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Panthers will rely on undrafted rookie S Lester

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - 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 with injuries, 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.''

Lester won't be the only new starter in the Panthers secondary this week.

The team announced late Friday that starting cornerback Josh Thomas will not play due to a concussion. Thomas had been listed as questionable on the initial injury report Friday but was ruled out after meeting with independent doctors later in the day.

Thomas suffered the concussion in Carolina's 24-23 loss to Buffalo on Sunday. He had been practicing with the team this week on a limited basis and said he expected to be cleared.

Rivera said either Josh Norman or Drayton Florence will start in his place.

NOTES: Along with Thomas, the Panthers have ruled out RB Kenjon Barner (foot), CB D.J. Moore (knee) and Mikell (ankle) for Sunday. ... DT Dwan Edwards (thigh) and CB James Dockery (thigh) are questionable.


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The Associated Press News Service

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The Associated Press
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