Like Kansas in college basketball and Alabama in the college football rankings, it’s become a given to expect the Panthers to finish in the top 10 each year in the NFL’s defensive statistics.
Carolina’s Sean McDermott is the only coordinator to oversee a top-10 defense in each of the past four seasons, and at least one Panthers player at training camp mentioned finishing as the No. 1 defense in 2016.
McDermott said that has not been discussed in the defensive meeting room because, well, who wouldn’t have the league’s top D?
“It’s like a goal of winning the Super Bowl. You don’t set a goal of coming in second,” McDermott told the Observer last week outside Bank of America Stadium.
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He started talking about the process – he uses that word a lot – of making the defense the best it can be. Then he stopped and added this caveat:
“It’s about the team. It’s nice to have goals on one side of the ball or the other. That’s good. That’s a step in the right direction. But big picture, it’s about the team.”
As the Panthers begin defense of their NFC title and try to make another Super Bowl run, the preseason spotlight has fallen mostly on reigning league MVP Cam Newton (naturally), the return of No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (and his conditioning) and the team’s fifth-time’s-a-charm search for a punter (of all things).
It’s the Panthers’ defense, however, that figures to play the biggest role in determining whether Carolina is in Houston in early February for Super Bowl 51, specifically the play of the two rookie starters at cornerback.
While the offense returns virtually intact – Carolina lost the smallest percentage (6.39) of offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus – general manager Dave Gettleman decided to reboot the secondary again.
Cornerback Charles Tillman, 35, retired after blowing out his knee near the end of last season, and Gettleman let strong safety Roman Harper leave via free agency (he returned to the Saints).
Gettleman’s big gamble, though, was pulling the franchise tag from Pro Bowl corner Josh Norman after the two sides could not come anywhere near an agreement on a contract extension.
Washington gave Norman a five-year, $75 million contract to make him one of the league’s top-paid corners, and a week later the Panthers drafted corners James Bradberry (second round out of Samford), Daryl Worley (third, West Virginia) and Zack Sanchez (fifth, Oklahoma) to expedite the rebuilding process in the back end.
The secondary departures represented the bulk of the 32.3 percent of the defensive snaps the Panthers lost from their Super Bowl team, the 25th-highest turnover rate in the league, according to PFF.
McDermott inserted Bradberry and Worley into the starting lineup from the earliest days in Spartanburg, but Sanchez was a surprising cut Saturday when the Panthers trimmed their roster to 53 players.
Welcome to the NFL, rookies. Good luck covering Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders in Week 1 in Denver.
Up to the task
Kurt Coleman, who moved from free to strong safety to replace Harper, thinks Bradberry and Worley are up to the task.
“They’re resilient. They’re learning. And I think the great thing about them is they have the ‘it,’” Coleman said. “Not everyone is given that ‘it’ factor. They have it. And now when the mental game comes full round, they’re going to be scary – all of them.”
Since coach Ron Rivera and McDermott arrived in 2011, the secondary has been viewed as something of an afterthought – a perception reinforced when Gettleman arrived two years later and professed his affinity for “hog mollies.”
Gettleman did nothing to change that reputation when he cut ties with Norman. The 2012 fifth-round pick was coming off a season in which he had a career-high four interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns) in 2015, and finished with the lowest passer rating against in the NFL on balls thrown his way.
Gettleman has not invested big in defensive backs, at least until this year’s draft. Given the youth movement, PFF ranked Carolina’s secondary last in its preseason ratings. The reigning Super Bowl-champion Broncos have the top-rated group, and Washington is No. 3.
“We don’t look at our secondary the way everyone else looks at our secondary. We have all the trust in the world in our secondary,” defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said.
“We have Kurt, guys like (free safety) Tre (Boston), that have been there. There’s no doubt we have young guys, of course. We have rookies, but we have all the confidence in them. They’re out there making plays.”
Rush to judgment
The other part of Gettleman’s gamble is counting on a consistent pass rush from the front four so the young guys in the secondary won’t have to cover as long.
The Panthers are hoping defensive end Kony Ealy shows his breakout performance (three sacks, one interception) in Super Bowl 50 was a sign of things to come. They’re also looking for a bounce-back year from edge-rusher Charles Johnson, who had one sack in nine games during an injury-plagued 2015.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short leads a deep interior rotation, but some of the young ends the Panthers were expecting to step up have been either ineffective or hurt.
McDermott agreed that generating pressure up front would be critical.
“That’s an important part of it and we’ll see,” he said. “I feel confident in the guys that we have.”
Bridging the front four and the secondary is arguably the league’s best linebacker corps. With Pro Bowlers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis back, and Shaq Thompson looking like he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in his second season, PFF ranked Carolina’s front seven third in the league – behind Denver and Seattle.
Like McDermott, however, Kuechly said rankings aren’t important to members of the Panthers’ defense. They know they’re good, and expect this year to be no different – even without Norman.
“Guys always want to go out there and be the best,” Kuechly said. “That’s something that we always talk about. I think if you have any other goal, you’re thinking the wrong thing.”