CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With the Carolina Panthers' training camp happening this week, most of the media attention will go to Cam Newton and the other highly visible players with a large following.
But one of my favorite things about training camp is keeping an eye out for the young upstarts. The guys that are getting a fraction of the attention at first, but quickly rise in the ranks to make an impact.
Here are a few guys you may not have heard of yet that have the best chance of making their mark.
Having a wide receiver that played high school football in Charlotte is nothing new for Carolina Panthers fans. Brenton Bersin has filled that role for years now. But this year may present the first time a player not only from Charlotte but played college ball in Charlotte may make the team. That player is Austin Duke.
Duke has a challenge ahead as he tries to make a wide receivers corps that perhaps is the most talented in years. As if that is not difficult enough, Duke recently told me the Panthers have him working exclusively on the outside, as opposed to the slot which was the mainstay of his college career. Still, Duke impressed during offseason practices and caught the eye of all in attendance, myself included.
As long as YOU believe, that's all that really matters🤷🏾♂️ keep going! #KeepPounding— Austin P. Duke (@TheAus10Duke) July 22, 2017
At this point, Duke is not a lock to make the team but has displayed the drive and self-determination it takes to overcome any challenges. I am firmly in his corner.
Despite being a leader on a NCAA championship defense, linebacker Ben Boulware went undrafted. From there, he chose to play for the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. Boulware has a tremendous drive and an even bigger personality. If self-determination and motivation were measured at the combine, he would have been a first rounder.
However, Boulware has an extremely tough road to making the final roster. First of all, he is a middle linebacker, a position held by Luke Kuechly and David Mayo. Those two names are not going anywhere. That leaves special teams as the only possible path to the roster for Boulware. Luckily, he has the personality that meshes perfectly with special teams.
Run downfield with reckless abandon and hit the ball carrier? Check. I think Boulware can handle it.
Rounding out my list of lesser known players to watch is cornerback Corn Elder. I know, I know, Elder was a draft pick and not a complete unknown. True, but I don’t think more casual fans know his name (yet). Elder being relatively unknown just doesn’t jive with the impact I feel Elder will have on this team immediately. As a fifth-round pick, that puts him squarely into the “sleeper” category.
If offseason practices mean anything, Elder appears to be everything the Carolina Panthers were hoping Zack Sanchez would be, and more. Not only will Elder backup Captain Munnerlyn at nickel, he will also backup both Bradberry and Worley on the outside. Don’t underestimate how important this is.
Last season, the shallow depth at corner was arguably the biggest problem on the entire team. Not only did it prevent the defense from rushing the quarterback, it also put Cam Newton in a position of playing from behind far too often. The result was more sacks and hits on Newton that anyone would like to see. If Elder can prevent that from happening in 2017, his name should be known in every household. Sleeper no more.