Carolina’s success has long been built upon its defense. The Panther’s identity has been a ground and pound approach, where the defense has often bludgeoned their opponent to death. The 2004, 2013, and 2015 defenses were some of the best defenses in NFL history. That wasn’t the case last season. They weren’t the best at anything unless you count getting torched for more than 500 yards through the air. Sure, they pulled things together a little towards the end. The statistical decline was dramatic, nonetheless. Carolina’s defense dropped from what had been a top 10 defense since 2012 to the #21 in yards allowed and #26 in points per game.
Some of this was complacency, some error, and some the result of injury. Kuechly suffered a season-ending concussion. First-round draft pick, Vernon Butler, was hobbled by a high ankle sprain. And all of this was amplified by having to start two rookie cornerbacks after bungling offseason talks with Josh Norman. Even one of those corners, James Bradberry, missed notable time because of injury. The rookies had to grow quick, and those early growing pains were painful. Carolina surrendered more than 500 yds passing by three times between Ryan and Brees alone.
Just two days into the 2017 season, Carolina has shown that they want to reestablish their defensive identity.
Here’s what Carolina has done defensively through the first two days of free agency and the 2017 season. It’s exciting to see just what it could look like.
Adding Peppers gives a solid veteran presence that can be rotated smoothly with Mario Addison or Charles Johnson. Peppers is old, that’s certain. I’m, however, not certain if he is human. Carolina drafted him in 2002! For the last few years, he’s played in Green Bay’s as an OLB/DE in their 3-4 scheme. He hasn’t put his hand on the ground much since he went to Green Bay. Carolina will likely want him to play as a traditional 4-3 pass-rusher. If Carolina grabs a defensive end early in the draft, Peppers will make for a nice veteran teacher (queue taking plays off jokes) and be willing to rotate often enough for everyone to keep fresh legs.
Wet blanket time, but ... Peppers is a nice story, but Captain is the more important target. Panthers BADLY need a nickel.— Black & Blue Review (@BlackBlueReview) March 10, 2017
BBR’s Bill Voth reported that Peppers made for the nice story, but Munnerlyn was more important target. Carolina hasn’t found a consistent answer for the slot corner, and they like running that nickel defense enough, they need one. Munnerlyn has shown he’s a player. He was good in Carolina years ago and he’s been good in Minnesota since. Having a guy who understands the position as well as Munnerlyn does will help free up Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. Don’t forget Captain returned 5 out of his 7 INTs while in Carolina for touchdowns. He can play.
Strong safety has been another merry-go-round position for Carolina. Roman Harper was adequate for a couple of years, but the position hasn’t been the source of Carolina's defensive strength either. it wasn’t a source of strength when he was in Carolina and only been a weakness since he left. Adams is a former Pro-Bowler who former teammates and coaches praise highly. He’s already mentioned the leadership and experience he can bring to a team. He could turn out to be one of Gettleman’s famous retreads or help groom a rookie selected in the draft.
What Carolina’s Defense Looks Like Now (most notable defensive players)
- Charles Johnson
- Julius Peppers
- Mario Addison
- Wes Horton
- Kawann Short
- Star Lotulelei
- Vernon Butler
- Luke Kuechly
- Thomas Davis
- Shaq Thompson
- David Mayo*
- Jeremy Cash*
- James Bradberry
- Darryl Worley
- Captain Munnerlyn
- Kurt Coleman
- Mike Adams
- Tre’ Boston
Where It Gets Interesting
On paper, Carolina’s defensive front appears an upgrade. If Addison performs as he did last year, Peppers adds some production that Ealy couldn’t, and Charles Johnson’s hamstrings withstand, Carolina is going to get after the quarterback. The real power, however, is still in the interior. Barring any debacles with Short’s franchise tag, the Panthers have some talent. Short and Lotulelei are both Pro-Bowlers, and Vernon Butler we can only hope is the next monster in the making.
If Carolina can remain relatively healthy, this defense could be really good as it is. Kuechly is arguably the league’s best linebacker. Kawann Short is a monster in the middles, and Thomas Davis is simply a legend. Add a few parts in the draft and have younger players like Shaq, Butler, or Bradberry step into the spotlight, and this defense could be NASTY.
Sure, this is all cart before the horse talk. There are endless factors that, between now and the 2017 season’s end, will contribute to the Panthers defensive success. But it’s the offseason. What else are we supposed to do?
Carolina was quiet yesterday on the opening day of free agency outside of signing Matt Kalil. Today was a wild ride, however. Old heroes returning has created whatever chemical cocktail is responsible for the high of nostalgia and optimism. Those serotonin and dopamine levels will return to normal soon enough, however. At least I know the feeling will only be more intense after the 2017 draft, especially when Jamaal Adams, Leonard Fournette, or whatever top talent has been added to the team. Regardless, Carolina will only add to this defensive unit going forward.
Fan Tip: When the serotonin and dopamine levels begin stabilizing, try to figure out the personnel Carolina will use in the nickel with this group. (4 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs) Don’t forget Shaq Thompson and Vernon Butler in this mix!
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By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
Follow @Cat_Chronicles for the latest Panthers news and opinions from the fan perspecte.