I was looking back at Luke Kuechly’s progression in pass coverage throughout the course of his career, and something struck me; a bunch of Panther’s players are great in coverage. Then as I was weighing each Panther’s players ability to lock down a receiving target, something else occurred to me; there aren’t that many big hitters on the team. Certainly this is no fluke, so I decided to research this topic further.
Luke Kuechly is truly a gift when it comes to football. The man not only came in as a great player, but he continues to grind and work incredibly hard to improve different aspects of his game. The biggest improvement he’s made thus far, is probably in the pass coverage department. Though Kuechly entered the league with some polish on his coverage game, he has also improved at an incredible rate. In Pro Football Focus’ ratings, Kuechly went from “solid” in coverage, to the “best” coverage inside linebacker in the league this past year. His PFF pass coverage grade was an astounding 5 points higher than the second highest at his position. Matt Miller also gave Kuechly a 20 out of 20 in coverage, and called him the “hands down best coverage inside linebacker.” Although Kuechly is the greatest linebacker in the game today, he isn’t really known as a big hitter. He is one of the surest tacklers in the league, but most of his stops are textbook wrap ups.
Next to Kuechly stands the great Thomas Davis, another coverage dynamo. Matt Miller says Davis is at his best in coverage, and one of the best in the NFL at the linebacker position. In fact, Davis had the most coverage stops PFF has ever seen from a linebacker with the 42 stops he had in 2013. It just so happens that Luke Kuechly had the second most they’ve ever seen with his 38 stops last year. Davis’ coverage skills can be attested by great work he does on Jimmy Graham and other elite receiving options. Davis may be the biggest hitter on the Panthers, but it’s hard to say if he stacks up to the great tacklers in the league today. Although he loves to make contact, and the fact that his hit on Robert Turbin was one of the strongest tackles of the year; it would be hard to label him as a “big hitter.”
The man assumed to start along side of Kuechly and Davis, is no other than first round pick Shaq Thompson. Thompson was great in coverage at Washington, and took snaps at safety during his career there. He also had a knack for making a good hit and stripping the ball. However, more than a fair share of analysts question his smaller size, and wonder if he can carve out a career at linebacker. This is why a lot of pre-draft reports projected his best NFL fit as a safety. Although the Panthers will play him on the weakside as a linebacker, his coverage skills and versatility were what drew Rivera and crew into his favor. It seems to me that the our front office loves coverage linebackers, and liked the idea of forming the best tandem in the league (one in which they achieved).
At safety, they have a guy who can’t hit or cover in elder statesman Roman Harper. Though Harper’s M.O. throughout his career has been his big hitting, he is too old and slow to even reach a quarterback with a collapsed pocket (1 sack on the year). Harper’s partner in crime is second year stud Tre Boston. Boston has the mentality of a big playmaker, but he sometimes gets too selective with his tackling. His NFL draft profile stated he possessed “questionable physicality,” and even though I put little stock in those reports, I have to slightly agree with that assessment. I do think Boston will be a fine safety, and will probably punish a few players with devastating hits as soon as next year.
At the cornerback spot, Carolina owns a pair of promising youngsters in Bené Benwikere and Josh Norman. These two players finished in the top 11 of PFF’s yards per coverage snap statistic, Benwikere at #11 and Norman at #3 respectively. Though big hitting isn’t listed in bold in a cornerback’s job description, these two haven’t done much to buck the trend. Norman was an extremely physical presence at Coastal Carolina, but so far he hasn't been able to match the quantity of huge takedowns in the NFL as he had in college. Benwikere on the other hand is pretty much a pure coverage and interception guy, he is just too small to lay the wood to a player. Among those vying for a starting spot is veteran Charles Tillman. Tillman has been a turnover machine throughout his career, totaling 36 interceptions and 42 forced fumbles. Though Tillman is a pretty big dude at 6’2’’ and 210 pounds, the Panthers will probably keep his tackling to a minimum; at 34 and coming off of two triceps injuries, the main focus is to keep him healthy.
The purpose of this article was not to diminish the skills of any of our current players, but highlight their strengths. The Panther’s are a technical and straight business type of team, who’s main goal is to get the job done. There is a reoccurring theme, the front office likes players who don’t want give up yardage to make a big play. Though Carolina doesn't own the Kam Chancellors or the Clay Matthews of the world, they possess a group of solid tacklers that can be relied on to smother opponent’s receiving options. Look for the Panthers to take a big step forward from their 10th ranked defense last year, and their 11th ranked pass defense. Good luck throwing against these Panthers, and you may not want to run it on them either.
By Grant Hughes
Follow Grant on Twitter @KenjonVander