Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said on Jan. 3 that the staff would spend two weeks analyzing the team, looking to avoid hasty, emotional decisions. The Observer has done the same, position by position. The final installment: Defensive backs.
Three things to know
▪ Welcoming Wilks: Ron Rivera’s decision to elevate secondary coach Steve Wilks to defensive coordinator should be well received in the locker room. Wilks is respected by players and has done a good job developing young players, from Josh Norman to the current cornerback tandem of James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. Wilks expects to hire a new secondary coach in the next couple of days.
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▪ Tackling dummies: In the Panthers’ zone coverage scheme, it’s imperative that the corners tackle well to keep receivers in front of them. Worley was particularly solid in that area. That was not the case for some of the backups, however. According to Pro Football Focus, nickel back Leonard Johnson missed 11 tackles in 10 games, and safety Michael Griffin had five missed tackles – all against Seattle. Johnson and Griffin are both free agents.
▪ Thieves Ave, Part Deux: The Panthers weren’t the takeaway artists they were in 2015 when they led the league with 24 interceptions. But after a slow start, defensive backs started making more plays on the ball. Carolina wound up tied for fourth with 17 picks, one behind league leaders Baltimore, Kansas City and San Diego. Safety Kurt Coleman again led the way with four interceptions, including one he returned for a TD.
On the roster
▪ Tre Boston: The former UNC safety has yet to really take off as he enters his fourth season. Boston has been plagued by inconsistency and drew McDermott’s ire by pulling up on a tackle that resulted in a TD run by Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman in Week 16.
▪ Kurt Coleman: The Panthers signed Coleman to a three-year extension last season. He rewarded the front office’s confidence by leading the team in tackles for the second year in a row. Coleman can play either safety spot, giving Gettleman flexibility in the likely event he looks to add another safety in the draft or free agency.
▪ James Bradberry/Daryl Worley: The young corners figure to be linked as long as they remain starters. Based on the way they finished their rookie seasons, the Panthers hope that lasts a while.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Eric Berry: There’s almost no chance the Chiefs let their Pro Bowl safety and emotional leader hit the market a year after tagging him. But given the money the Panthers have to spend and the fact that Berry and Cam Newton have an Atlanta connection, Dave Gettleman should at least kick the tires on one of the league’s best players.
▪ Captain Munnerlyn: The Panthers need a nickel back to complement outside corners Bradberry and Worley. There aren’t many nickels better than Munnerlyn, who played five seasons in Carolina before leaving in free agency. Unlike some players cut loose by Gettleman, Munnerlyn did not burn any bridges when he left.
▪ Malik Hooker: The Ohio State standout is an elite playmaker. The 6-2, 205-pounder had seven interceptions, including three he took back for TDs. Scouts are impressed with Hooker’s coverage skills, but also believe he has the strength to play in the box. Could the Panthers employ an all-Buckeyes safety tandem with Coleman and Hooker?
▪ Jamal Adams: Adams might not have the hype Tyrann Mathieu did leaving LSU, but the 6-1, 211-pounder is considered a first-round prospect as a strong safety. Adams, the son of former Giants first-round pick George Adams, is strong near the line of scrimmage, with at least 66 tackles each of the past three seasons. But he’s also instinctive in coverage. If there’s a negative, it’s his relatively small frame.
▪ Adoree’ Jackson: The Southern Cal cornerback has not yet declared for the draft. Assuming he does, there might not be a more dynamic player available. Jackson had five interceptions, returned two kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns, and scored on offense. Gettleman has shown he likes versatile defenders in the draft.
The bottom line
After turning over their cornerback position last offseason, look for the Panthers to try to upgrade at safety this year. They could do the same at nickel, with Leonard Johnson a free agent. But Bradberry, Worley and Coleman give the Panthers a solid foundation in the back end. And Boston might benefit from competition.