Last year, the Carolina Panthers’ patchwork secondary rallied around several defensive backs trying to make names for themselves.
The Panthers are piecing together their defensive backfield again – only this time they’re doing it with players trying to restore their good names and Pro Bowl reputations.
After safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn – two of the founding members of last year’s so-called No-Name Secondary – played their way into bigger contracts elsewhere, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was forced to re-tool again.
Gettleman brought in three free agents with more name recognition than some of their predecessors, although each is coming off a disappointing season.
Roman Harper, the longtime New Orleans Saints strong safety, started only five games in 2013, when he dealt with a knee injury and lost his spot to then-rookie Kenny Vaccaro.
Free safety Thomas DeCoud, who was a salary-cap casualty in Atlanta, failed to intercept a pass last season for the first time in his five seasons as a Falcons’ starter.
And cornerback Antoine Cason, a three-year starter in San Diego, couldn’t crack the starting lineup in 2013 in his lone season with Arizona.
DeCoud isn’t ready to call it a prove-it year for the three acquisitions in the secondary, although he concedes it’s something like that.
“Just a get-back-to-old-form year,” DeCoud said last week. “I’ll be the first one to admit that last year wasn’t my best brand of football. But I guarantee you that this year will be.”
The Panthers are counting on bounce-back seasons from DeCoud, Harper and Cason, who have combined for 231 career starts, 10 playoff appearances and three Pro Bowls.
“They brought in a lot of guys with experience (who) have seen a lot of things. I think that’s going to bode well for us with this front seven,” DeCoud said. “If we have guys with some experience that have seen a lot of stuff, and a front seven that’s getting a lot of pressure, that means we can get our hands on a lot of balls.”
A team effort
The Panthers’ front seven received most of the credit on a unit that finished 2013 ranked second behind Seattle in total defense (301.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (15.1 ppg).
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, while defensive end Greg Hardy tied Kevin Greene’s single-season club record with 15 sacks.
The general consensus around the league was the Panthers’ pass rush – they led the league with 60 sacks – covered a lot of blemishes in the back end.
But the decision-makers in other organizations apparently didn’t think so.
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract after his breakout season in Charlotte, and the Minnesota Vikings gave Munnerlyn a three-year deal worth $11.25 million.
While noting the Panthers finished sixth in passing defense in 2013, Harper said: “You don’t just do that with just a group of guys.”
In addition to Mitchell and Munnerlyn, the Panthers parted ways with two veteran defensive backs from a group that ESPN analyst Jon Gruden dubbed the “Legion of Whom.”
Strong safety Quintin Mikell and cornerback Drayton Florence are unrestricted free agents the Panthers did not bring back. Both players remain unsigned.
Mitchell gave the Panthers a physical presence at safety after Charles Godfrey was lost in Week 2 to an Achilles injury, although Mitchell’s aggressive play at times resulted in personal fouls.
After Mitchell left in free agency, Harper signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the Panthers as their hired muscle.
Panthers fans remember Harper as the Saints’ defensive back who drilled wide receiver Steve Smith during a 2011 game after Smith slowed down before crossing the goal line on a touchdown catch.
Smith is gone now, but it hasn’t stopped reporters from asking about the play, which Harper said he thinks about only when the media brings it up.
“Because of what I did, it made it a rivalry. It was just a game before that probably,” Harper said last week. “I kind of helped juice things up, and I’m glad I can say I was part of that.”
Harper, 31, makes no apologies for the hit on Smith, or any of the other 528 tackles during his eight-year career.
“Everyone knows what type of player I am. I’m not going to change. I’ve been the same guy since Day 1,” Harper said. “I’m going to fly around. I’m going to hit people and I’m not going to take a lot of flak for it.”
DeCoud, 29, isn’t as physical as Harper. But he has 14 career interceptions, including six during his Pro Bowl season of 2012.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said having two veteran safeties – both with extensive NFC South backgrounds – has improved the communication in the secondary.
“I think it’s helping our young safeties in terms of getting them to understand how they need to do things,” Rivera said. “I think we have a couple of guys that are great role models.”
A familiar face
Unlike the two new safeties, Cason has never been to a Pro Bowl. But the former first-round pick of the Chargers was a reliable corner during his three years as a starter in San Diego, averaging nearly three interceptions and 13 pass breakups from 2010-12.
Rivera and Panthers secondary coach Steve Wilks have ties to Cason from their time with the Chargers and believe a change in scenery will benefit Cason after he spent last year as an extra defensive back for the Cardinals.
Rivera mentioned Cason as someone who caught his eye following one of the first OTA (organized team activities) practices last month.
Cason has been working with the first team during OTAs opposite second-year corner Melvin White, who started 10 games last season after the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent from Louisiana-Lafayette.
When White’s hip tightened up on him last week, Josh Norman replaced him with the first team and shined with a pass breakup and a one-handed interception he made while falling to the ground.
You’ll have to excuse Rivera for failing to muster much enthusiasm for Norman’s day. Norman has a history of turning in All-Pro performances during OTAs and training camp before getting buried in the doghouse under a pile of blown coverages and missed assignments during the regular season.
“I am reluctant to be excited about that,” Rivera said of Norman’s latest practice exploits. “We need to be able to take that and transfer that on to the football field during a game situation when we’ve got the pads on. But he most certainly shows us that he does have that ability.”
After being banished to the bench following a coverage breakdown on a game-winning touchdown by Buffalo in Week 2, Norman had a limited role in the No-Name Secondary the rest of the season.
With more discipline in his duties, maybe Norman will carve out a place in a secondary that again has been reconstituted.
The fresh start already has given Harper, the Panthers’ nemesis while in New Orleans, a little extra juice.
“It’s really kind of rejuvenated me,” he said. “The fact I’m in a new place, I’ve got to show it all over again. And I’m excited about that. I haven’t had to do that in a while.”
That makes three of them.