We are winding down our depth chart reviews focusing on now what I feel is an overlooked position battle for the Panthers. Though the Panthers starters are 100% set with SS Chris Harris and FS Charles Godfrey, the battle for the back-up spots at Safety are as wide open as any of the other position battles. The Panthers have a nice combination of experience and athleticism to choose from. Let's start with a brief review of the starters and then move to the predictions for the back-ups and even the Practice Squad (PS).
69 tackles, 2 FF, 3 PD, 1 INT in 2008. Harris made a quick impression with the Panthers in 2007 when he forced 8 fumbles in 15 games. After getting 2 more in the Panthers first two games of 2008 he never got another the rest of the season. Harris did play all 16 games but down the stretch he struggled as the defense struggled (he was dinged up too). Harris remains a leader in the secondary so I think his starting spot is very secure but I also look forward to renewed energy from Harris in 2009.
Charles Godfrey 5'11" 205 lbs; 2nd Season; 23 yrs - 100% Starter at Free Safety
59 tackles, 5 PD's, 1 INT in 2008. Though Godfrey looked like a rookie at times in 2008 overall he showed enough to be optimistic about his potential. I'm still concerned about his ability to get his hands on the ball but he is quick in run support and has the athleticism to play in this league. I for one will be looking for a big jump up in the ‘ball-hawk' department with a season under his belt and tutoring from the new coaching staff.
Nate Salley - 6'1" 216 4th Yr; 25 yrs - 75% chance of making the roster
The free safety position was Salley's to lose in the 2007 preseason and he did just that with an untimely leg injury. He returned last season, playing both safety positions in the preseason but saw little action during the regular season, posting only two tackles in two games (Chiefs, Saints). Salley is a good tackler but has yet to show a nose for the ball in coverage. His experience and knowledge would normally give him an advantage over the remaining players if not for the changes in the defensive coaching staff. Here's his career summary from Panthers.com
Played in all 16 regular season games and one postseason contest...Appeared primarily on special teams...Collected eight special teams tackles...Accounted for one tackle on defense.
Inactive for the first two games of the season before being placed on injured reserve with an injured right knee (9/19).
Overall if he plays well in the preseason Salley should be safe for one more year. On the flip side if he struggles or doesn't show improvement he might be vulnerable.
Quinton Teal 6'1" 187 Lbs; 3rd season - 60% chance of making roster
Though Teal was active and played in 13 games last season it was exclusively on special teams. Teal is the local kid from the small school who beat the odds as a UDFA to make the roster his first two seasons. Unless Harris gets banged up I don't expect Teal on the field much except for special teams. Here's his summary:
Played in 13 games and was inactive for three contests...Appeared primarily on special teams...Posted five special teams tackles...Inactive for the NFC Divisional Playoffs versus Arizona (1/10).
Played in 15 games with one start and was inactive for one contest with Carolina...Posted 11 tackles...Ranked third on the team with 13 special teams tackles...Only undrafted rookie free agent originally signed by the Panthers to make the 53-man roster...Vs. Houston (9/16): Appeared on special teams in his first NFL game and posted one tackle...Vs. Atlanta (11/11): Saw action as a reserve defensive back after starting free safety Deke Cooper left the game with a shoulder injury...Recorded first two career tackles...Vs. Dallas (12/22): Made first NFL start as Carolina opened the game with five defensive backs...Responded with a career-high seven tackles.
Played in 44 games with 37 starts at Coastal Carolina...Ranks as the Big South Conference's all-time leader with 17 interceptions...
Though he locked up a roster spot last season it is certainly no guarantee in '09 and he could be vulnerable. If he can show a grasp if the defense and gain the confidence of the new staff he should hold off the competitors who are all less experienced though I doubt he will challenge Harris for the starter spot.
Joe Fields 6'0" 201 Lbs; 2nd season; 23 yrs - 25% chance of making the roster; 85% chance of making practice squad
Fields spent his rookie season on the Panthers PS indicating they see something in the Syracuse product. If he can show progress he could very well challenge for a back-up spot at free safety or just maintain on the PS. A lot depends on how Salley plays in the preseason as well.
Scirrotto is a rookie UDFA who was very popular with the staff and fans at PSU. Here's his PSU bio:
The talented, instinctive and strong Scirrotto is an ironman, leading the squad for the second consecutive season in plays with 1,029 last year. A former South Jersey Player-of-the-Year, Scirrotto is a dedicated worker and will be counted on again to be a productive leader for the defense and special teams
Scirrotto looks to be vying for the strong safety position as he has few stats on INT's and passes defensed. He's a long shot for the roster but could show enough spark to make the practice squad.
Paul Chiara 5'11" 210 Lbs; Rookie UFDA; 23 yrs - 1% chance of making the roster; 20% chance of making the Practice Squad
Chiara posted 60 tackles with no INT's or PD's as a SS at Syracuse. Unless he just shocks management Chiara is a likely early cut as the Panthers have known, affordable players in front of him.
My overall assessment of the Panthers Safety position is that they have a very athletic group, they are more than willing to come up to support the run with good tackling and solid hitting but... they come up short in the big play category. Maybe Ron Meeks will bring that piece of wisdom that allows the Panther safeties to begin to anticipate WR routes. I know it's only a matter of time until Harris knocks a ball loose as it wasn't that long ago he was averaging a FF every other game. At FS the Panthers seem set with Godfrey and have nice experience backing him in Salley.
Here's a not so crazy scenario, Godfrey moves to an outside CB spot and Sherrod Martin moves to FS. Godfrey has the speed, tackling and athleticism to cover all but the elite receivers already but has yet to show he can make plays on the ball. Martin showed an uncanny ability to make plays on the ball in college. Maybe that doesn't translate to the NFL game as a rookie but I'm hoping the Panthers keep an open mind at least.
One last point, if the Panthers are content with Godfrey at FS Salley might bring more value in a trade then sitting on the bench all season as he did in 2008. If either Fields or Scirrotto looks capable of backing up the FS position the Panthers might be able to recoup a draft pick for Salley from a team looking for someone to challenge for a starting FS spot.