Roster better without Josh Norman? Panthers show faith in rookie CBs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The question to Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was simple: Where is this roster better than the one that went to the Super Bowl last season?

The answer was, well, interesting.

Oh, Gettleman started off by stating the obvious -- the return of No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to an offense that led the NFL in scoring in 2015. He also mentioned the additions of defensive tackle Paul Soliai and first-round pick Vernon Butler, a defensive tackle out of Louisiana Tech.

But in the midst of this Gettleman said, "Those young corners are coming along."

The biggest question coming into training camp was whether the rookie draft picks would be able to replace 2015 Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman. Second-round pick James Bradberry and third-rounder Daryl Worley are slated to start when Carolina opens the regular season Sept. 8 at Denver.

Bradberry has played so well that coaches gave him the night off prior to Thursday's preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a privilege usually reserved for veteran starters.

But have they made the roster better than it was with Norman, who was so efficient last season that quarterbacks often avoided throwing in his direction?

"Football is the truest of all team games," Gettleman said. "It takes 53 guys, actually 63 counting the practice squad. It takes all of them. I don't subscribe to the one-player-away theory. I don't believe in it. Let's find out."

Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera subscribe to the theory that a great front seven will make up for any sins in the secondary. The Panthers have a great front seven anchored by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.

So if Bradberry and Worley play well, the defense could be better than last season's unit that finished sixth in the NFL.

Let's look at other areas where the roster is better, starting with wide receiver.

The return of Benjamin from a season-ending knee injury and the emergence of second-year wide receiver Devin Funchess definitely is an upgrade.

Arguably, Saturday's toughest cuts as teams trim rosters to 53 will be at receiver, where Stephen Hill already is gone and Kevin Norwood could be next, if the Panthers opt to keep Damiere Byrd, as expected.

The offensive line should be deeper with second-year tackle Daryl Williams healthy -- albeit, he struggled against Pittsburgh -- along with the addition of backup center Gino Gradkowski in free agency and the improvement of Chris Scott.

There are no projects, such as Canadian tackle David Foucault, on the roster anymore.

The running back position should be better, as well, with backup Cameron Artis-Payne better prepared to take snaps from starter Jonathan Stewart, if necessary. With 77 yards on 18 carries against the Steelers, Artis-Payne showed he's ready.

Defensively, the line should be improved, with end Kony Ealy coming into his own late last season and showcasing that in the Super Bowl with three sacks and an interception. Veteran end Charles Johnson is as healthy as he has been going into a season in several years. At worse, that position is a wash.

The interior is deeper with Soliai and Butler -- definitely an upgrade.

The linebackers also are stronger, with 2015 first-round pick Shaq Thompson ready to play a more prominent role alongside Kuechly and Davis.

The safety spot should at least be equal to what it was last season with the return of Kurt Coleman, who led the team with seven interceptions, and Tre Boston ready to replace veteran Roman Harper.

Special teams were a big question until earlier in the week, when the Panthers traded with the Cleveland Browns for Pro Bowl punter Andy Lee. He's a more efficient directional punter than Brad Nortman, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. That could be an upgrade, as well.

It all comes back to the rookie cornerbacks. Can they replace the void that Norman left when Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag and allowed him to sign with the Washington Redskins?

Gettleman's answer wasn't so simple when pressed on that.

"We're going to find out, aren't we?" he said. "We're going to find out if we're better. We have a really good football team."