Scott Fowler

Scott Fowler: Could Antoine Cason help Carolina Panthers become NFL’s best defense?

The Carolina Panthers became the NFL’s No. 2 defense last season with a reliance on a sack-happy front four and an instinctive middle linebacker who was the league’s defensive player of the year.

This year?

“I think it could be No. 1,” said Antoine Cason, “and I bring the mindset to get that done.”

That brings up another question: Who the heck is Antoine Cason?

If you have come to the Panthers’ training camp in Spartanburg this week, you have a pretty good idea. Cason seems to intercept Panthers quarterback Cam Newton about once a practice. Fans keep glancing down at their rosters to check the identity of No. 20.

On a defense that returns mostly intact – especially in the front seven – Cason is one of the few exceptions. But the seven-year veteran has looked like a starter at cornerback this week, probably alongside Melvin White.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera coached Cason for three years in San Diego, where the Chargers were the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense in 2010 with Cason as a starter and Rivera as the defensive coordinator. Steve Wilks was also the secondary coach with that Chargers team and now has that responsibility with the Panthers, too.

Because of Rivera and Wilks, Cason, 28, is so familiar with the defensive system the Panthers run that he doesn’t act at all like a newbie.

Said Rivera of Cason: “Steve and I are very familiar with his abilities and what he does. A lot of things that we do are the things we did when we were in San Diego. So learning the techniques, understanding what we do, is an easy transition for him and it shows. He’s, in all honesty, ahead of a lot of the other guys just because he’s been in this system and understands it.”

By NFL standards, Cason came cheaply to the Panthers. In March, he signed a one-year deal with the Panthers worth $730,000, the minimum for a veteran with his experience. He was available for that number because Cason had a bad year in 2013 – his first in Arizona after spending five previous seasons in San Diego.

After starting in San Diego from 2010-12, he never could crack the starting lineup in Arizona.

“It was tough, but I took it as a learning experience,” said Cason, who was the Chargers’ first-round draft pick in 2008. “I didn’t get down on myself.”

There was a perception in Arizona that Cason had lost a step. That perception wasn’t hurt by the fact that Cason picked up a fumble and ran 43 yards toward a likely touchdown in Arizona’s 22-6 win over Carolina last October – only to be chased down by Cam Newton.

“I don’t remember that,” Cason said, smiling, on Thursday.

Cason has looked fast enough so far in training camp, however. He is not a No. 1 NFL cornerback nor is he a speedster, and because of that you have to expect the Panthers will give him safety help over the top as they regularly do for their corners in their standard zone defense.

But Cason is a “technician,” Rivera said, and a “real, real smart player,” fellow cornerback Melvin White said.

With a one-year contract, Cason is also a rental. The Panthers did the same thing with safety Mike Mitchell last season, and he played so well that he earned himself a lot more money with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Panthers have spent so much money on their front seven – particularly the defensive end tandem of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy – that general manager Dave Gettleman has to find some bargains elsewhere and hope they work out.

It’s very early, but Cason looks like he could be one of those bargains.