Heavy Drafting at Other Positions Leaves Panthers Thin at Linebacker

With Nail Diggs injured and questionable to play, it's possible the Panthers could start a trio of Job Beason, James Anderson and Dan Connor at linebacker Sunday against the Jets. That would be one regular starter -- Beason in the middle -- and two players who have made a combined two starts on the outside when the Panthers face the NFL's No. 2 rushing offense.

Carolina is in this predicament in large part because of injuries to Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson, who are both out for the season. But the Panthers could also blame a history of not building depth at linebacker.

The club's strategy in eight years under general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox has been to build through the draft, re-sign its own players and patch holes through free agency. But while the Panthers have used numerous high- and mid-round picks on defensive backs, and have used two first-round picks on linebackers, they have neglected to build good linebacker depth.

First-year defensive coordinator Ron Meeks employs a scheme that asks linebackers to be playmakers. It's no surprise then that Carolina has been run over since Davis suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Saints Nov. 8. Carolina has given up 330 yards on 60 carries (5.5 yards per carry) in two full games without Davis. Johnson stepped in but was then injured for the season himself in a loss to Miami Nov. 19.

Two injuries to the same position is unlucky, but it happens all the time in the NFL. As the adage goes, injuries are not an excuse -- they are part of the NFL game. The best teams are prepared with genuine depth. Connor and Anderson could prove me wrong, but it appears the Panthers were not well-prepared for this rash of linebacker injuries. Here's how:

In the eight drafts under Hurney and Fox dating to 2002, the Panthers have selected 65 players -- 30 on defense. Carolina drafted 12 defensive backs, 10 defensive linemen and eight linebackers. That dispersal actually makes sense because Carolina runs a 4-3 defense, meaning the Panthers on most plays use four linemen, four defensive backs and only three linebackers.

Hurney and Fox deserve credit for rebuilding a defense on the fly. The Panthers have only one defensive starter remaining from the 2003 Super Bowl team (defensive end Julius Peppers) and just two from the 2005 team that reached the NFC Championship game (Peppers and corner Chris Gamble). Six of the 11 projected starters on the first day of training camp this season were Panthers draftees who had six or less years of experience.

The problem is that Carolina has missed on many of its linebacker picks, scrambled to replace a good player who left in free agency and watched a standout retire unexpectedly at age 28. In addition, since 2002 the Panthers have used only five picks in the first four rounds on linebackers -- compared to eight on defensive backs.

Starting in 2002, the Panthers have drafted the following linebackers: Will Witherspoon (Third round, 2002), Sean Tufts (Sixth, 2004), Davis (First, 2005), Adam Seward (Fifth, 2005), Anderson (Third, 2006), Beason (First, 2007), Tim Shaw (Fifth, 2007) and Connor (Third, 2008).

That's two first-round picks, three third-rounders, two fifth-rounders and one sixth-rounder. Only four of those players are still on the team: Beason, Davis, Anderson and Connor.

Tufts has been out of the NFL since 2006, Seward played in 40 games -- starting two -- for the Panthers between 2005-2008. He played briefly for Jacksonville this season but the Jaguars cut him Tuesday. Shaw played in 14 games for Carolina in 2007, spent last season with the Jaguars and has played in nine games as a backup for the Bears this year.

Witherspoon started 47 of 48 regular season games between 2003-2005 for Carolina, but signed a big free-agent deal with the Rams in 2006. He was recently traded to Philadelphia and now starts for the Eagles. He has missed only two games to injury in his eight-year career.

Dan Morgan, a 2001 first-round pick, retired in 2007 after sustaining multiple concussions. He was 28.

The Panthers hit on Davis and Beason, but have not drafted enough linebackers in rounds two-four to complement  them. You can't expect every mid- and late-round pick to work out, so it's hard to blame them for Shaw, Seward and Tufts. But you can blame management for relying too much on free agency and not enough on the draft to acquire good linebacker depth.

Look at the other linebackers on the roster now: Connor, Anderson, Diggs, Johnson, Kelvin Smith and Jordan Senn. We know how they acquired Connor and Anderson.

Diggs is a 10-year veteran whom the Packers decided they no longer wanted after the 2005 season. He is a 31-year-old former fourth-round draft pick. Johnson is only 28 and a former third-round pick of Cincinnati, but he has been a backup since signing a three-year, $10 million deal with Carolina last year. Senn was picked up by the Colts after not being drafted last year. He played in two games this season before the Colts cut him in October; the Panthers signed him Tuesday. Smith played in four games after Miami drafted him in the seventh round in 2007. He was cut after last season, before the Panthers signed him in August.

This is what the Panthers are left with at a key position. Even if Davis returns next season, they will not have much quality depth (based on what we have seen so far). They have plenty of depth, meanwhile, at defensive back. That is one reason why Carolina is No. 4 in the NFL in pass defense but only No. 26 against the run.

This column is not meant as an indictment of Carolina's front office. The Panthers have largely stuck to their strategy of building through the draft and have had above average success since 2002. But one mistake, failing to draft enough skilled linebackers, could haunt the team Sunday and perhaps the rest of the season. 

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