One thing has been clear since the end of the 2016 season: Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman is going to make sure he doesn’t find himself in the same situation he was in at draft time last year.
At this time in 2016 (give or take a few weeks), the entire third tier of the defense was in flux, with veteran safety Kurt Coleman its only dependable factor.
There wasn’t really a firm option at nickel – there had not been since Captain Munnerlyn’s prior tenure in Charlotte – and corner Josh Norman and the franchise tag fiasco had sent the secondary into a frantic tailspin.
Three rookie corners were drafted. Ultimately, all three got hurt. Carolina tried a few different options at corner – such as Bené Benwikere – to no avail. Coleman was tasked with not only doing his job, but bringing the rookies up to speed – and safety Tre Boston, too.
The numbers pass-heavy teams put up against the secondary in the first half of the season were at times record-setting – for the other team. The secondary started the season a mess, and finished as organized chaos.
That won’t be the case in 2017.
Gettleman moved swiftly in the first three days of free agency where the secondary was concerned.
First, he brought in veteran safety (and two-time Pro Bowler) Mike Adams from Indianapolis, on a two-year deal.
While Adams said he wants to compete with younger safety Boston for the starting spot, Adams’ experience and dependability in coverage give Coleman some flexibility.
Adams can be penciled in as Carolina’s starter alongside Coleman come September. The competition can only help Boston, who progressed under Coleman’s guidance despite some flaws in coverage and spatial awareness last season.
Then, Gettleman brought Munnerlyn back.
He replaces Leonard Johnson, brought in last July to start once fully recovered from Achilles surgery. Johnson, who was serviceable enough at nickel as he played through chest and knee injuries, was signed by the Buffalo Bills late last week.
Johnson’s departure means Munnerlyn will be backed up by Zack Sanchez, who finished his rookie season in 2016 on injured reserve, or by an incoming rookie.
Adams, Coleman and Munnerlyn will be flanked by second-year players James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, who battled through injury and inexperience to become solid options for the Panthers by the end of last season. Bradberry was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded rookie corner in 2016.
Gettleman’s not done, though. He could draft another corner or safety, or both, to further stabilize the unit. This particular draft is perfect for that, with athletic prospects at cornerback and safety through even its latest rounds.
Those potential additions are more likely in mid-to-late rounds – after Gettleman takes care of an offense that desperately needs an infusion of speed and versatility, and perhaps picks up an edge-rusher.
With a healthy balance of veteran experience and youthful exuberance, this secondary has undergone a dramatic shift from the most problematic position group on the team to perhaps the most formidable.
By Day 1 of the 2017 season, the unit will have 30 years of ball-hawking, receiver-hassling experience between them. That’s some serious savvy.
Not too shabby a setup, less than two weeks into the new league year.