Bernadeau is no weakling (he spends offseasons training to compete in strongman contests), the other two have at least 20 pounds on him.
That's a considerable factor since the right is the strong side they try to run behind when they need a yard. Run-blocking was Vincent's strength, and the other two might better replicate what the Panthers had last year.
Schwartz, who slides into right guard with the second team in practice after playing tackle with the starters, is still learning how to play inside. He has never played guard in a game, and had to take a year to get used to working in a three-point stance after playing in Oregon's spread offense.
So while he's got plenty of power, he's still learning how to use it. That he's 6-foot-6 complicates things, because he has to work to stay low in his blocks as well.
"There's a total jump from last year to this year," Schwartz said. "Experience in games gives you confidence, and coming into camp, you know the system better, you know the adjustments, it just makes it easier to know what's going on. Once I got my stance finally down, you finally work on hands and feet and all the other little things.
"I still see myself competing for that job. I'm taking both reps now, tackle and guard. That's an open spot I'm trying to get."
Robinson might be the best long-term answer. When in shape, he's a monster in the run game, and paired with Otah would create a mammoth wall for the backs to get lost behind. But until he can drop some weight and get on the field, there's no opportunity for him to prove himself.
"Duke, we know about; we've just got to get him fit," Fox said.
If nothing else, they know they can now trust Bernadeau and Schwartz, after last year's trials. The 2008 seventh-round picks were completely untested when they began the year, but blossomed into players who could fill the backup roles once held by Geoff Hangartner and Jeremy Bridges.
So if Robinson could win the job, they'd be seven-deep and solid.
They also know they need to figure out an option soon, since so much of offensive line play is based on familiarity.
"It's such a unique situation, you do a lot with the guy next to you," Kalil said. "When you bring in a new guy, it really changes a lot of things.
"That's why it's such a big deal to have all your guys, because it's a cohesive kind of movement, when you make all the calls and you're blocking together. That's a big deal."