Carolina Panthers

Panthers position analysis: Can reality match hype after offseason edge rusher moves?

Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison (97) consistently impressed in 2016 with his power and explosiveness, and finished the season as the team’s sack leader with 9 1/2 sacks.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison (97) consistently impressed in 2016 with his power and explosiveness, and finished the season as the team’s sack leader with 9 1/2 sacks. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

It took about half of the 2016 season for Carolina’s pass rush to shake themselves awake, but once they got some momentum (an eight-sack game against Arizona in Week 8), they hardly looked back.

The Panthers finished the year ranked second in the league in sacks with 47, and won’t lose any key personnel in 2017. Impressive moves in free agency and the draft created an even more talented unit.

First, the team extended situational rusher Mario Addison and veteran Charles Johnson, and brought back promising pass rusher Wes Horton. In a move that rallied the fan base into a frenzy, Carolina brought back 16-year standout edge rusher Julius Peppers – who will likely be a Hall of Famer when his career ends. Peppers has racked up seven or more sacks per season in all but one of his 16 years in the league, including a combined 18 in his last two seasons in Green Bay.

Carolina also drafted project defensive end Daeshon Hall, who started opposite No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett at Texas A&M and has the length and speed to be formidable when he adds muscle.

Breakout candidate

Addison consistently impressed in 2016 with his power and explosiveness, and finished the season as the team’s sack leader with 9 1/2 sacks. He also forced two fumbles.

While Addison was mostly used as a situational rusher in the past, he showed up to organized team activities and minicamp this spring looking broader and faster, and could be poised to become the team’s next staple as an every-down rusher. His “breakout” status could very well mean as a player in this role – something he alluded to in the spring after signing his contract.

Using Addison as such would allow much more rotational flexibility in regards to Johnson and Peppers, to better preserve their bodies through a 16-plus-game season.

To be decided in camp ...

Peppers
In a move that rallied the fan base into a frenzy, the Panthers brought back 16-year standout edge rusher Julius Peppers, left, who will likely be a Hall of Famer when his career ends. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

For both Johnson and Peppers, efficiency will be the name of the game. Neither is a young player (and Johnson is still rehabbing from a spring microdiscectomy), so the manner in which the Panthers rotate them in and out of the game in key situations will be a focus in training camp this August. As earlier predicted by the Observer, we may also see Peppers line up on the inside next to defensive tackle Kawann Short, also a gifted pass-rusher, with two additional rushers on the outside in some third down situations for maximum quarterback pressure.

Ryan Delaire continues to rehab a knee injury suffered last season, and this season could be his last shot to prove he can still make an impact.

Underdog to watch

Horton finished the year on a hot streak with two of his 2 1/2 sacks in 2016 coming in the final three games of the season. This is a big year for Horton, who has to prove he can be reliable as a physical rusher – perhaps situationally, as Addison may be expected to move into an every-down role. Him not doing so would give Hall the opportunity to overshadow Horton.

Also keep an eye on ...

Hall had a quiet spring for the most part, but near the end of minicamp in June he looked like he was starting to build confidence and even hassled starting left tackle Matt Kalil a bit. His development will be intriguing considering his substantial physical gifts.

Three bold predictions

▪  The Panthers will match their eight-sack season high of 2016 in the first week of the 2017 season, against a tissue-paper San Francisco offensive line.

▪  Addison will once again lead the team in sacks in 2017.

▪  Things will get heated at training camp once this group of defensive ends has a chance to go full contact against the Panthers line to try to get to chatty quarterback Cam Newton. Newton can’t actually be hit, of course – but this group of pass-rushers will want to put on a show.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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