As the 2019 NFL draft approaches, defensive end seems to be among the top positions the Carolina Panthers are considering with the No. 16 pick.
But which player could best revive a pass rush that went stale last season? NBC Sports/Rotoworld draft analyst Josh Norris talked to the Observer about this year’s defensive line class, which players fit best in Carolina, and the key areas of improvement needed along the defensive line that shouldn’t be forgotten in the “rush” to pick a great defensive end:
Question: If the Panthers could pick anywhere in the first round, does the perfect pass-rusher for them exist in this class? More importantly, does he exist at No. 16?
Norris: Yes and maybe. In an ideal world one of these names is still on the board at No. 16: (Ohio State’s) Nick Bosa, (Alabama’s) Quinnen Williams, (Houston’s) Ed Oliver, (Kentucky’s) Josh Allen, (Mississippi State’s) Montez Sweat, (Michigan’s) Rashan Gary, (Notre Dame’s) Jerry Tillery and (Florida State’s) Brian Burns. Most of those names are unrealistic. Burns and Tillery are the most likely to still be on the board, and both would be exceptional selections.
Question: What aspect of the Panthers’ quarterback pressure (or lack thereof) did you see suffer the most in 2018?
Norris: Every aspect. For years the Panthers were a team that could rely on their front four to win in passing situations, which gave a significant edge to the defense. That is a winning formula for most successful teams. That wasn’t the case in 2018. (Defensive tackle Kawann) Short was not as impactful on the interior next to new running mate Dontari Poe. In fact, (defensive tackle) Kyle Love totaled nearly as many pass rush snaps as Poe. And on the outside, the team had two players on the wrong side of 30 and lacked a third rusher that could come in and impact as a reliever. That forced the team to get creative and attempt to manufacture pressure, which then takes extra bodies, creativity and breaking from a base identity.
Question: What players in this draft class could most provide a fix for Carolina?
Norris: Unfortunately, every team can use the type of player the Panthers need. Pressure can come from the interior and outside, so fans shouldn’t be averse to taking a defensive tackle. There are a few easy evaluations at both positions: Bosa, Williams, Allen and Oliver. Some questions must be answered after that. The next group of Burns, Sweat and Gary are superior athletes but lack consistency and largely a pass-rush plan. Perhaps this is simplifying football too much, but the offensive line/defensive line is often one of the few true one-on-one matchups on a football field. Therefore, wouldn’t it be an instant advantage to be a (far) superior athlete? Burns, Sweat and Gary fit that label. Hopefully the trio develop with NFL coaching, but at the very least they each offer one “fastball” move that will result in production: Two-step explosion.
One interior name to keep in mind is Tillery. He offers the potential to win every one-on-one rep, and interior defensive linemen who display flexibility — limiting wasted movement — make my heart flutter.
Question: We hear a lot about how deep this defensive line class is. Who are some mid-to-late round prospects that stick out to you, specifically with the tools needed in Carolina?
Norris: Ultimately, I’m not sure if the EDGE group is as deep as once thought. The easy evaluations get pushed to the top. One name to watch for is Ben Banogu out of TCU. Yes, I’m biased towards athletes on the EDGE, but if I’m taking a shot on a pass rusher in round four or later as a developmental prospect, he better be athletic.
The interior is more appealing. UCF’s Trysten Hill combines athleticism with a super high motor. You often see him chase plays down that his peers along the defensive line give up on. Arizona State’s Renell Wren was forced to play nose too often, even if he played well. In the NFL he might blow up two or three plays per game after shooting gaps and lanes that can’t be blocked quickly enough. His first step is among the best in this class.
Question: Carolina won’t shift fully to a 3-4 (defense) but will incorporate more 3-man fronts in 2019. Adding that variable, what prospects would be a good fit in the first or second rounds?
Norris: First, let me dive into the change in fronts. It’s all due to the team wanting to be more multiple. As I previously mentioned, the team lacks players who you can count on to win one-on-one matchups. To be fair, those types are difficult to find. So rather than trotting out four down linemen over and over, instead incorporate a multiple front in the hopes of manufacturing pressure. Attacking different alignments, overloading one side, change up rush lanes, keep offensive linemen guessing, etc. It could potentially look like the Patriots defense in the 2018-19 playoffs and Super Bowl. That also relies on coaches to scheme up disruption, so it makes sense why (head coach) Ron Rivera would want to carry that pressure (by calling defensive plays in 2019).
I mentioned the first-round possibilities earlier. In the second round, Christian Miller from Alabama presents a lot of intrigue. Turn on the game against Ole Miss and you can see him in a three-point stance get upfield, get to quarterback depth, then quickly turn the corner straight to the quarterback. Then against Oklahoma, out of a multiple front, he stands up outside of the left tackle and wins in the same way. Then another play he drops into coverage or crashes inside.
Chase Winovich out of Michigan is tenacious. He’s not a typical speed-rush bender to the outside. Instead his go-to move is to attack (his opponent’s) chest, shed inside or out and chase the quarterback. Roughly half of the sacks in the NFL are recorded through extended effort. Winovich will make all of them (OK, that’s hyperbole. But you get my point).
Question: Is there an overarching theme of the pass-rushers in this year’s draft?
Norris: If you want an easy evaluation at the position, you need to take one early. After that, you are banking on coaching developing athletes in order to turn one into a dynamic, one on one winner.