Analyzing the Carolina Panthers, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Up next: Defensive backs.
Three things to know
▪ A crucial year for cornerbacks: Carolina’s starting corners, Daryl Worley and James Bradberry, are in their most crucial offseason of development. Year 2 to Year 3 is usually when a cornerback can either make the biggest leap forward, or regress. The Panthers hope the news is good in 2018.
▪ Explosive plays: Carolina ranked 18th in the NFL last season in passing defense, at 229 passing yards allowed per game. Explosive plays give up by the secondary hurt Carolina the most. Limiting them was emphasisized, but execution was inconsistent.
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▪ Safety at safety? One of Carolina’s biggest needs is at safety. Veterans Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams could benefit from a young talent in their rotation, and the Panthers need an heir to Adams, 36.
On the roster
▪ Bradberry, Worley: Many hoped Bradberry would take a leap in his second season, but he was inconsistent. Worley finished stronger than he started, after his starting role was challenged by backup Kevon Seymour in October and November. He reclaimed his position and played his best football in December.
▪ Options at nickel: Carolina relies heavily on its nickel package, especially against the offensive personnel in the NFC South. Two promising possibilities are fifth-round draft pick Corn Elder and former undrafted free agent Cole Luke. Elder and Luke’s competition this preseason will be heated, and both want to challenge starter Captain Munnerlyn.
The Panthers also use linebacker-safety hybrids in a nickel adaptation they call “Buffalo,” or big-nickel. Linebacker Shaq Thompson usually mans that spot, but safety Colin Jones was plugged in when Thompson was hurt last season and fared well. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who has announced his retirement after 2018, expects his role to diminish in favor of Thompson, so Carolina might look for a defensive back in the draft who could rotate with Thompson in “Buffalo” should he play more snaps at traditional linebacker.
▪ Coleman, Adams: Coleman and Adams had some stellar moments in 2017, but were inconsistent. Adams had two interceptions. Coleman, once the mayor of “Thieves Ave.,” had none. The two veterans also dealt with injuries at different times.
▪ Also: Safety Demetrious Cox played in four games before going on injured reserve with an ankle injury. Seymour challenged Worley after the Panthers acquired him via trade with Buffalo, and the battle between them in camp will be intriguing this summer. Cornerback Teddy Williams had a great camp before getting hurt and going on injured reserve. Zack Sanchez, who was drafted alongside Worley and Bradberry but has spent much of his career injured and on the practice squad, also has a crucial developmental year ahead of him. Safety Jairus Byrd filled in a little at nickel when Munnerlyn and Thompson weren’t available and is a free agent this year.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Eric Reid, safety, San Francisco: Reid, 26, would improve the Panthers secondary instantly. The former first-round pick had 66 tackles and two interceptions in 13 games last season.
▪ Lamarcus Joyner, safety/cornerback, Los Angeles Rams: Joyner, 27, is quite a talent and could complement Coleman. He can also play cornerback, which is something Carolina could value as depth if they’d like to use the draft to stock other positions.
▪ Trumaine Johnson, cornerback, Rams: Carolina would only sign a player of Johnson’s caliber if they planned to turn one of their current young starters into a backup, which seems unlikely based on other needs.
▪ Derwin James, Florida State, safety: James is projecting early as a top-10 pick, so may be out of reach for Carolina. James is a Day-1 starter at safety with enough speed and physicality to play in Carolina’s “Frog” package, the adaptation of the “Buffalo” nickel package that Jones manned last season.
▪ Justin Reid, safety, Stanford: Likely available to Carolina late in the first round or in the second, Reid is versatile, with experience at corner and safety.
▪ Jordan Whitehead, safety, Pitt: Another prospect with experience at both cornerback and safety, Whitehead is a little reminiscent of Coleman in that he’s slightly undersized, but plays much bigger than he is. Whitehead is an early-declaration who would probably be available to Carolina in the third or fourth round, with a lot of potential.
The bottom line
Inconsistency in stopping chunk passing plays hurt Carolina’s defense the most last season, despite being a point of emphasis. Additionally, Carolina ranked No. 16 in the NFL with 21 takeaways last season, and only had 10 interceptions – seven of which came from defensive backs. Plays on the ball have to be at a premium in 2018, and the Panthers will look in both free agency and the draft to find ways to bolster the secondary.