Panther Defensive Players to Breakout in 2014

Wrapping up part two of players set to have a breakout season for the Panthers, I’ll take on the defense this time and give my opinion on the players I feel will end up having a recognizably strong 2014 season.  Considering there are at least five Pro-Bowl potential players in our front seven alone, there really are only a few defensive players who could surprise Panther fans.  Don’t be shocked if one of the players might already have a lot of “Money” to his name.

I feel like last year could have been one of our best defensive drafts ever. In 2013 when we drafted AJ Klein.  I was almost positive he would steal Chase Blackburn’s spot by the end of his rookie campaign. Not that I feel Blackburn hasn’t deserved it, Klein just truly has what it takes to go in and make a difference for an already strong linebacker core. Klein really can do it all, but most importantly he’s smart. He is the perfect complement to Kuechly and Thomas Davis; every time he was thrown into the action, he made an immediate impact. If you don’t remember, check out last year’s game against the 49ers at Candlestick. I know Gettleman is big on Blackburn through their past connections in New York, but I sense this is the year AJ busts out, letting everyone around the league know that he is the real deal and that the Panthers have the strongest LB corps in the NFL. 

2014 Predictions: 92 Tackles 5 sacks 1 Int

It seems right about when Charles Johnson got leg whipped in the Patriots game and all questions surfaced about how he would end the year, we got lost in the Greg Hardy mumbo jumbo. Hardy had a very strong year though, and we all had a right to get wrapped up in it. He tied the franchise record with Kevin Greene for sacks in a year (15), and proved to be one of the strongest links on our defensive line. Let’s be real though, Hardy is a great and integral part of our team, but the heartbeat of our line lies with Charles Johnson. He has taken all double teams away from everyone on the line, except Hardy if we’re only rushing four; his pure athleticism, great instinct for the ball and knowledge of how to smash down or set the edge is what makes him such a dominant player. That showed when he went down in the Patriot’s game, where Carolina’s defense dominated the first half. After leaving as a result as a dirty Pats play, Carolina’s defensive line didn’t know what to do with themselves, allowing the Patriots run game to hit us right in the mouth.  Greg Hardy is a great player and I love that he’s ours, for the time being, but his huge three sack games were against rookies while CJ was doing the dirty work taking on big time vets on the other side. I’ve kept up with CJ this offseason and the guy looks to be in the best shape of his career. I’ve also noticed he’s training with former Panther and current Green Bay Packer Julius Peppers, who he learned under earl in his career. I like where Big Money is right now, right under the radar. This could be his best year yet; maybe we’ll even see him in a Pro Bowl finally. 

2014 Predictions: 17 sacks (team record), 43 Tackles, 2FF, 1 FR

With questions surrounding Carolina’s defensive backfield and the repeated references to it as the “Legion of whom,”  it’s time for our young DBs to step up under the guidance of two Pro Bowl safeties and a few other vets.  I’m most excited to see if 2nd year UDFA Melvin White really can break out of his rookie shell and find the confidence he needs to elevate himself to the next tier of cornerbacks. I’ve really liked this guy from day one, and was truly ecstatic when we signed him. White is the full package; his cover skills are great, but he’s still very raw.  My favorite thing about him is his capability to lay the wood and his high level of aggressiveness.  It’s so great to have a corner who’s not afraid to get right into a receiver’s frame and have the ability to jam him at the line. Playing corner is one of the most mentally challenging positions in football, all he needs is to find some more self found confidence and we may see Gettleman signing him back soon. 

2014 Predictions: 56 Tackles, 5 Int, 1 TD, 1FF

Star Lotelelei and Kawann Short both have more pressure on them than people actually realize.  We automatically expect for the two second year players, who both had impressive rookie seasons, to hold up the most important part of our defense yet again. With Star being the dynamic run stopper he was last year, Luke Kuechly and TD were able to roam around more and worry less about the run game. Anyone who loves this team knows that we made the jump to an elite defense last year due to the fact we finally had a guy to stop the run up the middle. I know it’s really hard to forecast if a tackle slumps, but Star is potentially just as important to our defense as Kuechly.  Without him, we are left with Colin Cole and a handful of DTs who can rush the passer but may only clog the middle every now and then; let’s be honest, we need the consistency Star brings. Kawann is the sugar to Star’s tea, however. What Star lacks in pass rushing, Short makes up. He slumped mid-season, but came back towards the end of the year and really looked like to have found his groove. Look for these guys to cause match-up problems for centers and tackles all across the league. 

2014 Predictions: Star Lotelelei: 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks (huge space eater) Kawann Short: 36 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 FR

I believe that he and, surprisingly, James Dockery will have possibly their best seasons this year. Dockery truly has dynamic cover skills, mostly credited to his long arms. Barring injury, he should impress.  The front office hasn’t kept him around for nothing.  Robert Lester is the last person on my list that I feel truly has the potential to make a name for himself this year. Perhaps a guy with even greater potential, Lester is a born winner and play maker. It’s almost like God created him only to run with our style of defense because he can do what he’s best at and roam the field. His knack for going and getting the ball is what’s to love. He gets it at the highest point and will make a quarterback quickly regret a pass. Look for him to steal possibly a starting spot this year once he gains a little more confidence and has the playbook under his belt. A second year safety should know the ropes and finally be able to play their way, which is a scary thing for the intellectual Lester… 

2014 Predictions:  39 tackles, 5 Int, 1 TD

Hope you enjoyed guys, sorry it took a while to get back to you folks with the defensive version. For those maybe who feel there were some players left out, I also feel others have potential to have a big year. I have to stop my biased hand somewhere, however, and limit my list. Go Panthers!

By Gerin Honeycutt