Cleat Geeks

Is Panthers’ D-Line To Blame For Shoddy Run Defense?

It seems like every year, the Panthers have one of these games. Last year it was the game at Chicago, in similarly dreary weather, where the Panthers looked like the better team, but just found a way to lose.  Sunday’s game at Washington was frustrating from a fan’s standpoint, not just because it was a game that the Panthers should have won, but also because it will help drive false narratives about the team. As we get into this one, let’s take a critical eye to some of those narratives and debunk them if we can.

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Let’s start with the popular scapegoat so far, the Defensive Line, and poor, poor Dontari Poe. There are multiple jokes in there somewhere, but I don’t feel like pulling them out right now. The Panthers let Star Lotulelei walk in free agency and then committed about the same dollar figure per year to Poe. I thought it would be an upgrade and give the team cap flexibility sooner. Fans on Panthers Twitter have hurled spears at the defensive line in general, and Poe in particular all season. But Poe is not a pass rusher, and we knew that coming into the season. Neither was Star. Poe’s job is to keep guards and centers off of Luke Kuechly in the run game and push guard and centers back into their QBs face so he has nowhere to escape the outside rush. Any tackles-for-loss or sacks are just gravy.

The Panthers now have 12 sacks on the season, and their adjusted sack rate is just over 6%. Those numbers put them in the bottom half of the league. While the Panthers’ sack numbers are not great, they again applied pressure to Alex Smith quite often on Sunday. Smith is a slippery veteran and gets away from pressure well. With that said, the Panthers rush got home three times, and forced at least three bad throws with pressure. Yes, they do need more sacks, but sometimes that is out of your control. As long as they continue to pressure QBs, the sacks will come.

The run defense has been shoddy at times–ok quite often, and that seems like it would fall squarely on the D Line’s shoulders. But entering Week 6, the Panthers were third in adjusted line yards, tenth in power run success against, and third in run stuff percentage per Football Outsiders. They were 27th in second-level yards allowed and 31st in open-field yards allowed. What that means is that the defensive line is doing its job–which is to keep the backers and DBs clean to make stops–but those guys aren’t making them.  Again on Sunday, the back seven let the Panthers down at least twice. Shaq Thompson was in beautiful position in his gap on an 8-yard run by Kapri Bibbs, but just whiffed the tackle, and then on the Skins’ final drive, Mike Adams had both hands on Peterson, only to see him get free and run for a first down in field goal range.  We remember some other brutal missed tackles from Rashaun Gaulden against the Giants and Donte Jackson against the Falcons that sprung big plays as well. The D Line definitely has work to do, but it is far from the lone scapegoat out there.

Speaking of Donte Jackson, let’s talk for a minute about the rookie corner. He is turning into a fan favorite, and with good reason. His three interceptions have provided a spark to the Panthers’ secondary, and his fearless demeanor is reminiscent of Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey, and some other top DBs. He is the top graded rookie CB in the league right now per Pro Football Focus, and top 10 overall. He looks like a guy with future All-Pro potential. Here’s why that is so important.

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Drafting guys who can start and contribute while on their rookie deal is a necessity in the NFL. The salary cap just won’t allow teams to sign a roster full of studs the way the Dodgers or Yankees can in Major League Baseball.  If a team can get 3-4 guys out of every draft that contribute, they’re doing ok.  But when a team gets a guy who can come in and immediately upgrade some position of need, and eventually be among the best at his position, while still getting paid rookie contract money, it’s like the NFL cheat code.  It allows a team to keep its other free agents, or compete for the best free agents on the open market to strengthen its weak points, and it is really the basis for building elite units.  The Jaguars did this with their defense, except it took them multiple years of Top 5 picks before it all panned out.  The Panthers have Luke and KK Short locked in through 2020, Bradberry is still on his rookie deal through next season, and so is Shaq Thompson. The foundation is already laid for a very good defense for the next 3-4 years, and by landing Jackson, the Panthers will have the money to pursue an elite edge lineman in free agency or with a first round pick, and really take the defense to the next level.  Of course, there are misses in the first round and even with the big-money free agent deals, so nothing is guaranteed, but the Panthers checked a prerequisite with Jackson.

Up next for the Panthers is a tough, tough road game at the Linc against the Super Bowl Champion Eagles. Their top running back Jay Ajayi is out for the year with an ACL–continuing a season-long trend of dodging many top RBs–and All-Pro LT Jason Peters is out with a biceps injury. It should be a good time for a get-well game for the run defense. This is not only a huge test for Carolina, but it may have playoff implications down the road when head-to-head tie breaker rules start coming into play.  The Eagles are mean up front on defense, but have struggled in coverage a bit this year, so this may be the week for old Riverboat and Norv to start slinging the pigskin around the yard all willy-nilly.

Til next week, cheers!

Eye of the Panther: Carolina Escapes With Lucky Win Over Giants

When Graham Gano’s record-tying 63-yard bomb went through the uprights late Sunday afternoon and gave the Panthers a 33-31 win over the New York Giants, it took the edge off what was nearly a disastrous loss. Despite outplaying the Giants for most of the game, the Panthers found themselves in that old familiar position–holding on for dear life in a game that they had once controlled.  Of course, this is the NFL, and wins are almost never easy. But Sunday’s game was different from many of the past games that followed this script. The Panthers were truly lucky, and won in spite of themselves.

Coming into the game, the biggest storyline was the Odell Beckham interview that aired on ESPN Sunday morning. ESPNs Josina Anderson did a fantastic job in this interview, and her rapport with NFL players is really interesting to watch. I didn’t feel like OBJ was completely comfortable saying the things he said about his teammates and about being happy in New York. Anderson definitely put him on the spot for an answer, and coaxed out a really big story. She was doing her job and I don’t fault her one bit.  But I got the vibe that OBJ felt pressured to say something provocative because of the bizarre presence of Lil’ Wayne.  What ended up happening was OBJ came off as passive-aggressive and it was not a good look.  Either way, the Giants looked determined to get OBJ the ball on Sunday, which is what they should be doing, and it worked.

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Beckham and Saquon Barkley is the most lethal combinations the Panthers have faced this year, and it was clear that they were very concerned about stopping them.  The defensive line disrupted that Giants’ running game all day, holding Barkley to 48 yards on 15 carries.  Looking deeper, Barkley had carries of 30 and 20yards, the former being an amazing individual effort by Barkley to spin free of Wes Horton in the backfield and accelerate through a completely different gap than the one for which the play was designed (it was the gap vacated by Horton, who had blown up the play in the backfield).  The latter of those long runs was a busted contain by rookie Rashaan Gaulden. Aside from those two plays, Barkley carried 13 times for minus-two yards.  Ron Rivera promised to fix the run defense, and he certainly delivered on that promise.

Beckham showed why he is one of the game’s best receivers, working the Panthers for 131 yards receiving and a beautiful TD catch in the fourth (the throw by Eli Manning was also beautiful). James Bradberry did a good job on Beckham, but when the Panthers went into zone looks, Beckham was able to find space.  The Giants made really nice use of play action once it became clear that Carolina was focused on stopping the run, and used the Panthers’ aggression against them on the double pass from OBJ to Barkley.  OBJ is incredibly dangerous in the open field, and it’s not a surprise that the Panthers were selling out to get to the football right there.  You have to just tip your cap to Shurmur and Shula for calling the play, and Beckham for making a tough throw. All the Giants’ TDs were either Barkley or Beckham, and when you’re facing a team with these types of weapons, they’re liable to put some points on you. The Panthers’ defense really wasn’t terrible, and outside of Donte Jackson letting Russell Shepard of all people run right by him (I don’t think I can emphasize enough how bad that was), they held up pretty well.

I saw a few Twitter posts about the Panthers’ lack of pass rush yesterday, citing only one sack of Eli Manning, so I took another look at the game to see if indeed the pass rush was as bad as the numbers said it was. While it is true that the Panthers did not sack Eli Manning or knock him down often, there were plenty of times when the Panthers pressured Manning, particularly in the first half.  Luke Kuechly got home on an A-gap blitz on a Giants fourth-down try from inside Carolina territory and although he did not get the sack, he clearly forced Eli to make a back foot throw before he was ready.  Just before the half with the Giants moving the ball near midfield, Kawann Short collapsed the pocket immediately after the snap and forced Eli to make a bad throw well short of the first down line-to-gain, and the Panthers were able to keep their 20-13 lead.  The Giants went to more quick passes in the second half and Eli did a good job of feeling the rush and moving around in the pocket for most of the day.  The Panthers pass rush will be just fine, especially if Efe Obada continues to improve.

Speaking of continuing to improve, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel were the big playmakers in the passing game.  It feels inevitable that Norv Turner will give the bulk of the snaps to these guys by the end of the season.  They both ran hard after the catch yesterday, and played with an attitude.  I think Panthers Twitter has beaten this horse to death by now, and it seems to be trending in the right direction with Moore getting 29 snaps and Samuel 12 in his first game back from injury/illness.  If the Panthers can keep these guys healthy and get Greg Olsen back on the field, the offense could be very, very good later in the year when the schedule gets tougher.

That tough late-season run that includes the Saints twice in three weeks makes this win not just important, but critical.  The Giants came into this game at 1-3, with obvious internal issues, and if the Panthers had lost this one (at home no less), it would have been inexcusable.  Although the Panthers controlled this one in the fourth quarter, they very nearly let it get away, and probably got luckier than Panther fans would like to admit.

First of all, the Panthers’ luck with fumbles was through the roof.  The special teams should get credit for playing hard through the whistle, but the punt return fumble that hit Beckham, caromed off a Giant’s foot, and ultimately ended up as Colin Jones’ first career TD was just pure good luck.  If that ball took a different bounce anywhere in that sequence, the Giants easily could have recovered it, it could have gone out-of-bounds, or it could have just harmlessly bounced into the end zone before it hit OBJ.  Later on, Cam made a really nice run to gain a first down, failed to secure the football on the hit by Eli Apple, and fumbled it right to about three Giant defenders, but by pure luck, Curtis Riley’s toe was out of bounds when he recovered the ball for New York.  The Panthers ended up getting a field goal later in that drive, and when you win by two, that’s a pretty important break.

The Panthers also benefitted from a couple of calls that, at best, could have gone either way.  The first was the 3rd-and-13 play early in the fourth quarter, where a questionable helmet-to-helmet call negated an incomplete pass to Devin Funchess.  Although there was contact to the helmet and Funchess looked shaken up, it seemed to me like both defenders were going for the ball and the contact was incidental to the play, not an attempt to make a hit.  The resulting first down kept alive the drive that produced the CMC touchdown catch that made the score 27-16.  Then, on the game’s final drive, McCaffrey was very close to a first down, and it was difficult to tell if he had made it, but the officials awarded the first down without a measurement or review, allowing the Panthers to clock the ball and ultimately give Gano a chance to set up for the game-winning kick.  There is a lot to unpack from this sequence, so I’ll start with the officiating.  The Panthers were out of timeouts, and so were the Giants, so the officials understandably probably wanted to remove themselves from the outcome by spotting the ball quickly and decisively.  A measurement would have amounted to a free timeout for Carolina, and at that point it looked like they had run themselves out of time by going above and beyond their usually poor end-of-half/game clock management.  So I applaud the officials for what I perceived as their attempt to let nature run its course.  A LOT of Giants fans on Twitter were extremely upset about this sequence, and given the outcome, I understand that frustration.  I looked back at the play in slow-motion about ten times before I realized that Fox had the “unofficial yellow line” graphic displayed about a half-yard long of where the real line-to-gain should have been (see below).  Note the nose of the football in the first picture is a foot or so short of the Carolina 45, meaning the line-to-gain would have been a foot or so short of the NY 45.  Fox had the graphic displayed on the wrong side of the NY 45, and that made it look like the play was much closer than it was.  The second picture shows McCaffrey holding the ball in his right arm, clearly across the NY 45.  So I think the officials got this one right, although I’m sure less than 0.00001% of Giants fans would entertain my argument.  I understand completely.

What this controversy and the Gano rocket masked somewhat is that the call to run CMC on third-and-one was highly questionable.  In retrospect, I think I see what Riverboat and Norv were doing, but it makes me cringe.  Gano’s previous career long was 59 yards, and his kick Sunday would have been good from near 70.  So he obviously has the leg to justify trying from that range.  I’m guessing that Ron didn’t want to risk an outside run that might lose a couple of yards since they were at the edge of sanity with respect to trying a field goal there.  He also wanted the first down so they could clock the ball on the next play, and he felt like he could rely on the offensive line and CMC to get him two or three yards to make the try more in line with Gano’s previous career long.  Here is why that logic is terrible.  If CMC fails to get the first down, you have no choice but to run the field goal unit out there and set up for a hasty try as time winds down.  That seems like it would diminish the already fairly low chance of making a 63-yarder under pressure.  Also, remember that Ryan Kalil had left the game due to an injury a few plays before, and the Panthers had their backup center, Tyler Larsen in the game.  Larsen is a decent backup, but the Giants interior defensive line had given the Panthers fits for most of the second half, so running up the middle had a lower than normal chance of success there.  If the Panthers were worried about being able to stop the clock, it seems like a short pass over the middle would do the same thing as they were trying to do with the run up the middle, but with an extra chance at a positive result if the pass failed in that the clock stops.  If the pass is complete, you run up and clock the ball and trot out the field goal unit.  What ended up happening is the Panthers got extremely lucky that the officials were decisive in their actions to spot the ball, and Gano hit a FG that we will all remember for a very long time, but probably goes in less than half the time.  Riverboat Ron comes out a winner, but like the guy who outdraws you in poker game, over time, his strategy is poor.

This has been a problem for the Panthers for some time, and I heard recently that Sean McVay hired a guy whose job it is to help him manage the clock in the endgame.  Maybe it’s something Riverboat ought to consider.

Moving on to next week, the Panthers face a tough test in Washington.  I’ll take a better look at that matchup later in the week after I get a chance to look at Washington a little better.  For now, let’s enjoy this win, and hope the breaks continue to go our way.

The Eye Of The Panther: Panthers Maul Bengals, Sign Eric Reid

The David Tepper era is truly underway in Carolina, as the Panthers made arguably the biggest news of the young season by signing former All-Pro safety Eric Reid to a one-year deal earlier today. Not only does it fill a position of dire need for the team, it also signals that Tepper is here to win, and will not succumb to outside pressure when it comes to how he will run his team. What a day to be a Panthers fan!

With that out-of-the-way, lets look back at the win over Cincinnati with a critical eye and see what went right and what went wrong.

The most glaring example of something that went right is the run game, specifically CMC’s 28 carry, 184 yard performance. Not only did he answer questions about his ability to carry a heavy load, he also answered questions about his ability to run between the tackles.  CMC went 23-154 on plays between the guards! Part of that is due to McCaffrey getting North/South a with a little more purpose, but what I have been really impressed with so far is the play of the patchwork offensive line.  According to Tim Weaver of msn.com, the team leads the league in yards before contact, which means the O Line is smoking the opponent’s D Linemen and LBs. Chris Clark has been an absolute find by Marty Hurney and the rest of the front office crew. He got bullrushed a couple of times on Sunday, and Carlos Dunlap really ate his lunch one time en route to Cam, but overall he has been solid in pass pro, and really good in the run game. Ryan Kalil looks like his old self, even getting out in front and mauling two Bengals defenders on CJA’s TD screen and run.  Taylor Moton graded out at as the Panthers’ best offensive player by Pro Football Focus, and looks like the next in a long line of Pro Bowlers up front for Carolina. And I would be remiss if I left out rookie TE Ian Thomas, who the Panthers have been using like a pulling guard, leading CMC into the holes. Norv Turner and run game coordinator/O Line coach John Matsko have done a great job finding ways to block the run game absent three starting linemen, but it was really the execution up front on Sunday that got it done. The Panthers now lead the NFL in rushing, and Ron Rivera must be tickled pink.

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On the flip side, the run defense was not thoroughly tested on Sunday, as the Bengals somewhat abandoned the run in the second half. What we did have to watch, though, was not great. Although the Bengals only ran for 66 yards, they averaged 5.1 yards per carry, and were able to seal off running lanes on the left side of the Panthers’ defense for gains of 12, 23, and 22 yards. I expect the Panthers to improve once Thomas Davis returns, primarily because Shaq Thompson will likely stay on the field and Captain Munnerlyn will see fewer snaps.

The other big story of the week is the Panthers’ defense being on the receiving end of four Andy Dalton passes. Since Thieves Ave. disbanded after the 2015 season, the Panthers were minus three in turnover differential entering the game Sunday. The secondary especially has struggled mightily to make those vital, game-changing interceptions that flip field position and help the offense out. In my opinion, Cam owes a large part of his success in 2015 to the fact that the defense handed him so many short field thanks to their 39 takeaways that year. Donte Jackson, who I felt didn’t play his best game against Atlanta, was stellar in this one. He ran step for step with Cincinnati speedster John Ross, and took the ball away in a one-on-one situation in Carolina territory Sunday. His second interception was a little luckier, but still a product of good coverage and outworking Ross for the ball.  Jackson is tied for the league lead with three interceptions and looks like a legitimate star in the making. The Panthers will have him under his rookie deal for three more years (until 2022), so they now have a cornerstone piece around which to build a secondary that can rival the front seven.

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Not to be outdone, however, Efe Obada recorded an interception, a sack, and a near strip-sack that the officials overturned on review in his first NFL game ever. I’ve covered Obada’s story here before, and it’s an amazing journey to the NFL from Nigeria by way of London, where he was a homeless child. The league named Efe NFC Defensive Player of the Week this week. He only played 19 snaps, but showed above average speed off the edge, using a shoulder dip move to get past Bengals LT Cordy Glenn. He looks like a situational player for now, but if the Panthers can use him on third down and other passing situations to enhance the pass rush, it will pay huge dividends going forward.  He is still relatively young, and has time to develop into a better run defender, but for now, we should be very happy that edge help fell out of the sky and into the laps of Eric Washington and Ron Rivera.

A couple of other odds and ends from the game…DJ Moore played 33 offensive snaps, almost equaling his combined total from weeks one and two, but still only caught one pass for three yards on two targets. There are two reasons why I don’t see this as a big problem. The first is that the Panthers only threw the ball 24 times for 150 yards on Sunday. There just weren’t many targets to go around. The second is that Turner moved Moore all over the field with a variety of motions and shifts, which forces defenses to plan for a multitude of threats. At some point this year, I think we will see DJ Moore start to get the football in his hands more regularly, so there is no need to panic right now…also, Rivera put on his Riverboat hat with a (failed) attempt on fourth-and-four from the Cincinnati 41. Although the attempt failed because of a good play by Carlos Dunlap, the call to go for it in the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead was the right one. Many coaches (including Rivera in the past) would punt the ball away there and give the opponent a long field.  With the way Michael Palardy has kicked since coming aboard two years ago, you could reasonably expect that he would put it inside the 20 at least.  But the Panthers controlled the line-of-scrimmage all day long, and Cam’s unique ability to run and pass make the Panthers very difficult to defend in situations like this. Kudos to Riverboat, hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

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Back for a moment to Eric Reid. His signing comes at a great time, as DaNorris Searcy is on IR, and the Panthers head into a bye week. It’s hard to say how well Reid will play after sitting out for so long, but he is almost certainly an upgrade over Colin Jones. Mike Adams is a strong safety by nature, but the Panthers use both of their safeties somewhat interchangeably, so Reid should fit in well regardless of which label the team puts on him. But more importantly, the Panthers did the right thing. Regardless of where you stand on the anthem protests, you should respect that Eric Reid had the courage to back up his friend and teammate Colin Kaepernick in the face of immense pressure. And you’ve got to feel the same way about the Panthers’ organization now. It’s a nice break from the last days of the Jerry Richardson era, when there was so much ugliness surrounding the organization.  I wish Eric Reid the best, not only because he could be an outstanding player on the field, but because he had his friend’s back in a time of need, and was willing to risk his career in the process. That is the type of guy you want in the trenches with you. Cheers to you, sir.

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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Photo by; Panthers.com

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 NFL.com 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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Photo by; Cat Scratch Reader

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

Straight Dealing: Panthers Win Over Cowboys Leaves Nasty Aftertaste

Panthers fans have to be feeling a bit down despite the 16-8 win over Dallas on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, winning your home opener is a great feeling, especially when it’s against the Cowboys. My father-in-law and my best man from my wedding are Cowboys fans, and I just really wanted the Panthers to win this one. The carnage left behind by this win is definitely cause for tempered jubilation, though. First, there were key injuries to Greg Olsen, Daryl Williams, and Trai Turner. We also saw our old nemesis, the conservative offense that we have come to know from the Panthers when they get a lead, and once again they allowed an opponent back into a game that the Panthers had been controlling.  There were bright spots, as the defense and–you may need to sit down for this one–the special teams were good, and played a big part in this win. Overall, there was more to like than to not like, but the injuries and offensive risk aversion pose significant concerns leading up to this Sunday’s division showdown in Atlanta. All advanced stats are from Football Outsiders, and traditional stats are from ESPN.

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Photo by; The Boston Globe

Let’s get to the injuries first. G.O. looked really good early on, catching his first two targets for 33 yards and two first downs. He re-injured the same foot that caused him to miss eight games last year, but Jourdan Rodrigue of the Charlotte Observer is reporting that the team will not use an IR spot on Olsen, instead opting to keep him on the roster in hopes he can return after “a few” weeks of rest. Yikes. Olsen showed what a valuable asset he is to the offense when he is at full strength by corralling a couple of throws down the middle of the field before his injury. Young TEs Chris Manhertz and Ian Thomas played about 40 snaps each, but neither produced much. The main beneficiary (if you’re an optimist) of Olsen’s absence should be Devin Funchess. Funch played 57 snaps on Sunday and saw five targets, producing three catches for 41 yards. I think it is critical that Funchess picks up where he left off last season and gives Cam a reliable big target down the field. The Panther offense is at its best when Cam makes big plays in the passing game down the middle of the field and that is the biggest cost of losing G.O.

Cam went 2/5 for negative 7 yards on third downs on Sunday, which tells me that the team is taking the ball out of his hands when it needs him the most.

As if the Panthers needed any more bad news on the offensive line, Daryl Williams re-injured his right knee and Trai Turner is now in the concussion protocol. Williams had torn the MCL and dislocated the patella in his knee early in camp, and I was skeptical that he was healthy enough to suit up in Week One. I’m sure the Panthers’ medical staff did their due diligence with Williams, but in light of his re-injury, it begs the question of whether he was ready to play. Williams will undergo surgery and is likely to go on IR, per Rodrigue’s report. Turner played all 67 offensive snaps but has since entered the concussion protocol. If Turner can’t go on Sunday (which I think we would all support given the long-term effects of concussions), the line will be missing three starters. The Panthers signed veteran free agent Chris Clark, who last played for Houston in 2017. Clark can play both tackle spots, and has 53 starts in 108 career games. I expect to see Taylor Moton at LT, Greg Van Roten at LG, Ryan Kalil at C, Tyler Larsen at RG, and either Clark, recent acquisition Corey Robinson, or old standby Amini Silatolu at RT. Silatolu took the 13 snaps after Williams went down Sunday, and he has the most experience in the offense. He has also been a train wreck when on the field, so if Robinson or Clark are up to speed, perhaps we will see one of them.

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Photo by; ABC 11

The injuries to the offensive line are not the only negatives to come out of this game. The Panthers opened up in the first half with several nice throws down the field, and Cam was able to do whatever he wanted in the run game. The offense produced 209 yards and 11 first downs. The average time per play was 26.7 seconds, good for twelfth in the league.  With a 10-0 lead, the Panthers decided to slow things down and get super conservative in the second half. The offense only produced 84 yards and 7 first downs in the second half, and average time per play went up to 33.9 seconds, dead last in the league. Losing G.O. obviously affected the passing game, but this is a problem that Panther fans have become accustomed to dating back at least to 2015. Since it has now bridged two coordinators, I assume that it’s Ron Rivera dictating a strategy of sitting on leads and going in the tank in the process. Cam went 2/5 for negative 7 yards on third downs on Sunday, which tells me that the team is taking the ball out of his hands when it needs him the most. If Rivera and Turner don’t trust Cam to throw the ball down the field, the offense will continue to stall. And building a lead and then trying to punt and play defense to hang on to a win is a strategy that I think will bite the Panthers this year.

The offensive numbers were not great, and part of that is probably due to the aforementioned “play-not-to-lose” strategy. Cam was 15th in Defense Adjusted Yards over Average (DYAR), behind Case Keenum of all people. His line of 17/26 for 161 (no touchdowns, no picks) was not terrible, and when you tack on the 58 rushing yards and a TD, he played well enough for a win. But I just can’t shake the feeling that the Panthers are not getting the best out of Cam. Christian McCaffrey ran 10 times for 50 yards, and added 6 catches for 45 yards, but his fumble inside the 5-yard line on the opening drive was just brutal. His minus 11 DYAR as a runner means that the Panthers would have been better off starting just about any NFL backup. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but CMC has yet to live up to the number eight overall pick the Panthers spent on him last season.  CJ Anderson gained 35 yards on his 7 carries and registered a DVOA of 29.8%, but only played 12 snaps.  As versatile as CMC is, and with G.O. now definitely down for a while, I’d like to see more of CJA and CMC on the field at the same time.  Not only will it disguise the Panthers’ intentions (7 carries on 12 snaps is an indicator to the defense that when CJA is in, he’s likely to get the rock), but it gets more play makers on the field together at the same time. The receivers were not good, with Funchess finishing 39th in DYAR, and Jarius Wright finishing 71st, likely due to his nearly disastrous fumble in the second half. Torrey Smith played 51 snaps, but only had two targets and one catch. Curtis Samuel did not dress as he deals with medical issues, and Damiere Byrd didn’t play an offensive snap although he did leave the game with a knee injury.  Rookie first-round pick DJ Moore only played 17 offensive snaps and did not see a target come his way.  With the emphasis on “giving Cam more weapons” this off-season, it seems like the staff is failing to put those playmakers in position to make plays, including keeping the younger (and more explosive) guys on the bench.  The Panthers will have to work DJ Moore into the rotation and throw some deep balls to Torrey Smith if the offense is to play at a championship caliber.

Defensively, the Panthers were very good on Sunday posting six sacks on Dak Prescott and holding Zeke Elliott to 69 yards on 15 carries, and posting the fourth best yards allowed per drive average (21.3). Dallas does not project to have a fantastic offense this year, but holding them to 232 yards and eight points is a big win for Carolina. Dallas found more success running right than they did up the middle or to the left, and that makes sense because they had Zack Martin and La’el Collins on that side working on Mario Addison, who’s a really good pass rush end, but is only average against the run.  On the left side, KK Short absolutely terrorized rookie LG Connor Williams to the tune of two sacks and four QB hits.  Wes Horton delivered in pass rush with 1.5 sacks and two more QB hits, and delivered a tackle-for-loss in the run game.  Over the course of the game, the Panthers D Line seemed to wear Dallas’ O Line down, culminating in the sack/fumble that sealed the deal.  Julius Peppers only played 24 snaps, which is a good thing, and Bryan Cox played 25 snaps.  If Cox can deliver 25 solid snaps per game, the Panthers will likely continue to have second half success rushing the passer as the rotational D Line guys are just fresher than the opponent’s O Linemen, who play every down. Rookie Donte Jackson played every defensive snap at corner, made five tackles and held up in coverage.  Panthers fans should be very, very excited about that, because as we talked about in the defensive preview piece, stability at outside corner is something the Panthers desperately need.

The special teams were good for the Panthers, and would have been really good were it not for a botched PAT attempt. Specifically, the punt and punt return teams did their jobs well, and it reflected in the Panthers’ average starting field position (own 38, 3rd best in the league on Sunday), and the Cowboys’ (own 21, 30th).  Michael Palardy has been a great find for the team, as he averaged 47.8 per kick and dropped three of six punts inside the 20 with one touchback. This is a part of the game that is so often overlooked as we use the punt as a way to extend the commercial break and give ourselves more time to visit the fridge, but for a team like the Panthers who look to win by playing stout defense and not beating themselves (i.e. being very conservative) on offense, winning field position is a must.  The punt return team also shined, as Byrd and DJ Moore combined for 62 yards on 4 returns, better than 15 yards per attempt.  The Panthers have not had an explosive punt return man in some time, and new special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn certainly appears to have options in that regard now.

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Looking ahead to this Sunday at Atlanta, Vegas has the Panthers as 2.5 point underdogs. The biggest theme of this game will be injuries.  We covered the Panthers’ big dogs that will not play already, but the Falcons will match that with two of their top defenders and a big piece of their offense.  Safety Keanu Neal and LB Deion Jones are both on IR, and RB Devonta Freeman has a knee issue that has kept him out of practice all week.  Offensively, Matt Ryan played really poorly last week at Philadelphia.  His 21/43 for 251 yard, zero touchdown/one interception game produced a QBR of 12.7 and a DYAR of minus 128.  The only starting QB that played worse according to Football Outsiders was Nathan Peterman.  Ouch.  Matty Ice looked to Julio Jones 19 times on Thursday night, and had great success (10/169), but the Eagles adjusted by bringing a defender underneath Jones’ routes in the second half.  Julio has destroyed the Panthers historically, and this will be a good early test of Donte Jackson and the rest of the new additions to the secondary.  The Falcons defense did a decent job against the Eagles, particularly against the pass (10th in DVOA, only 119 yards allowed), but that was against Nick Foles.  The Eagles were also able to run the football with some success, especially in the second half.  The Falcons surrendered 113 yards and 2 TDs on the ground, and ranked 25th in DVOA against the run.  Losing Jones and Neal will hurt the run defense, but also the pass defense, since Jones is one of the best coverage LBs in the league.  This would look like a juicy matchup, but with the injuries up front and without G.O. to exploit the mismatch against Jones’ replacement, we have to wait and see if the Panthers can open up the offense enough to get a win.

Stay safe during Florence, Panthers fans!

2018 Carolina Panthers Preview: Offense

At last our long national nightmare is over.  Training camps are behind us.  Preseason games–four weeks removed from satisfying our six-month craving for football–have mercifully ended.  The time is upon us for “shots fired in anger” on NFL fields across our great nation, and not a second too soon.

The Carolina Panthers certainly had an interesting off-season. Founder and long-time owner Jerry Richardson sold the team amid allegations of improper conduct in the workplace.  Enter David Tepper, a self-made billionaire and former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Tepper has signaled both overtly and implicitly that he will take the organization in a new direction. The foundation is strong, as the Panthers have made the playoffs in four out of the last five years.

The team has announced its 53-man roster and Week One is only a few days away, so let’s take a look at the Panthers’ 53 man roster in a bit of depth. We will start with the offense in this article, and cover defense and special teams in follow up pieces.

The 2017 version of the Panthers offense was inconsistent. The games that bracketed the Week 11 bye were a microcosm of the season. Week 10 saw the Panthers hang a franchise record 548 yards on the Dolphins in a 45-21 win, but coming out of the bye week, they could only muster 299 yards against the Jets. The Panthers’ offense finished the season with -0.9 in Football Outsiders‘ Defense Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). good for 17th in the league.  That means they were about as average as possible.  It’s no surprise, then, that they fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and spent their first round pick on Maryland WR DJ Moore. They also brought in free agent running back CJ Anderson from Denver, WR Jarius Wright from Minnesota, and WR Torrey Smith from Philly.  Incoming OC Torrey Smith has a track record of success, but he is 66 years old and his last stop in Minnesota did not end well.

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Photo by; The Big Lead

While there are plenty of new faces, the Panthers will rely heavily on some familiar faces for most of their offensive production. That starts with the QB. Cam Newton enters his eighth season, and though he has avoided the serious injuries that many predicted for him, he has undergone surgery in the off-season twice in the last four off-seasons.  This year was different, as Cam was able to complete an entire off-season program, and it couldn’t have come at a better time with a new system and several new receivers.  By now, we know that Cam is very good throwing down the field and remains the most dangerous running threat of any QB in the NFL.  His size and skill set make him deadly in short yardage and red zone situations. Anecdotally, he tends to hold the ball a little too long sometimes, and doesn’t necessarily have the best pocket awareness. At his best, he is an elite QB who can single-handedly carry the offense. At his worst, he is below average, although in years past the team magnified his weaknesses by sometimes refusing to embrace and play to his strengths.  With more weapons on the field, the Panthers hope to finally be able to take some of the pressure off Newton to win every game by himself.  Backing him up will be Cam Newton, a 6-1 fourth-year guy with a career total of one pass attempt in the NFL.  He has history with Norv Turner in Minnesota, so that’s good.  Expect if Cam goes down for any length of time, that the Panthers will be in serious trouble.

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For the Panthers up front on offense, there was already a steep hill to climb entering the season due to All-Pro LG Andrew Norwell’s departure to Jacksonville in free agency.  The Panthers looked to Amini Silotolu, a former second-round pick of Carolina turned journeyman, but Silotolu tore his meniscus early in camp and only returned to practice on Sunday.  To make matters worse, All-Pro RT Daryl Williams tore his MCL and dislocated his patella early in camp.  Initial indications were that Williams was likely to miss a significant part of the season, but he has somehow rehabbed the knee to the point where he, too, rejoined the team at practice on Sunday.  LT Matt Kalil was not so lucky, as the team placed him on Injured Reserve Sunday after having his knee scoped, and will miss at least the first half of the season.  Despite Silotolu and Williams’ return to the practice field, the Panthers are likely to field a patchwork line on opening Sunday.  Second-year backup Taylor Moton will probably start at left tackle, stalwart former Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner will start at C and RG, but LG and RT are still anyone’s guess.  This does not bode well for the Panthers against a defensive front as good as the Cowboys’.  Greg Van Roten and Tyler Larsen are guys who should see the field more this season, but both are still works-in-progress.  The Panthers traded a seventh round pick to the Lions for versatile tackle Corey Robinson.  Robinson has some experience starting at tackle and guard, and that versatility is something the Panthers under Ron Rivera have valued.  Expect Robinson to primarily backup both tackle positions, but he may get some starts early in the year while the regular starters heal up.  Offensive line coach John Matsko is one of the best there is, as shown by the Panthers’ recent history of turning out Pro Bowl and All-Pro linemen despite spending very little draft capital on the O-Line.

Christian McCaffrey returns to the backfield, and I expect him to carry a heavy load for the team this year.  He made 80 receptions last year, but his rushing numbers were not good (117-435-2/3.4 ypc).  He appears to have bulked up during the off-season, and may see a bigger share of the carries in the Panthers’ power running game.  Jonathan Stewart is gone, replaced by CJ Anderson.  Anderson (5-8, 225) rushed for over 1,000 yards last year in Denver, and offers much more in the passing game than did Stewart.  If the offensive line holds up, the Panthers could be a top five rushing team in the league.  Cameron Artis-Payne returns as a solid if unspectacular bench guy.  Special teamer and receiving back Fozzy Whittaker will miss the season with a torn ACL.

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Photo by; Cat Crave

The receivers and tight ends offer a tasty menu of options from which Cam can choose.  Devin Funchess was very good last year (63-840-8, 128 Defense Adjusted Yards Above Replacement [DYAR]), but he was the only Panther receiver worth mentioning.  Were it not for McCaffrey’s contributions to the pass game, the Panthers may have been historically bad.  Funchess returns, but more importantly, Greg Olsen is healthy this year after missing most of last year with a broken foot.  Olsen is as close to a sure thing as there is on this team, and having him back will likely be the most important factor if the Panthers are to improve on last year’s performance.  Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright offer veteran leadership, much like what Jerricho Cotchery gave the team in 2015.  Like Cotchery, they are not likely to contribute huge numbers between the white lines.  Smith is a decent deep threat, which the Panthers missed with Ted Ginn’s departure last season, and Wright is known as a good possession reciever with a knack for finding the first down marker.  They are both niche players, but are likely valuable pieces anyway.  Curtis Samuel has been healthy and looked really good in the preseason after missing most of his rookie year with injuries.  Samuel offers big play ability when healthy, and if he can contribute this year, it almost works out like a free draft pick for the Panthers.  Dameire Byrd is a player much like Samuel.  Both represent a threat to carry the ball on jet sweeps, and can turn short plays into long gains.  Byrd is also expected to handle kickoff return duties.  Rookie DJ Moore graded out as one of the best WRs in the draft, but it’s unclear how much of a role he will play in the offense this year.  He has drawn comparisons to former WR Steve Smith (even by Smitty himself) for his open-field ability with the ball in his hands.  Moore is a good-sized (6-1, 200) receiver who runs well (4.42 40 yard time) and projects as a great addition to the offense in a year or two.

Expectations are understandably high for the offense this year with all the new additions.  The key will be whether the offensive line is able to consistently play well together despite the shell game brought on by all the injuries.  If that happens, the Panthers’ offensive ceiling is Top 10 in the league.  If not, the floor is probably somewhere around 24th.  There is enough talent to prevent a total dumpster fire, but not enough to overcome poor play up front.  The good news is that, much like in years past, the defense will likely be good enough that anything better than average from the offense should make the Panthers contenders in the NFC South.  Next up, we will look at the defense with new coordinator Eric Washington and a lot of new faces in the back half.

2018 NFL Drafting Needs; NFC South

Nothing beats a bit of draft speculation straight after one of the best Superbowls of all time, right? I’ll be going through the draft needs of every NFL franchise, and this is the penultimate one; the NFC South.

New Orleans Saints – TE, LB, QB

New Orleans were one of my favourite teams to watch in 2017; Kamara, Thomas, Brees, Ingram on offence and Lattimore, Williams, Rankins and Jordan on defence. Wonderful. Other than the Kenny Vaccaro contract situation (looks like he’s on his way out despite a VERY slow safety market in free agency), the Saints don’t have many pressing concerns so onto the draft!

Potential picks:

27 – Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State

One thing the Saints are lacking is a natural pass-catching tight end. Coby Fleener has been okay, but not spectacular and I think Josh Hill could overtake him on the depth chart soon. Not only is Mike Gesicki an athletic freak, he can also play. He can create separation, works hard on his route running, fakes well. He’s an excellent pass-catcher. Doesn’t drop the ball. He’ll never be a guy you want to rely on as part of the running game, but that wouldn’t be why you drafted him. He’ll need to work on the physical side of the game a little as his strength isn’t his top attribute but he’ll beat linebackers and safeties to the ball given the chance. I can definitely see a scenario where Josh Hill and Mike Gesicki line up together regularly in two tight end sets.

2017 stats – 13 games; 57 receptions for 563 yards and 9 TDs

91 – Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB/DE, Oklahoma

We’ve seen flashes of NFL strength in college from Okoronkwo. If the Saints choose to draft him, they will have themselves a guy not afraid to take on a challenge and somebody who will improve and work hard every single day. A good tackler, and not afraid to get after the quarterback, there is plenty of work to do in order to have him as a starter but has the upside to be drafted as a project. His technique and consistency need work, and will need to have a lot of practice time in coverage.

2017 stats – 14 games; 76 combined tackles (17.5 for loss); 2 passes deflected; 3 forced fumble; 8 sacks

127 – Nic Shimonek, QB, Texas Tech

I’ve seen plenty of articles this offseason linking Shimonek with the New York Giants, but I’m including him here with the Saints. Unlike current starter Drew Brees, he stands tall in the pocket and can throw the football from various positions. He’s patient and will get through his reads if he feels it necessary. Has ability to make big plays whilst scrambling and impressively, after being benched for some poor performances at the end of last season, he came back under centre to lead a game-winning performance in the last game of the season. He has had difficulty performing, particularly late on in games. Ball placement needs improvement, although the mechanics are there so hopefully NFL-level coaching will help this. He has typical NFL size and arm talent and a couple of years under the tutelage of Drew Brees could make him worthy of a roster spot in New Orleans.

2017 stats – 13 games; 3963 passing yards; 33 TDs; 10 interceptions; 152.1 rating;

66 rushing yards; 1 TD

Carolina Panthers – DE, CB, WR

It’s hard to predict what the Panthers will do in the draft although I’m sure things will be much clearer once free agency is over. As I write, they lack depth at wide receiver, have no power back, and just resigned 791 year-old Julius Peppers to a new deal. So for what it’s worth, here is my take.

Potential picks:

24 – Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State

Sam Hubbard will be a solid player. Nothing leaps out at you necessarily but some coaches like that. He’s consistent, intelligent and has great awareness of what’s going on around him, both from his teammates and the opposition. Stamina is great and this sees him making plays others might give up on. Tackles regularly and is a great blitzer, causing no end of grief of opposing quarterbacks. Speed is average and he’ll need coaching to convert the speed he does have into optimal levels of power. I think he’ll be a solid starter in the NFL.

2017 stats – 14 games; 42 combined tackles (13.5 for loss); 7 sacks; 2 forced fumble

55 – JC Jackson, CB, Maryland

Good in press coverage, as well as solid ability to read the quarterback, JC Jackson could become a very good player in cover-2 and cover-3. If he gets beaten underneath he has the ability to get back on track. He’ll tackle with good force. Physicality is his key strength and NFL coaching will help him make the most of that. His ball skills will need work, but Jackson will be known in the NFL as a guy who is very good at what he does well rather than a versatile playmaker. He needs to avoid the penalties against him, and find other ways of making up for his general lack of speed.

2017 stats – 12 games; 40 combined tackles (0.5 for loss); 7 passes deflected; 3 interceptions

85 – Deon Cain, WR, Clemson

Deon Cain has good size and movement for a wide receiver and will take to the NFL pretty comfortably. He doesn’t lose pace when running routes and has quick burst for deep plays. His size allows him to win the physical battles against defenders. Good feet allow for receptions to be ruled inbound near the boundary. After the catch, Cain is aggressive, stiff-arming defenders away if he needs to before gaining extra yardage. I don’t ever see him as an out-and-out WR1, but he will be a very good WR2 alongside Devin Funchess. NFL coaching will hopefully expand his route tree.

2017 stats – 14 games; 58 receptions for 734 yards and 6 TDs;

Atlanta Falcons – G, DT, WR

Despite having much the same roster in 2017 as the one which made it to the Superbowl the year before under Kyle Shanahan, Steve Sarkisian was not able to produce even close to the performance levels of his predecessor – and the pressure will be on him early in 2018. Key additions will be required on both sides of the ball if the Falcon are to make it through this competitive division. Guard, defensive tackle, as well as a receiver to replace Taylor Gabriel are my picks.

Potential picks:

26 – Will Hernandez, G, Texas El-Paso

He’s a big, strong guy with excellent natural movement. He’s agile, can unlock his hips and really force himself into opponents. His balance on contact and control over his body are elite. He plays every snap as if the game depends on it. Will Hernandez lives and breathes the game and will stop at nothing to ensure he is amongst the very best at his position in the NFL. One key thing which could put a lot of scouts off are his short arms and small hands. If coaches can get around that, they will have a player with a very high ceiling on their hands.

58 – Nathan Shepherd, DT, Fort Hays States

Potential is the key word here. I think a team would have to be patient in developing Nathan Shepherd but the talent is certainly there. Since high school he has added nearly 100 lbs to his frame and is always working on his strength. He’s a good athlete and although very raw he will excite many coaches. Most blocking schemes are too much for him currently but with experience and some work on his technique this could change.

2017 stats – 11 games; 38 combined tackles (12.5 for loss); 4 sacks

90 – Trey Quinn, WR, SMU

Slot receiver, allowing Sanu to use a wider variety of routes and opening up more space outside for Julio Jones. Consistent speed; executes routes well and with good intelligence. In 2017 he saw a large uptick in targets (35%) and rarely drops the ball. Will perform particularly well against zone coverage. It may be that he’s a one season wonder but he coped very well with the increased production so several scouts and evaluators will like what they saw. After the catch, Quinn leaves a lot to be desired but if you’re looking for a reliable slot receiver, this could well be your guy.

2017 stats – 13 games; 114 receptions for 1236 yards and 13 TDs;

5 punt returns for 13 yards;

5 kickoff returns for 113 yards

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S, RB, CB

Tampa Bay were woeful in 2017; and their moves in the offseason so far have left a lot to be desired. After drafting OJ Howard last year, a highly touted prospect, Cameron Brate was tied up to a large contract, leaving fans somewhat bemused. I happen to know that Brate is very good, and I also happen to know that the Buccaneers actually had success on two TE sets. So maybe they haven’t gone totally crazy. After Doug Martin was sent away to Oakland, they will need to find a replacement. The secondary could use new faces as well.

Potential picks:

7 – Derwin James, S, Florida State

Leader. Derwin James is the guy who will come in early and stay late to assess footage from his own games, as well as opponent’s games. Ticks every physical box for a leading NFL safety. He’s a versatile playmaker who focuses on the ball first, and the player second. Blitzes well on top of his ability against slot receivers and his tackling ability in open play. His only blemishes are his small number of games (26 in college) and the fact that he has a previous ACL injury. Other than that, a very exciting prospect.

2017 stats – 12 games; 84 combined tackles (5.5 for loss); 1 sack; 11 passes deflected; 2 interceptions (1 returned for a TD); 1 blocked kick

38 – Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn

I’d say there are Tevin Coleman similarities when I look at Kerryon Johnson. He has fast feet, good initial burst which allows him to break the line and a multitude of speeds. Can take on a heavy workload and play an every down role. Plays well both on the inside and on the outside. He isn’t the biggest back so durability may be a concern. It also remains to be seen how he will cope against stacked boxes in the NFL as he tends to like a cleat point of entry.

2017 stats – 12 games; 1391 yards rushing on 285 attempts (4.88 YPC); 18 TDs

194 yards and 2 TDs on 24 receptions;

1 pass for 3 yards and a TD

69 – Duke Dawson, CB, Florida

Very intelligent and able to mirror a receiver, Duke Dawson plays superbly against slant routes but is capable against receivers running a variety of routes. Over the last two seasons, he has allowed less than a 40% completion rate. Despite being used, as you would expect, against the pass, Dawson can chip in against the run too, making a nuisance of himself and preventing quick getaways by runners. He isn’t the greatest athlete amongst the 2018 prospects but could become a very good nickel cornerback in the NFL.

2017 stats – 11 games; 34 combined tackles (2 for loss); 9 passes deflected; 4 interceptions (1 returned for a TD)

 

 

 

 

*2017 stats from www.cfbstats.com

NFL Report Card: Carolina Panthers

 

Our NFL report card for the 2015-2016 season will be assigning a letter grade to each of the 32 teams and offering an explanation why that grade was chosen. After the evaluation, we will point out one specific area the team will need to address this off-season. Want some extra credit? Comment down below what grade YOU would give the team, and tell me on Twitter (@FantasyFlurry) your thoughts on the team’s report card for that day!

ted-ginn-jr-cam-newton-nfl-carolina-panthers-tampa-bay-buccaneers-590x900

The Panthers seemed to be written off by many after the loss of Kelvin Benjamin in the preseason, but oh boy were those people wrong. This team pulled together and found different ways to be the best team in the regular season at 15-1. Cam Newton took control of the offense and ran with it…literally. His presence and physicality on the field compensated for his throwing, and it was enough to make him the league’s MVP almost unanimously! This offense was an old school ground-and-pound team that forced you to play physical, and that often wore teams out when it came to the fourth quarter.q

Carolina’s defense continues to be one of the best in the league right now. The clear leader of the defense in linebacker Luke Kuechly. He very well could be the most complete defensive player in the league, top-two no doubt. If facing him wasn’t scary enough for opposing offenses, they now had to fear Josh Norman. He emerged as one of the best corners in football this season. This defense was #6 in sacks, #3 in forced fumbles, and #1 in interceptions. Teams were often confused on where to attack, because the Panthers seemed solid on all three levels. 

The weakest part of Carolina’s game this year was not the players, it was the coaches. There were many times where they had a huge lead going into halftime but blew the lead in the second half. This was a combination of not making correct adjustments and a lack of focus. Both of these problems have to fall on the coaches. This ultimately was their problem in the Super Bowl, they got out-coached. The Panthers did not game plan well against the Broncos. Say what you want about Manning’s performance, but he game planned and figured out the Panthers team.

Final Grade: A2221-carolina-panthers

 

Biggest Off-Season Need?

Their main focus right now is resigning Josh Norman. This is the most important thing that Panthers need to do for next season. Norman is not only incredibly talented, but he has that toughness and swagger that the best corners need to have. After contract negotiations are finished with him, the Panthers will be able to switch their focus to offense where they hope to find a receiver.

The Panther Post: Super Bowl Edition

I won’t sugar coat it:  I fully expect the Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 50.  Apparently, so do the people in Las Vegas who have tabbed the Panthers as 5 1/2 point favorites over the Denver Broncos. I honestly don’t think it should be that close.NFL Network

We’ve all heard the expression “over-analysis leads to paralysis.”  Well, after two weeks of “analysis” by every “expert” in the NFL universe, I think it’s safe to say that most NFL fans ears have been paralyzed to any more opinions.  But in the simplest way possible, I’d like to present one more. Here are the three main reasons why I see the Carolina Panthers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night:

  1. The offense is too multi-dimensional to be stopped. Most NFL offenses have a certain level of predictability. Teams pass out of certain formations, run out of others.  The Panthers under Mike Shula are completely unpredictable. Out of any given formation there is the option to run or pass. It is almost impossible to predict a play call based on formation alone. Spare me the argument that Denver had the #1 defense in the NFL this season.  Seattle was #2.  Arizona was #5.  The Panthers put up 80 points on the two combined.  In the playoffs.
  2. The defense is the equal or better than the Broncos.  The Panthers ranked 6th in the NFL in total yards allowed and 6th in points allowed.  The Broncos ranked 1st in total yards, and 4th in points allowed.  Not much difference.  The reason the argument can be made that the Panthers defense is actually better is because of the offenses.  Denver ranked 19th in the NFL in points scored this year at 22.2 points per game. The Panthers were #1 in points scored at 31.2 points per game. The Broncos defense was forced to play hard for 60 minutes every game because the offense was so anemic that their games were invariably close.  The Panthers scored so much that inevitably, late in games, the opposition would frantically be trying to catch catch up by passing the ball and getting out of their normal routine as an offense.  It’s the kind of skewing of numbers that can’t actually be seen on the stat sheet, but to ignore this fact makes no sense.CamManning50
  3. It’s their time, and it’s obvious.  Most people who have spent any time around the Panthers this season have remarked at how close knit this group is. CB Josh Norman has said repeatedly that he has never been on a team at any level that was closer than this.  From the dabbing and dancing from soon-to-be league MVP Cam Newton, to the unassuming defensive leadership of Thomas Davis and Luke Keuchly, to the team sideline-selfies, the Panthers have unapologetically been themselves all season long.  They won’t change for the Super Bowl.  They are 17-1 for a reason:  they are the best team in the NFL.  With apologies to the great Peyton Manning, I’m counting on them to prove that to the world on Sunday.

Panthers 26, Broncos 13

The Panther Post: Keep Pounding!

SamMillsStatueOutside the North entrance to Bank of America Stadium stands the statue of a football player. He is in full uniform and holding his helmet in one hand.  He is larger than life.  He is #51, Linebacker Sam Mills, and he remains the only player to have his number retired in the twenty-one years the Carolina Panthers have played football.

Mills was an undersized middle linebacker coming out of tiny Montclair State College in New Jersey. He went undrafted after finishing school in 1980 and actually spent a couple of years teaching and coaching in high school before he got a chance to try out for the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars. Mills not only made the team, but helped lead the Stars to two USFL titles in three years.  As fate would have it, Mills’ coach with the Stars was none other than Jim Mora. When Mora was offered the head coaching job with the New Orleans Saints, he gladly brought his middle linebacker with him. Sam Mills would spend the next nine years patrolling the middle for the vaunted “Dome Patrol” defense and be named to four Pro-Bowls.

hall_of_honor_millsAfter the 1994 season, Mills became a free agent.  The expansion Carolina Panthers were looking for veteran leadership on defense and quickly made Mills their target. Disgruntled that New Orleans did not make more of an effort to retain him, Mills signed with the Panthers before their inaugural season in 1995. Like most expansion teams, the Panthers struggled out of the gate, losing their first five games. Finally, on their sixth attempt, the Panthers broke into the win column with a 26-15 victory over the New York Jets that was sparked by Mills’ interception of a Bubby Brister shovel pass that he returned for a touchdown.

Mills would play two more seasons for the Panthers, including a fifth Pro-Bowl nod after the 1996 season which saw the second year expansion team shockingly advance to the Conference Championship game.  At the close of the 1997 season, Mills called it quits on a stellar 15-year career in professional football.

Since Mills was basically a coach on the field for the young Panthers, it was no surprise when he was offered a defensive assistants job with the team beginning with the 1998 season.  He was promoted to Linebackers Coach the following year and remained in that role for four more seasons.SamMillsKeepPounding02-vi

In May of 2003, Sam Mills was diagnosed with intestinal cancer.  He was given just months to live.

On one wall of the Panthers weight room is a photo of the statue that stands in front of the stadium.  Next to that photo are these words:

“The date was January 2, 2004.

One day before the biggest game in Panthers history, a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Coach Mills took a minute to speak about commitment.  About dedication to your teammates.  About total team effort.  He asked players to Keep Pounding.  On offense.  On defense.  On special teams.  On every.  Single.  Play.

Carolina Panthers 29, Dallas Cowboys 10″KeepPoundingJersey

Sam Mills died on the morning of April 18, 2005.  He was 45 years old.

When Nike took over NFL uniform production in 2012, they stitched the words “Keep Pounding” into the neck of every Panthers jersey.

Sam’s son, Sam Mills III, is still employed by the Panthers as an up and coming defensive coach.

So on Sunday evening, just before kickoff, when you hear Bank of America Stadium roaring with 73,500 people chanting “Keep Pounding”, you’ll know why.  And Panther fan or not, hopefully you will appreciate the legacy of a great man.

GO PANTHERS!

KEEP POUNDING!

ON EVERY.  SINGLE.  PLAY.

 

GET YOUR  ON!

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