It's no secret Carolina Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera proved his grit in the game as a linebacker who lined up beside Mike Singletary in the Super Bowl.
Quite the opposite. Rivera's mental toughness and calm, steady demeanor on the sideline might lead one to believe the franchise has identified its second "Strongside" linebacker to bear the Panther standard and steady the troops - in the tradition of former player and coach, the late-Sam Mills.
Upon arriving at the Combine, Rivera discussed his team with the media, and promised to take a little more ownership over the Panthers 2012 defense than he was able to during his coaching debut in 2011.
"Now that I've gone through the first season and understand what's expected of me, I think I can help a little bit more on the defensive side," he was quoted during a press conference at Lucas Oil Stadium. "One thing you learn and adjust to is really what's needed or what's called upon for a head coach to do in terms of his duties. That was a little bit different for me, obviously, and I can be involved more with that side of the ball."
If I was asked for a word to describe Ron Rivera - I'd probably answer "linebacker."
As coach sets about rebuilding the "defensive side" more in his image, I wouldn't anticipate this unit will go neglected. Don't be surprised if the LB prospects at this year's Scouting Combine get a good, long look from Panthers coaches and scouts.
While the debut Carolina defense of the former Bears 'backer projected with its strength rooted in its linebacking corps - its heart was ripped out in the first two weeks of the regular season when it surrendered Co-captains Jon Beason and Thomas Davis to Injured Reserve.
An increased leadership role for Sam LB James Anderson, Mike LB Dan Connor's shot - at long last - to man the middle of the starting defense and the emergence of scrappy, unproven contributors such as Will LB Jordan Senn wouldn't be enough to compensate for the loss of the two former first round picks, however. It became painfully obvious as the season wore on that linebacker depth would be a major area for the team to focus this offseason, if not the targeting of a permanent replacement for the team's hobbled, but beloved, "TD." (More after the jump...)
Head Coach Ron Rivera questions OLB Jason Williams following a defensive play last year.
Recent reports Connor plans to test the waters elsewhere do nothing to alleviate this concern, though the team has moved to bring back practice squad-alum Phillip Dillard for Training Camp.
With an intent eye from our head coach most certainly turned toward personnel additions to shore up the unit in the coming weeks, let's take a glance at this position group at the Combine.
As with many positions in this year's draft, this group of linebacker prospects promises to provide depth and intriguing prospects for multiple schemes late into the draft. It's reasonable to believe we could be on the board in the sixth round and have have two or three linebackers we would like to bring to camp next year still available.
It's even possible to perhaps hit on a player that goes undrafted to work his way up through the practice squad to contribute on special teams. Here is a link to the NFL's List of Combine Participants: http://www.nfl.com/combine/participants.
There are about 30 linebackers in Indy, including some names who will be familiar to college football fans from the Carolinas as about a third of them are from the ACC and SEC. The linebackers will begin their positional drills Monday afternoon.
Several candidates could earn themselves a look in the first round with outstanding performances at the combine. These include highly-regarded prospects such as North Carolina speedster OLB Zach Brown, the physically-gifted MLB from Arizona State Vontaze Burfict, Alabama specimen MLB Dont'a Hightower and the instinctual tackling machine from Boston College Luke Kuechly.
During the Pre-Combine discussion, only one player has been regarded as having a legitimate shot to come off the board in the top-10, however; Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw. (Note: South Carolina's Melvin Ingram is working out as a defensive lineman at the event.)
He played in a pair of national championships during his four-year career under Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa, and clearly separated himself as a Blue Chip NFL prospect last year, amassing 17 tackles for loss (-85 yards) and a team-high 8.5 sacks for the National Champs. He had 16.5 sacks on his collegiate career.
Personally, I love him and think he personifies the word, "Winner." I also feel he was formed by God to fit the role played last year by Panthers DE Antwon Applewhite - and to a lesser-degree DE's Charles Johnson and Thomas Keiser - as a "hybrid" between a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside "rush" linebacker, depending on the game situation. This role seems tailor-fit to the team's exotic blitz package philosophy in the front seven and provides schematic versatility during pre-snap reads.
Ingram projects to be a similar type of NFL player, and both have "elite" grades from many scouts, though he reported to the Combine as a Defensive Lineman.
Upshaw should have an easy transition to play this role in the pro's, seeing as Saban essentially called on him to pin his ears back and get in the backfield last year. If there is a question about his game, it's probably whether he can cover the Jimmy Graham's and Tony Gonzalez's the Panthers weakside linebacker is asked to line up against. He may be able to do much to help his case with a strong Combine showing.
Anybody see those two "Games of the Century" against LSU?
Behind Upshaw, there are several intriguing prospects that have been linked to the Panthers by reports and fans. NFL Analyst Mike Mayock projected Miami OLB Sean Spence as "a good fit" for the Panthers defense.
The team could also take a look at other options for weakside and middle linebacker talent at the event, and many on this site have "mocked" N.C. State MLB Audie Cole or OLB Terrell Manning, West Virginia OLB Bruce Irvin and Kentucky OLB Danny Trevathan to the Panthers, among others. I have also seen California's Mychal Kendricks and Texas LB's Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho speculated upon for this team.
Nebraska LB Lavonte David and Oklahoma LB's Travis Lewis and Ronnell Lewis could also move their stock up from second-to-third rounders to as high as first as the Draft approaches. Some other names to keep in mind are Nevada's James-Michael Johnson and Florida State's Nigel Bradham, as the field is wide-open for prospects to make an impression.
One thing's for certain: If anybody there can ball Rivera and the team will likely make their acquaintance.