A position-by-position look at a potentially imposing Carolina Panthers’ defense.
Defensive line: Trending Up
Carolina had two massive off-season additions on the defensive line, although in different ways.
The first: Julius Peppers, the NFL’s active sacks leader and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, elected to return for his 18th season. Peppers had 11 sacks last year as a situational pass-rusher, and while he was recovering from off-season shoulder surgery most of the summer, he’s healthy now and fresh for the start of the season.
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The second huge addition — this one more literally — was former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who replaces the departed Star Lotulelei. Poe is listed at 6-foot-3 and 346 pounds but moves nimbly for someone his size. Couple that agility with his strength, and you have a nightmare for interior offensive linemen.
Those two pair with defensive end Mario Addison, coming off a career year of his own, and defensive tackle Kawann Short to form an aggressive, penetrating defensive front. Add in Wes Horton as a rotational edge player with Peppers, plus the depth of Kyle Love and Vernon Butler at tackle, and Carolina’s defensive line should set an imposing tone.
Linebackers: Trending Up
Luke Kuechly is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, both in terms of run-stopping and defending the pass. His intelligence on the field consistently puts Carolina into the best possible defensive alignment.
But for at least the first four games, Kuechly will have an additional challenge: playing without Thomas Davis, another stalwart at linebacker. Davis’ four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy means Shaq Thompson, who has stood out this offseason as a potential breakout player, will get a chance to fully display his talents.
If he doesn’t, Davis’ suspension is only four games long. But in the more likely case that he does, Carolina’s linebacking corps will be one of the league’s best once Davis returns.
Rookie Jermaine Carter Jr. has impressed in limited time as a backup, and the team’s veterans have praised his work ethic and energy all offseason. David Mayo also provides solid depth in case Kuechly misses time with injuries, as has happened the past three seasons. Barring any injuries, this unit figures to be not only one of Carolina’s strongest overall but potentially one of the best in the NFL.
Secondary: Trending Down
Aside from the offensive line, secondary has to be the position of greatest concern for Carolina. While incumbents Mike Adams and James Bradberry have long been penciled in as starters at free safety and No. 1 corner, respectively, neither is without flaws.
At 37, Adams’ play hasn’t slipped much, but he’ll need to be more of a vocal leader this year. Bradberry has displayed great promise but not consistency. He has the potential to develop into a bona fide No. 1 corner, but it will be up to new defensive coordinator Eric Washington to put him in comfortable zone coverages where he can flourish.
Donte Jackson, a speedy second-round pick out of LSU, all but has the No. 2 cornerback spot locked up, but there will undoubtedly be rookie growing pains as his season progresses. Then there’s off-season acquisition Da’Norris Searcy, who has missed time in the concussion protocol.
Captain Munnerlyn has impressed in the slot so far, and despite his struggles this preseason, Kevon Seymour has starting cornerback experience. Colin Jones and rookie Rashaan Gaulden will be key for safety depth and in case of injury, but overall, there are just too many question marks and what-ifs to feel confident in this secondary … for now.