The Carolina Panthers should have a stifling defense once again this year, so when I began to think about positions that might be a bit shaky this season, I was surprised to acknowledge that four of those six are on the defensive side of the ball!
Strong Safety to be more specific, and I'm not quite yet sold on rising second-year free safety Tre Boston. However, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he should improve quite a bit now that he has some seasoning and at least solidify that position as he does.
It's Roman Harper that scares me. As everyone has said, he's "Old and Slow," but at least he brings a veteran presence to help Boston learn. While it's always good to have a mix of old and young players at a position group, Harper's proclivity for giving up big plays probably will not improve in 2015. I will say he's pretty decent against the run....when he doesn't take a bad angle and let someone woosh by him like Barry Allen (aka The Flash). Boston has done the same thing in deeper coverage and against runs, especially to his side, and that was a knock on him in college. He got better the more the season progressed, so I'll project him as an "average to good" safety for his second season.
GM Dave Gettleman apparently wasn't impressed with the safety from Alabama, so he took Shaq at linebacker/defensive back/running back instead. That segues nicely into the second position....
I truly think Shaq Thompson is being groomed to replace Thomas Davis when he retires in two more seasons. Gettleman has shown me from day one that he's now a "win now at all costs" kind of GM; in fact, he's the exact opposite. He looks over multiple seasons when he makes any moves, and that will make both the salary cap and the product on the field much more stable as time washes by.
The problem is that A.J. Klein really hasn't shown me that he's "the guy" at the WLB spot and probably should be second-string on an iron defense. I've seen him hesitate in pass coverage which in the NFL is usually enough to leave your assignment open. I recall New England burning him on a pass to Shane Vereen for a TD as Klein ran laterally but stopped in the middle of the field for a half-second while Vereen continued his wheel route.
BAM, TD Deflatriots.
Shaq should fit right here for now, but I don't project him as a starter on opening day. He IS raw, plus from what I understand, he's getting a late start on things due to finishing up school. While that's a noble reason, it still is what it is. Perhaps by mid-season he'll be ready, but even then I see him making at least his share of "rookie mistakes" while likely making some darned good plays too. Such is the roller coaster life of a raw rookie.
Speaking of juries, we all know there's no Kraken this year. He's in Dallas. His side has Mario Addison, Wes Horton, and Kony Ealy vying for playing time. While Ealy has the biggest upside of the trio, he still has some developing to do with his hand techniques and overall pass-rushing skill set.
The other side has an aging and expensive Charles Johnson. He was a bit of a liability against the run last year, being rated very low by many of the "comparison" websites and I think his best pass-rushing days are either behind him or nearly so. He had 8.5 sacks, a five-year low, in 2014. Perhaps part of it was offenses didn't have a Greg Hardy to game-plan for, but the line is still a top-ten defensive line without the Kraken. With Kuechly and Thomas Davis behind them, the front-seven is a top-five unit as a group.
The cupboard is pretty bare for starting ends beyond Johnson's possibly-declining presence, and the merging of youth, talent, and experience isn't where I'd like to see it - at least, not yet. We're going to need a replacement for "Big Money" sooner rather than later, and might have to press one or more of the reserves into more roles depending on CJ's play. Frank Alexander has been a bust thus far and I'm thinking If the Panthers don't draft a defensive end in the top two rounds next year, we could see a decline in production from our edge-rushers...not a good thing, considering a division with Meg Ryan and Drew Brees. The "concern" here is over how much Johnson can maintain his sliding production.
I can hear you now: "Whaaaaat?? We got Kawann and Star!" Yes, and it's Kawann that seems to be the better professional than Star Lotulelei thus far. While Star started out nicely, he seemed to be....not a huge factor in games last season and disappointed me a bit. Perhaps some of that was due to lingering injuries, but his numbers dropped off quite a bit from his rookie campaign, so that's a concern. Perhaps if he can remain healthy in 2015 and now with a little experience under his large belt, the third season will be the charm for him. However, he has to show me. He's too young to yet know which direction his career will go, so he bears some watching, too. DT is the least "worrisome" defensive position in my eyes as we have some experienced depth there, so it all depends on how well Star can rebound from a somewhat disappointing campaign last season.
This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, as Michael Oher was the "marquee name," such as it is, that we could sign in free agency. He was slowed by injuries last year in Tennessee, but now he's apparently healthy. While he's no Jordan Gross, he's a big, strong young kid (still) who has the athletic ability and strength to be a solid player. The hope is that re-uniting him with his old position coach from his days in Baltimore, when he played his best early in his still-young career, will help him regain the form that made him a first-round draft choice.
The jury will be out on him until he shows some solid work facing the premier pass-rushers in the NFL. He will likely be facing up against none other than Greg Hardy in the Dallas game, depending on Hardy's status with the league office.
We drafted Trai Turner last season, and after struggling a bit initially, he started to come around as the strong-side guard. My worry is that the rookie we just drafted, Daryl Williams, appears to be slated to attempt to take over at the right tackle position. I think he's best-suited as a guard because he just doesn't have much lateral quickness and might even be kind of close to a Byron Bell v. 2.0 if left out on that strong side.
I don't question his run-blocking ability, which is why I think he would be a better guard than a tackle, but as the saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention." Mike Remmers, who played probably a bit over his head last season, looks to be the back-up once Daryl gets his NFL sea legs under him. He is really going to have to show some great footwork to even have much of a chance against some of the better edge-rushers, so we'll see how this experiment goes. We'll be a run-first team for sure (ya hear that SHULA?), and he definitely has the ability there, as I said. But what happens when we're four points down and running the two-minute offense?
I would rather see Williams start his career as Trai Turner's counterpart on the inside, and that may well be the plan too. It's just too early to know yet. Let him develop some, then if it looks like he might be able to handle the outside, try him out at that point. Let Remmers hold down the job until he shows he can't handle it - I think he earned consideration with his play last year. If Williams does play right tackle, then the left guard position will be one to watch also as Amini Silatolu has been quite a disappointment thus far in his career.
Time will tell on that one, but I can see the desire to upgrade at right tackle. It's tough for a rookie without great athleticism to handle edge-rushers, so I think it's a position to really watch during training camp and the preseason to see how things develop there.
The Carolina Panthers should three-peat this year, despite all the talking head haters. The team hasn't yet gotten the respect they deserve, so they'll be playing with a chip on their shoulders all season long. I'm sure the disrespect comes from the fact we don't have an "Air Coryell" style of offense like, say, Atlanta has or New Orleans had last season. It's a physical, 1960's-era power team that many people don't find "sexy."
None of that matters. Yes, we had a "losing" season last year at 7-8-1, but won the division and annihilated the Arizona Cardinals, setting a record for fewest yards allowed in a playoff game.
And the haters all said we didn't belong.
Those idiots are STILL wiping the pie off their faces!
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