If you’re a Carolina Panthers fan, you haven’t heard much out of training camp about first-round pick Brian Burns. That’s a good thing.
It means Burns, the pass-rusher out of Florida State, hasn’t made obvious mistakes. When coach Ron Rivera is asked about Burns, he says the rookie has been as good as any of the hybrid defensive ends/outside linebackers this new defensive scheme requires. There is a “He’s got this” tone to how Rivera describes Burns that fans should find comforting.
That so far-so good dynamic will be tested Thursday night when the Panthers play their first preseason game in Chicago against the Bears. Burns won’t start, but he should see plenty of action.
How he performs tops a handful of pressing questions — from the play of the backup quarterbacks to the effectiveness of the new multiple defensive schemes — as the Panthers line up against another team:
Is Burns all that?
The Panthers were undeniably bad at rushing the passer last season. They finished 27th among 32 teams in sacks with 35, 17 behind the league-leading Kansas City Chiefs.
The Panthers viewed Burns as having the best first step among pass rushers in the 2019 draft class. He has a basketball player-type of body, longer than a typical defensive lineman, and that is a distinct advantage.
“That length adds a little something that you can’t really teach,” Rivera said early in training camp, adding that Burns had beaten every Panthers offensive tackle off the snap a few days into camp.
Burns seems to have a healthy level of confidence for a rookie, without being presumptuous. For instance, he says it’s been a long time since he hasn’t been double-teamed with blockers, and that he likes his chances in any one-on-one situation — even in the NFL.
Rivera expects that as Burns becomes more of a known quantity, he’ll draw extra blockers — a tight end or a running back shaded his way — and that will aid his teammates. How much Burns shows in the preseason will impact that.
Rivera called his defense “stagnant” for how predictable the Panthers’ scheme was last season; that enough opposing coaches had either worked for the Panthers or matched up with them long enough that change was essential.
So the Panthers are transitioning from primarily a 4-3 defensive front to multiple schemes. Based on training camp practices, the 3-4 won’t just be a change-up, it will be a huge part of the defense. It was interesting that the Panthers’ first unofficial depth chart presumed a 3-4 personnel grouping.
Defensive end Mario Addison, undergoing a big change as a part-time linebacker, says he finds the change reinvigorating.
All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly (who will be held out of Thursday’s game) says playing in a 3-4, versus a 4-3, doesn’t radically change his job. But he adds that the 3-4 provides additional opportunities for disguising of what the defense is doing.
Kuechly said the Panthers’ offensive players have seen the changes since spring. That familiarity has allowed them to “cheat” a bit as far as anticipating what it faces. So playing the Bears on Thursday, and the Buffalo Bills in dual-team practices before another preseason game, is an important next test.
Cam Newton will not play Thursday, but that doesn’t extract the drama from the quarterback situation. The competition for backup is tight this preseason and far from trivial.
The Panthers used a third-round pick on Will Grier, the former Davidson Day star who played at Florida and West Virginia. That was the first quarterback drafted by the Panthers since they selected Newton No. 1 overall in 2011. However, Kyle Allen, who went unselected in the 2018 draft, is listed ahead of Grier on the depth chart. Allen will start versus the Bears, Rivera said Tuesday.
Allen started for an injured Newton in the final game of last season, and beat a New Orleans Saints team sitting starters before the playoffs. Allen said that start was big for his confidence, and Rivera concurs.
Based on practices so far, Grier has the more impressive downfield arm but has also made more inaccurate throws. As you’d expect from his prior season with the Panthers, Allen has a better grasp of the offense. When he does get in trouble, it’s gambling for a big gain when a check-down pass is the better read.
Allen’s and Grier’s performance this preseason isn’t just about who is QB 2, but whether there is a QB 3 on the roster. It’s hard to picture the Panthers not keeping Grier, based on the draft-pick investment. Will Allen give the the team sufficient reason to keep him, over a player at another position, regardless of whether he stays ahead of Grier?
Samuel and the guys
Curtis Samuel is “light years” ahead of where he was as a rookie wide receiver in understanding his position, Rivera said.
Samuel, who played both wide receiver and running back at Ohio State, has a rare combination of speed and quickness. Now that he’s healthy and picking up the nuances, he should be the Panthers’ best big-play threat on offense. That has shown repeatedly in this training camp. Will it hold up against other teams?
At 5 foot 11 and 195 pounds, Samuel is not big. But he’s so hard to stay with one-on-one. When safety Eric Reid made a coverage mistake at Fan Fest on Friday, Samuel all but blurred past cornerback James Bradberry for a huge reception.
Samuel arguably has had as good a camp as any Panther, but he’s far from the only play-making receiver. Between him, DJ Moore, tight ends Greg Olsen and Ian Thomas, and running back Christian McCaffrey, Newton has more high-quality targets than perhaps ever in his NFL career.
Will Samuel be the No. 1 receiver? It might not matter because the depth is such that there’s no reason for Newton to lock on any one option.
Nothing secondary about it
The defensive secondary has been rather newsy already this preseason. After trying anyone and everyone at free safety, the Panthers signed veteran Tre Boston to complement strong safety Eric Reid. The still-open question: Who will man the nickel corner position?
Javien Elliott, who played three previous seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has been the biggest surprise of training camp. In two practices Sunday and Monday, he had two interceptions, a fingertip pass-breakup and, according to Rivera, a role in disrupting numerous pass patterns.
Elliott has nickel experience with the Bucs. He was catching up initially on the wrinkles of Panthers’ pass coverage, and now looks comfortable.
If Elliott’s performance in camp carries over to the preseason games, he fills a significant hole at nickel, just as signing Boston potentially did at safety.