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Panthers undrafted rookie Robert Lester set for first start, wants to prove he belongs in NFL

Panthers safety Robert Lester said he isn't angry at the teams that passed him over in the NFL draft.

He is anxious to show them he belongs in the league.

Lester will get that opportunity Sunday when he makes his professional starting debut against Eli Manning and the Giants.

Lester, who started 40 games at Alabama and helped the Crimson Tide to three BCS national championships, went undrafted in April and signed a free agent contract with Carolina. He didn't make the final cut, but Panthers coach Ron Rivera said the team signed him to the practice squad following a strong final preseason game "just in case."

As Rivera said Friday, "low and behold, just in case is week three."

Rivera promoted Lester from the practice squad on Tuesday and, with veterans Charles Godrey and Quintin Mikell ruled out, named him the starter on Thursday.

"I'm not paying a lot of attention to not getting drafted," Lester said. "The main thing that is bothering me is I want to go out there and prove that I can play football and that I belong in this league. I'm a competitor and when somebody says you can't do something I want to prove them otherwise."

The knock on Lester coming out of Alabama was his lack of speed and his lack of athletic ability in coverage.

Rivera said that's not something that bothered the Panthers.

"People talked about his speed, his speed, his speed or lack thereof, but it was never something we were very concerned with," Rivera said. "We don't see that as a major issue. It's something that's there, but we're not going to put him in position to cover Victor Cruz one-on-one."

But Manning will certainly test him.

The two-time Super Bowl champion has already thrown for more than 800 yards in two games, although the Giants have turned the ball over 10 times and, like the Panthers, are 0-2 on the season.

Lester believes playing four years in the Southeastern Conference has prepared him well for the NFL — and he'll be better off than some people think moving forward.

"It wasn't a hard transition for me coming from the SEC," Lester said. "I don't think the speed of the game got too much faster. But there is a lot of talent here. In college you can afford to take a play or two off, but if you do that at this level it's a game changer."

Said Rivera: 'He's a smart kid and he understands concepts. He comes from a very good program. Alabama's defensive backs are well coached."

Rivera said Lester may not be the only new starter in Carolina's secondary this weekend.

Panthers starting cornerback Josh Thomas is listed as questionable after suffering a concussion in Carolina's 24-23 loss to Buffalo on Sunday. Rivera said Thomas was scheduled to meet Friday with an independent concussion specialist to determine if he's eligible to play.

"We're hoping he's cleared," Rivera said.

If he isn't Rivera said the Panthers will start either Josh Norman or Drayton Florence, who was re-signed to the roster earlier this week.

NOTES: Panthers RB Kenjon Barner (foot), CB D.J. Moore (knee) and Mikell (ankle) are listed as out for the Giants game. ... DT Dwan Edwards (thigh) and CB James Dockery (thigh) are questionable.

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AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP

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