SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Chris Gamble feels old at 27. Jordan Gross was struck by all the new faces in the stretching lines at practice. And Jeff King knows the few veterans remaining must take on much larger roles.
After an offseason roster purge, the Carolina Panthers are left with the third youngest roster in the NFL and an urgent need at training camp to fill a leadership vacuum.
"This game is a young man's game," coach John Fox said Saturday. "There's transition, there's change every season. With both free agency and the draft, there's going to be change. We kind of just hit it that way this year."
Did they ever. In an effort to begin a youth movement and shed payroll ahead of possible labor unrest next year, the Panthers rid their roster of starters Jake Delhomme (35 years old), Muhsin Muhammad (37), Brad Hoover (33), Keydrick Vincent (32), Julius Peppers (30), Damione Lewis (32), Maake Kemoeatu (31), Na'il Diggs (32) and Chris Harris (27).
"Me and Travelle (Wharton) are like the only guys from my (2004 draft) class that are still here," said Gamble, a starting cornerback. "I feel kind of old."
On this roster, he is. According to STATS LLC, the average age of Carolina's 80-man unit is 25 years, seven days. Only San Diego (24 years, 195 days) and Green Bay (24-274) are younger.
"Even in team stretch line and team takeoff and all that, you look to your left and right and definitely some familiar faces are gone," said Gross, the starting left tackle. "But it's good, there's more energy."
And numerous questions for a team that went 8-8 a year ago.
Matt Moore's eight career starts are eight more than the other three quarterbacks on the roster combined. Untested fullback Tony Fiammetta must replace the veteran Hoover. A rookie could start in Muhammad's old spot at receiver. The defensive line will have three new starters, and there's shuffling at linebacker and safety.
With only five players 30 or older on the roster, guys like King, a 27-year-old tight end, suddenly are being looked up to.
"Hopefully it doesn't just come down to I'm the last guy left on the island, one of those situations," King said. "You try to come out every day and lead by example. That's the one thing that a lot of those guys taught me, whether it be Jake or Kris Mangum or all the guys that when I got here that were on their way out."
Gross, 30, an offensive captain with Delhomme last year, will help guide the offense.
"I feel that leadership role a little bit," Gross said. "I'm definitely one of the more familiar faces for everybody around here."
Others, such as 27-year-old running back DeAngelo Williams may have to contribute, too.
"I'm not really much of a talker. I am a joker, though," Williams said. "I kind of try to lead by example by just working my butt off."
On defense, Peppers was a captain last year despite his quiet nature. While two-time Pro Bowl pick Jon Beason commands respect, the quiet Gamble knows he must become more vocal toward the rookies in the secondary after Harris was traded to Chicago.
"Harris is like the leader back there. He was always talking and things like that," Gamble said. "I feel like it's my time this year to step up and be a leader."
Of course, leadership is just part of the challenge for a team where the oldest position player is 31-year-old Steve Smith. The Panthers must get a roster full of inexperienced players to plug four starting spots on offense and six on defense, after Thomas Davis suffered what may be a season-ending knee injury in June.
"I don't think our odds in Vegas are probably very good to win the Super Bowl. But that's fine with me," Gross said. "I like where we're at. There's not a lot of eyes on us nationally and I think that's good with the young team we have. There's not a lot of extra attention. I think we can use that to our advantage."