John Fox loves his defensive backs. Maybe it's because he played one himself at San Diego State, maybe it comes from his coaching roots as a secondary coach at Kansas University, or in the same position for the Pittsburgh Steelers, his first NFL job. For whatever reason, he likes that area of the field, and he likes bringing in new defensive backs every year.
In fact, since taking the reins as the Panther's coach, he's taken a defensive back in every draft, which can't be said about any other position. And of the 14 defensive backs taken, eleven play the cornerback position.
That makes a little sense, given the cover 2 that Fox favors on defense. His defensive schemes require players who are fast, rangy, and solid in coverage. That description fits your average cornerback, and it may explain why he likes them so much.
This year Carolina added two more to the roster through the draft--RJ Stanford out of Utah and Connecticut's Robert McLain. They also brought in Marcus Walker from the Viking's practice squad and claimed Brian Witherspoon off waivers. That leaves them with eight cornerbacks on the roster.Given that they normally keep nine or ten defensive backs on the roster, and that they already have five safeties (three of whom are looking to stick right off the top), it's likely that at least two of this group and possibly three will be fighting for a spot on the practice squad.
So who will they be? There's a core group that doesn't have to worry too much, and there are a few that may have a slight edge. And as always, there are a couple on the bubble. Then you have camp fodder--players who are on the fringe and hoping against hope that they'll get a roster spot.
With the power running game that the Panthers run, and with the way they play the pass on defense, the Panthers don't see as many opportunities to defend the pass as a lot of other teams. So their cornerbacks may not have the stats that some do, but that doesn't mean they're short on talent. This pair could hold out for all of training camp and still be all but guaranteed roster spots. They're the two most talented cornerbacks on the roster, they're young, and they know the system. As a pair they're not necessarily the best in the NFL, but they belong in the discussion.
27 years old, 7th year out of Ohio State, 6'1", 200 lbs
Gamble is the closest thing the Panthers have to a shutdown corner. He's big, physical, and runs extremely well. He plays the ball like a receiver, and if he had better hands he would likely be recognized as one of the league's great corners.
Gamble is never going to get great stats in the Panthers cover-2 scheme, but he's a big reason why it's so effective. The Panthers defense as a whole depends on solid play from it's corners, and they don't disappoint. Although he's fast fluid enough to play man-to-man on the other team's number one receiver, Gamble sticks to his zone and quietly makes plays.
Last year Gamble was on the field for all but 30 of the 1,046 defensive plays the Panthers had, and had seven passes defensed and four interceptions. He made 54 tackles, surrendered only two touchdowns, and held opposing quarterbacks to an 81.1 rating when they threw into his area of the field.
25 years old, 5th year out of Fresno State, 5'11", 189 lbs
Marshall is more of a pure coverage type of cornerback than Gamble. He's not as big, but he's fast, hits hard, and is a sure tackler. He also has a nose for the ball, and his 69 tackles are a sure sign that he understands Ron Meeks' concept of swarming to the ball.
Marshall had four passes defensed in 2009, and he also had four interceptions. He surrendered one touchdown, and when opposing QBs threw to his side they had a paltry 71.1 rating. Gamble has more talent, but in ways Marshall is establishing himself as the better cornerback in this system.
These two know the system and work well in it. Both have played on special teams and done well, and both are solid contributors. The may not be the locks that the starters are, but they're safe if they maintain their level of play.
22 years old, 2nd year out of University of South Carolina, 5'8", 186 lbs.
Captain Munnerlyn was a welcome surprise for the Panthers in 2009. They expected big things out of third rounder Sherrod Martin, but didn't realize that their seventh round pick would outplay him. Munnerlyn played primarily in the nickel role, notching 36 tackles and one pass defensed. He surrendered one touchdown, and had no interceptions.
Munnerlyn also plays special teams, and can return the ball in a pinch. He played in almost half of the Panthers defensive snaps in 2009.
25 years old, 4th year out of Baylor, 6'1", 195 lbs.
Wilson may actually be on the bubble after four years in the system, particularly if the Panthers see great things from their rookies. But he's a fairly safe bet for a roster position if all else remains equal, because he's local, he knows the defense, and he can start in a pinch.
Wilson is a solid cover corner who can slide over to Safety if necessary. He's got good size and good speed, and is well-liked by his teammates. But if the Panthers decide that one of their rookies has more upside, or if a numbers game develops in the secondary, Wilson may be the odd man out.
On the bubble
The Panthers love to develop their own players. Being drafted by Carolina gives these two an immediate edge, and the fact that they're rookies will buy them some time to get in to the system. Still, both are late rounders, and need to show that they deserve a roster spot.
22 years old, Rookie out of Utah, 5'10", 183 lbs.
Stanford is a very fast corner with good athleticism and a decent awareness. However, he's still a little rough around the edges and probably won't get a lot of playing time this year. In college he showed a good ability to run with the receiver, and his track speed served him well on special teams.
He'll need to learn how to play zone effectively to gain a roster spot, but he has enough upside to keep the coaches interested. He could be this years' Captain Munnerlyn, but he could just as easily be playing on the practice squad.
21 years old, Rookie out of Connecticut, 5'9", 195 lbs.
McLain was the last player the Panthers drafted, and he represents future depth more than anything. When you're in a division with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, depth in the secondary is never a bad thing to have. And McLain has a good nose for the ball, as represented by his four interceptions as a senior. Still, this is a guy who's likely headed straight for the practice squad.
His biggest strength is his speed, his 4.4 40 immediately makes him the fastest cornerback on the team. He's also a high character player, and won the Brian Kozlowski Award his senior year, which is given to the Huskie player who proves to be a "courageous, hard working, and productive person." He needs to learn the ins and outs of Meeks' zone system, but at least he has a shot at making the roster.
Every year the Panthers sign extra defensive backs in the off season to come in and compete for a roster spot. And every year they lose most of them by the second round of cuts. Both of these guys really need to show something to avoid being in that group.
24 years old, 2nd year out of Oklahoma, 5'11", 191 lbs.
Marcus Walker was an undrafted free agent who started his NFL career on the practice squad for the Minnesota Vikings. Last year Carolina picked him up after the season started for a little insurance, and he showed enough there to get an invite to Training Camp.
Walker is a good cover corner, which works to his advantage. He's got fluid hips, and is good at locating the pass in the air and closing quickly on the target. Where he gets beaten is in downfield coverage, and he's not strong in man-to-man. He's physical and works hard, but given the numbers he's on the outside looking in as far as a roster spot is concerned.
25 years old, 4th year out of Stillman Colege, 5'10", 180 lbs.
Witherspoon was originally an undrafted free agent for the Jacksonville Jaguars. From there he went to the Lions, where he was waived. As a defensive player, being waived by the Lions isn't what you want on your professional resume, but at least he's still in the NFL, if only on the fringes. When he came into the league, there were a lot of questions about his size and maturity. He was on the small side, but with his speed and athleticism it was assumed he would dominate in his division (Stillman College is a Division 1-AA school). When he didn't, he fell off a lot of draft boards.
Witherspoon is really on this list because his official position is a Cornerback, but the Panthers are looking at him solely as a return man. He's bulked up since entering the league at 165 pounds, and brings a world of speed to the table. As a return man he has great field vision, he's elusive and looks for the hole. Given that the Panthers special teams are in a state of flux, he could be a surprise addition to the game-day roster.