Cleat Geeks

2018 Carolina Panthers Preview: Defense

We got a good look at the defense in the season opener against Dallas, but let’s take a closer look.  The 2017 defense posted a DVOA of -8.8% (negative numbers are better for defenses), good for 7th in the NFL.  The Panthers have maintained a Top 10 defense in four of the last five years, with the only exception being 2014, when they were 15th overall.  Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was a fantastic replacement for Sean McDermott, who moved on to become the head coach in Buffalo.  Now Wilks is the head coach in Arizona and  the Panthers promoted defensive line coach Eric Washington to the DC position.  Washington spent seven seasons as the defensive line coach for the Panthers, and developed one of the best units in the league.  Most of the core of a very good unit returns, with a few new faces, but overall it is a familiar outlook for Panthers fans:  the front seven looks very strong, and there are questions in the secondary.

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Starting up front, the interior defensive line should be very good. Last year, the unit was dominant according to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics.  They ranked fifth overall in Adjusted Line Yards (essentially how much of the opposing team’s yards per carry were given up by the defensive line as opposed to, say, linebackers or defensive backs missing assignments or tackles), second in Power Success rate (how often did opponents convert on downs with 2 yards or less to go), and fourth in Stuffed percentage (how often did the Panthers stop the opponents for no gain or a loss).  That’s a lot of words to say the Panthers D-Line didn’t take mess off nobody last year.  Expect similar results this year. Kawann Short made his only Pro Bowl in 2015, but continues to play well against the run and pass.  He has 24.5 sacks over the last three seasons and 8 passes defensed.  He also has 37 tackles for loss during that time.  His numbers have gone down since his dominant 2015 season, but that is mainly due to the fact that he sees more attention from opponents now.  That will likely change this season, as Dontari Poe joins the D Line from Atlanta on a 3yr/$28m contract to replace Star Lotulelei, who signed a huge deal with Buffalo.  Poe is 6-3, 346lbs, and has good athletic ability (4.98 40 yard dash).  His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but what he brings to the table isn’t easily quantified.  This article from last offseason on Arrowhead Pride (Chiefs blog–Poe was previously with KC), does a good job showing that Poe is valuable for his general stoutness against the run, decent pass rush ability, and due to the fact that he is a three-down player.  Based on that, I think he is in a great situation in Carolina because he will be the guy freeing up Kawann Short to make plays, not the guy who the Panthers expect to make the plays.  Poe has played 80 straight games, so injuries have not been a big problem.  Combining Poe with Short will give the Panthers one of the best interior line combos in the game, which fits Ron Rivera’s philosophy of creating pressure up the middle. The backups are Big Vern Butler and Kyle Love. Butler was the Panthers’ first round pick two years ago, and always seems on the verge of becoming really good, but just hasn’t gotten there.  Part of that is due to the fact that he played behind Short and Lotulelei for two years.  He has the physical attributes (6-4, 330) and athleticism (5.15 40 time, 29.5″ vertical jump) to be a force on the D Line, yet he was inactive on game day as recently as the middle of last season.  When the Panthers drafted Big Vern, it felt like an insurance policy for when they lost either Short or Lotulelei in free agency.  Well, that happened and the Panthers signed Poe, which leads me to believe they don’t believe Butler is ready to be a full-time starter.  He is also facing charges of assaulting a woman, which could affect his availability at some point.  Kyle Love is a solid veteran with 13.5 career sacks.  He is not spectacular, but the Panthers like to rotate their D Linemen quite a bit to keep them fresh, and Love is very reliable and gives them plenty of snaps.  He will be a free agent at the end of the year, and it will be interesting to see if the Panthers can resign him.

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At defensive end, Julius Peppers will return for what surely will be his last season before calling it a career–unless, of course, he decides to come back again in 2019.  And who could blame him if he did?  He threw down with 11 sacks despite playing only half of the Panthers’ defensive snaps in 2017.  He is a sure-fire first ballot Hall-of-Famer, and will likely give the Panthers some production again this season in a limited number of snaps. Mario Addison also had 11 sacks last year, and has lethal speed coming off the edge, but average run support ability. The yin to Addison’s yang, Wes Horton does not produce much in the way of pass rush (though he did deliver a sack in Week One), but continues to hum along as an underappreciated run-stopper.  Those two plus Pep account for most of Carolina’s returning experience at end.  Long-time Panther Charles Johnson retired before camp opened this year, and while it’s certainly sad to see him go, injuries had limited his ability to help the team the last two seasons.  Johnson’s retirement plus a reduced workload for Pep means that there will be snaps available, and one or more of a group of unproven players must step up and contribute this year. The leading candidate is Bryan Cox, son of former NFL linebacker Bryan Cox. The younger Cox played 129 snaps for the Panthers last year as an undrafted rookie–perhaps more a testament to the lack of quality depth at end than anything else–so he gained some valuable game experience.  Per his draft profile, Cox is an average athlete (relatively speaking–the man is 6-3, 260 and runs a 4.9 second 40) and needs some coaching up, but should offer a relatively high-floor/low-ceiling option and eat up some snaps without being terrible.  There’s inherent value in that alone, especially as the season drags on and injuries pile up. Marquis Haynes is a rookie fourth-rounder out of Ole Miss who projects as a pure pass rush specialist in the NFL.  He will need to add size to his 235-lb frame, but runs a 4.67 40-yard dash.  He will likely see the field on third downs and other passing situations if the Panthers use their version of the NASCAR package this year.  Finally, the most interesting member of the 53-man roster, Efe Obada, has a story made for the movies.  Seriously, click that link and read about this guy if you haven’t already done so.  I have no idea what to expect from him on Sundays this year, but my gut tells me he is least likely of these three to consistently contribute.  With that said, I may blow a gasket if he rips off a huge fourth quarter sack in a tie ballgame.  Seriously, if you can’t get behind this guy, I got nothing for you.  Go click that link, for real.

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The linebackers are also among the best in the NFL. Luke Kuechly went to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl last year, and landed on the first team All-Pro list for the fourth time.  His list of accolades continues to grow, and he looks likely for Canton one day if he can stay healthy.  His concussion history is troubling.  But he is the best linebacker in the NFL, and the linchpin for the Panthers’ defense.  Joining Luke as a stalwart on the fantastic defenses of the past five years, Thomas Davis continues to amaze with his play well into his 30s, and having overcome three devastating knee injuries.  TD will miss the first four weeks of the season because of a suspension for a banned substance.  He initially indicated he would retire after this season, but now says he may play another year. Shaq Thompson will get the chance to play more while TD  serves his suspension, and he can become a star.  He is one of the fastest linebackers in the league, and has gradually improved in the last two seasons.  His nine tackle performance against Dallas (including a sack) seems to indicate that this will be a breakout year for him.  Athlon Sports recently named Kuechly the top MLB in football, while naming TD the #6 OLB and Thompson the #8 OLB.  Expect the LBs to be the heart and soul of a very good front seven yet again.  The backups are David Mayo and Ben Jacobs, who have both been with the team for a while and are capable special teamers and can play some snaps if required.  Rookie additions Andre Smith and Jermaine Carter had good camps, although Smith had a hamstring injury during the preseason.  Both should contribute on special teams.

For as long as the front seven has been great, the secondary has been a question mark.  2015 notwithstanding, when Josh Norman led Thieves Ave., the Panthers have never found consistently good cornerback play.  They shipped off former third-round pick Daryl Worley in the off-season to Philly in exchange for Torrey Smith, and not a moment too soon.  Worley’s play had been inconsistent, but shortly after the trade, he got into some trouble with the law that ultimately put him in jail and on probation.  The Eagles sent him packing, and he’s now with Oakland. His draft classmate James Bradberry has been better, but must be more consistent this year.  Bradberry often covers the opponent’s top receiver, and that is notoriously difficult in the NFC South.  He will need to improve his ball skills, as he only has four career interceptions.  Rookie Donte Jackson played well opposite Bradberry in Week One, and offers top end speed and the swagger that has been missing from the Panthers’ secondary since Norman left.  Kevon Seymour is the other outside corner, but his Pro Football Focus grade was the lowest of any Panthers defensive regular last year.  Jackson must play well early on for this unit to be good.  Captain Munnerlyn returns in the slot after his well-publicized lack of playing time and subsequent saltiness about it last season. Munnerlyn played 54 snaps against Dallas in Week One, so there is some salve on the wound, but expect that when TD returns, Shaq Thompson will continue to stay on the field and Munnerlyn will be the odd man out.  Corn Elder is a young guy who will likely see his playing time increase as the season goes on.  He is a slot corner.  At safety, many expected rookie Rashaan Gaulden to see a lot of time, but Week One saw Mike Adams dominate snaps while Da’Norris Searcy and Colin Jones split time at the other spot.  Adams, 37 (you always have to point out his age) played well last season, and is reliable in run support.  Searcy came over from Tennessee, where his PFF grade was average, but he looks like an upgrade over Kurt Coleman, who was a liability in coverage last year.  Gaulden is an intriguing prospect who played corner in college, but has moved to safety with the Panthers.  He projects as the long-term solution at free safety.  The Panthers absolutely have to get contributions from the guys they brought in this past off-season.  If that happens, this defense could be Top 5.  If not, they should still be a Top 12-15 defense at worst, but an injury or two up front could easily derail that.

Everybody in the Carolinas, please be safe during the hurricane, and after the hurricane as well.  #keeppounding

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