There's been a fair amount of give-and-take debate on all the personnel changes the Panthers have willingly undergone in the offseason. A youth movement is in full swing. A lot of veterans were purged from the roster. We've got a crop of rookies coming in via the draft that we're looking to keep around. And a lot of young players who previously only served as backups being asked to step up into starting roles.
These changes could have a pretty dramatic effect on the Panthers' defense in 2010. From the departure of Julius Peppers to the release of Chris Harris and our DTs, that particular unit could be affected the most. Change can sometimes be for the better, whether short-term or long-term...and you've got to assume Carolina's front office knows that and these moves are designed to improve the team. But change can also come as a result of something bad, like a looming lockout and uncapped season...or the necessities of the "business side" of football in the NFL or a veteran's skillset starting to decline.
So let's take a look at the changes that have impacted the Carolina Panthers on defense for 2010 and attempt to realistically evaluate how "good" or "bad" some of those changes could pan out. More on this...after the jump...
So, first, let's go over what's changed and why.
Julius Peppers - Unable to come to a long-term deal and unwilling to franchise-tag him again, Carolina releases its most dominant DE in team history. Sadly, we held onto him last year at over $1 million per game. A lot of people would say that financial investment cost the Panthers more in terms of retaining our good backup players (who became free agents), than it added in terms of continuity for our D-line. Regardless, he's gone now. It was mutually agreed to by both parties. Julius wanted out anyway. Not a whole lot the Panthers could have realistically done to keep or convince him to stay (in my opinion).
Ma'ake Kemoeatu - The big guy went down like he'd been shot in non-contact sprints last year, blew out his Achilles, and rode the IR for the entire year. We clearly missed him in the early going, unable to find a NT to absorb multiple blockers in the running game. It forced us to go out and give up compensation to other teams to grab some reasonable replacements. And, though some of them (Louis Leonard) also landed on IR, it became clear that we'd found a younger, viable replacement for Kemo. He's an aging vet with some tread left on him. Glad to see he landed with another team. But, this change came off more as a choice to go younger at the position...and maybe a bit less injury-prone...and possibly a bit of a financial kicker as well in letting him go.
Damione Lewis - Now this one's a bit more of a head-scratcher. Not exactly pulling down the big bucks. Had started capably enough for us in the past. Wasn't particularly injury-prone, though he was starting to climb in age just a bit. Still had plenty of tread. The Panthers did bring in multiple DTs during Kemo's absence in an effort to find a better mix. Perhaps they felt they did so? And thus, D-Lew was no longer necessary.
Na'il Diggs - Everyone expected this guy to be replaced in training camp year-in and year-out. But Fox always loved him as a "known quantity" he could rely upon. He particularly loves his LBs. So Diggs always stuck around because we never really had a younger, swifter, experienced player to take over for him. Of course, if the guys playing behind Diggs never get a chance to accumulate any experience, they'll never find a replacement. And it became more and more necessary to do so, because Diggs did get dinged up a bit from time to time. Letting this guy go makes some sense when viewed that way.
Chris Harris - Definitely a fan-favorite. Fox has already come out and mentioned that the Panthers' "budget" had "something" to do with the move. Others have theorized his skillset (i.e., speed and coverage ability) wasn't exactly what Ron Meeks would want in a "Cover 2" scheme. We also saw Sherrod Martin flash some serious ball-hawking skills while filling in for Charles Godfrey, so they needed to find a way to get him on the field. Moving Godfrey over to replace Chris Harris lets them have better speed and coverage in the secondary. And, in the pass-happy NFL, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Charles Godfrey / Sherrod Martin - Obviously, these guys go through a position change. But, in the "Cover 2" you don't really have distinctions between Free Safety and Strong Safety anymore. They're both fast, coverage guys. Regardless, you can expect the defense to undergo some alterations as a result of this move. The Panthers will have different options now in coverage and need to rely on their LBs and CBs a lot more in run support.
Okay. so that's 5 to 5-1/2 position changes across the Panthers' defense...or roughly half of the 11-man unit on the field. That's also making the assumption Richard Marshall and Captain Munnerlyn continue in their current roles, sharing time at CB and nickel DB. There's a whole lot of other DBs who will presumably back them up, depending on which ones make the team. Of those who do, you can expect them to contribute primarily on special teams, which is a whole other discussion on what's changing with the 2010 Panthers. But I'll save that for a future analysis. In the meantime, let's run through the effects of these changes on the defense:
Defensive Line - Wow. More changes here than anywhere else on the entire team (even the WR position). And we didn't draft a lot of high-round guys to shore things up. There's always free agency and the waiver wire once roster cut-downs start occurring, though. And Hurney and Fox have shown a tendency to use those avenues to find role players in these positions, when necessary (see the Kemo replacement issue mentioned earlier). But, in general, let's look at your potential starters on the D-line now.
DE Tyler Brayton - returning veteran
DT Louis Leonard - coaches thought he was the "answer" to Kemo's injury from the get-go
DT Tank Tyler - younger (faster?) version of Damione Lewis without as much experience
DE Charles Johnson - powerful contributor in a backup role in prior years, ready to step up?
On paper, it doesn't look too bad to me. I don't really view Charles Johnson as an inexperienced replacement for Julius Peppers. He and Tyler Brayton have a lot of flexibility on passing downs to slide inside, spelling Leonard and Tyler so Everette Brown, Greg Hardy, and/or Eric Norwood can get on the field at DE and rush the passer. The rotation and the mix of skillsets seems good. But how well will they react to stopping the run? Can Louis Leonard and Tank Tyler hold the middle? Can the LBs take advantage of their efforts to scrape their way behind the D-line and fill the gaps to bring down opposing RBs? Can they hold the edges to force opposing RBs outside the hashmarks to the sidelines and into the arms of the OLBs and CBs?
Also, how well can the Panthers generate a pass-rush without Julius Peppers? Some would say Peppers himself generated an inconsistent pass-rush that led to us no longer valuing his services as highly as he wanted to be paid. Ron Meeks' system counts on fast pressure from the edges with speedy, more lightweight DEs. We won't necessarily have that in the footspeed of Brayton and Johnson...but they've both done pretty well in the sack department in the past. If you move those guys to the inside, they can immediately create stronger pressure on stunts and faster inside moves. But we're really going to be counting on Everette Brown and the new guys to contribute here. They say Brown has already gotten stronger by adding 10 pounds of muscle. So, it'll be interesting to see him get his chance to showcase that. One underlying problem, however, (which I don't hear a lot of people talk about) involves the rotation to get these guys into place. What happens if an opposing offense goes into hurry-up mode and uses the no-huddle? If the Panthers are counting on always being able to run the right personnel groupings out onto the field, they could face some challenges with this defensive strategy.
Linebackers - This has long been the workhorse group for Carolina, and it'll be counted on again in that capacity. We get Thomas Davis back from injury, who was having a Pro Bowl season. Meeks' system allows him to absolutely thrive and Davis delivered. Jon Beason continues to captain the entire defense from othe MLB spot. He's a Pro Bowler as well. We just need to make sure the DTs occupy opposing linemen so he can do his thing to disrupt ball-carriers. It's the strongside LB spot that people should watch the most closely. Can we find a guy who's at least "as dependable" as Na'il Diggs...or hopefully, even better? The Panthers have some young guns...Dan Connor, James Anderson, Eric Norwood, and Lamar Williams they could use here. All of them seem very capable with high upside. So we still seem as rock solid as ever here.
WLB Thomas Davis - Pro Bowler returning from injury and already practicing at mini-camp
MLB Jon Beason - Pro Bowler who almost got snubbed; plenty for him to prove; able defensive captain
SLB Dan Connor / James Anderson / Lamar Williams / Eric Norwood - need someone to step up here
Secondary - These guys put up some great stats last year, in terms of pass-defense, but that was somewhat inflated by the early success teams had against us in the run game when we were going through the pains of losing our biggest DT to clog the middle. With the loss of hard-hitting safety, Chris Harris, we'll be changing up their role to focus more on pass-defense and coverage, with occasional speed up to the line to help out on running plays. The CBs in particular will likely be called upon hold their own on the edges. There's a lot of potential for things to go well or go bad. In pass-defense, our ball-hawking DBs could benefit as long as the guys up front generate a better overall pass-rush. And, in run-defense, our DTs and LBs are going to need to hold up long enough for the safeties and DBs to contribute. The good news is that our starting DBs are all going to be fast. Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall, and Captain Munnerlyn all seem to be decent tacklers...not shying away from contact as much as some. I don't necessarily expect the secondary in 2010 to put up the same kind of stats this year. But, they're potentially playing a weaker schedule than last year. And we've probably got guys like Sherrod Martin who can potentially get us more turnovers with interceptions. So, there are trade-offs in terms of how this unit is changing, some encouraging and some worrying.
CB Chris Gamble - steady veteran, good tackler, new leader
FS Charles Godfrey - better suited in this role?...already has experience...footspeed upgrade over Harris
SS Sherrod Martin - some experience...ball-hawking skills...better in this role than Godfrey
CB Richard Marshall / Captain Munnerlyn - possible distraction with Marshall's holdout, capable Captain
Coaching - Okay, I think we can all agree that the Ron Meeks addition is working out pretty well. And we'll have to continue putting our trust in the coaches to properly assess and train the defense to implement the best schemes. And we've got to trust the coaches to properly game-plan for opponents so they utilize their players in the best way. As much as I sometimes felt the coaches on the offense failed to properly game-plan at times last year, I always had confidence the defense had the right game-plan, just not always the right personnel to effectively implement it. Adjustments were made to go with a "Cover 1" and we all saw how that improved things at the end of last year. Now, Meeks will have to reshuffle the deck with some of the new player additions and position changes. I'm counting on him to a better than average job with that.
Now, regardless of all these assessments (positive, neutral, or otherwise), I think it's also worth noting that most teams don't come out of major changes like these (both new personnel and position changes) and still maintain their prior success. That's because there are just too many moving parts all at once. Releasing a veteran or two and having guys ready to step into their role is one thing. But changing out half the defense and moving back to a full "Cover 2" while still counting on everyone to be in sync and ready to go is probably overly optimistic.
I anticipate the Panthers will have some growing pains and need some transition time to be successful all over again. A lot of that's going to be on how well everyone absorbs stuff in training camp and preseason. A lot of it's also going to be dependent on how well they Panthers stay injury-free. We've taken strides to improve our depth at the LB position by acquiring Lamar Williams, who can fill in at WLB, MLB, and SLB. But we're not so solid that we can sustain major injuries on the D-line or the secondary and not be affected by it. I think that's something to keep in mind as we cross our fingers throughout the preseason and training camp, hoping someone doesn't go down.
So, will the Panthers defense be ready in 2010? I think they'll be functional. But can they hold up against the revenge-seeking New York Giants at their home opener? I think that will be a significant challenge. If they do hold their own, we should be able to take a lot of confidence from it. But if they don't, I don't believe it'll become a "sky is falling" dilemma right away. It'll just mean they need to keep working and absorbing the effects these changes will have on the overall unit. Hopefully, it won't take them too long after that to get up to speed and everyone playing in sync.
But that's just my two-cents,