Assessing the Carolina Panthers’ status and needs, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Next up: Defensive line
Three things to know
▪ Reviving the rush
The Panthers have long been known for having a stout defensive front with a formidable pass-rush. But in 2018, those qualities were at times lacking from a group that never quite seemed to be totally cohesive. The Panthers did finish No. 12 in the NFL in rushing defense, but two rushers had over 100 yards in a single game against the Panthers: Falcons running backs Tevin Coleman (Week 2) and Brian Hill (Week 16). Coleman’s performance broke a 21-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard single-game rusher.
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The pass-rush was also inconsistent and did not complement the secondary well (and vice versa). Carolina finished No. 27 in the league in sacks with just 35, and struggled to consistently disrupt off the edge and vertically.
A prolific edge-rusher is absolutely a top priority for the Panthers this spring, either acquired in free agency or the NFL draft.
▪ Are changes coming?
The Panthers technically play out of a 4-3 “base”, but to always qualify it as such can sometimes be a little too traditionalist because they already use so many different looks, including continued reliance on their nickel package and some looks stemming from 3-4 alignments.
It has seemed a foregone conclusion, with the Panthers returning versatile personnel like linebackers Shaq Thompson and Luke Kuechly, defensive tackle Kawann Short and defensive end Mario Addison, that Carolina will continue to want to be as multiple as it can — and that means fluidity in terms of alignment, personnel and coverages.
And any changes Carolina makes to maximize that doesn’t minimize the need for a young edge-rusher.
▪ End of an era?
Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers turned 39 last week, and this year finished his 18th NFL season, tallying his 159.5th sack in the process. Could this have been it for Peppers? He has not made any official announcement of retirement, but head coach Ron Rivera indicated after the Panthers’ season finale against New Orleans that the 2018 season would be Peppers’ last.
On the roster
▪ Kawann Short, Dontari Poe: What will a second year of playing together bring for this tandem in 2019? Starting defensive tackles Short and Poe seemed to underwhelm statistically, though coaches maintained throughout the year that both were fulfilling their responsibilities. Short’s absence from the sacks statline was conspicuous after consistent production in previous years: He had just three in 2018, his lowest since his rookie season in 2013. Carolina absolutely wants to maximize Short’s ability, and doing so might mean shifting to more three-man fronts when he is in the game.
▪ Kyle Love, Vernon Butler: While veteran defensive tackle Love had one of the best seasons of his career, Butler, a former first-round pick, was benched for two games as the Panthers tried different combinations to ressurect their pass-rush. He did show a few positive flashes in the final three games of the season, with a half-sack and three tackles. Love is a free agent in 2019 and has solidified himself as a quality rotational defensive linemen capable of making explosive plays — he forced three fumbles and recovered two.
▪ Mario Addison, Wes Horton, Julius Peppers
The Panthers experimented a little with Horton, moving him to the interior in some sets starting in Week 13 after their traditional front wasn’t generating much pressure.
▪ Also: Efe Obada, Marquis Haynes and Bryan Cox Jr. all got some opportunities as the Panthers tried to breathe some life into their pass-rush throughout the year. Obada was a big spark for Carolina against Cincinnati in his first-ever NFL start with a sack, a quarterback hit and an interception. While coaches like his development so far, Obada must continue to improve to be in a more featured role. Haynes was active in just four games for Carolina in his rookie season, with his best game in Week 12 against Seattle in a defensive end/outside linebacker role. Cox Jr. saw action in 11 games.
Free agent possibilities
▪ Love: The Panthers know what type of player they have in Love: A big-bodied defensive lineman who can eat space if needed, but who can also make explosive plays. Love had an excellent season in 2018 and could continue to be a valuable mentor to young players — especially in light of Carolina’s need to draft a pass-rusher.
▪ Jadaveon Clowney, Houston Texans: Wouldn’t it be a great story if Clowney, a South Carolina native and former star defensive end for the Gamecocks, returned home? Clowney is the type of defensive end who can also cover like a linebacker if needed — he’s a perfect addition for a scheme that is “multiple”, meaning it throws out tons of different looks, fronts and coverages, and shuffles around its pass-rushers. Clowney’s career started slow, but in the last two years he’s racked up 19.5 sacks. A deal with Clowney would not likely be cheap for the Panthers.
▪ Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, Detroit Lions: Again, a key word here is “versatility.” The Panthers clearly champion that in every defensive lineman who isn’t a nose tackle. Ansah was moved around a lot during training camp prior to the 2018 season, according to MLive, because of his ability to play off the edge, inside and even in coverage. Ansah has battled multiple injuries and played in just seven games last season. He also played on the Lions’ franchise tag in 2018.
▪ Jachai Polite, DE, Florida: Polite is 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, and even projected by some to be a 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. He’s flexible and exptremely fast.
▪ Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: The Panthers may not be able to draft Ferrell with the No. 16 pick this spring — because he could go a lot sooner than that. Ferrell is 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, and dominant in both defending the run and rushing the passer.
▪ Zach Allen, DE, Boston College: No, this isn’t just because the Panthers already have a former Boston College star on the roster — Allen could be a target for Carolina once they begin putting their draft board together. Allen won’t go in the first round and could use some development, but his explosive energy and 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame give a lot to work with.
The bottom line
The Panthers need to infuse youth and speed in both free agency or the draft, and will continue to value versatile players on the defensive line.
Because this is a deep draft class at the position, Carolina could very well draft multiple defensive linemen, with at least one of these selections being an edge-rusher who can start immediately.
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue