Defensive coordinator Eric Washington’s work with the Carolina Panthers defensive line the past seven seasons helped earn him a promotion, even if his group was overlooked somewhat by NFL.com.
Washington, who took over the defense in January after Steve Wilks became Arizona’s head coach, oversaw a front four last season that included a pair of players with double-digit sacks in Julius Peppers and Mario Addison. (Jacksonville and the Chargers were the only other teams with two players with 10 or more sacks.)
But an NFL.com writer was unmoved by the Panthers’ accomplishments, leaving them off a list of the league’s top eight defensive lines. The Panthers’ secondary has long thrived on such slights — real or imagined. Given Addison’s comments to reporters and on social media, at least one member of the Panthers’ front four plans to play the disrespect card.
But the group’s success will depend on Peppers’ health, the play of Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kawann Short and Dontari Poe and the development of a couple of young edge rushers under new defensive line coach Brady Hoke, the former Michigan head coach.
Short has one Pro Bowl nod (but only one) and 24.5 sacks over the past three seasons, so it’s kind of hard to view him in the breakout light. And yet … Short should see fewer double-team blocks with the arrival of Poe, the 6-3, 346-pounder who will do more than take up space. Expect lots of penetration from both starting DTs.
To be decided in camp ...
Addison, Peppers and Wes Horton look to have three of the defensive end spots on lock, leaving several first- or second-year players fighting to make the rotation. The competition will involve fourth-rounder Marquis Haynes, Bryan Cox Jr. and Daeshon Hall, a third-round pick in 2017 who missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury.
Underdog to watch
Haynes, a former Mississippi standout, has a lean frame (6-2, 235) that will make it difficult for him to set the edge against the run. But like Addison, Haynes has tremendous speed and burst and could make an immediate impact in subpackages and on special teams. The sense here is that Haynes will win the position battle mentioned above.
Also keep an eye on ...
No one was happier when Peppers decided to return for a 17th season than Washington, who saw the impact the future Hall of Famer had on the entire defensive line group last year. A rejuvenated Peppers had his highest sack total in five years in 2017, despite playing most of the season with a labrum injury that required surgery. Peppers, 38, gets what likely will be one last crack at a Super Bowl ring.
Three bold predictions
▪ Peppers won’t finish with double-digit sacks again. But he’ll collect seven and pass Kevin Greene for third place on the NFL’s all-time sacks list.
▪ Poe, who threw for a touchdown and caught a TD with Kansas City in 2016, will catch a TD pass from Cam Newton in his first season with the Panthers.
▪ Short will earn the second Pro Bowl selection of his career and extend his consecutive games streak to 96.