Combine Group Preview: Defensive Back Help Wanted

Throughout the history of the Carolina Panthers franchise, many of the team's leaders and most legendary figures have populated its defensive backfield.

One could find many examples from Cornerback Eric Davis who joined the team shortly after its inception and starred in the city for more than half a decade en route to becoming its all-time interceptions leader to current Panther Cornerback Chris Gamble who eclipsed Davis's mark this past season.

However, aside from Gamble, a blatant 2011 Pro Bowl snub after a career-type campaign which saw him lock down some of the league's number one receivers, there wasn't a lot to inspire admiration in the way the Panthers secondary performed last year.

It would be the textbook definition of "beating a dead horse" to further expound upon the shortcomings of the Panthers secondary during the 2011 season.

I haven't come to praise Caesar, merely to bury him. Therefore, I'm not going to bash you over the head with lists of long touchdowns surrendered - though there were many - or any breakdown of tackling statistics to show the "softness" of our guys in the back - though there are such documents readily available on the Internet.

I think we can all of sound mind agree the defensive backfield is an area the Panthers would love to infuse with talent upgrades at a couple of starting positions, provide depth across the board and generally change the culture of the way the guys have been playing back there.

Overall, the Panthers should be looking for a pair of defensive backs to push for a starting job in 2012, one or both of whom are most likely in this field of Defensive Back NFL Scouting Combine participants.

Change of Culture

Former San Diego Chargers Secondary Coach Steve Wilks has joined the Panthers staff to address one of the major weaknesses from the 2011 team. via www.panthers.com. 120116_wilks_inside_medium_medium

via cdn2.sbnation.com


One of the team's first moves of the offseason involved changing that culture as a matter of fact, when the organization reunited Head Coach Ron Rivera with Steve Wilks - the secondary specialist who helped coach implement the number one defense in the league during his days as a coordinator in San Diego. Rivera actually requested Wilks be hired for the position the year before, but the Chargers refused to let him out of the last year of his contract with the team.

Unlike Ron Meeks, who coached the defensive backs last year, Wilks doesn't run the "Tampa 2" zone coverage scheme which asks the safety to essentially play softball (right and left) centerfield. Expect the safeties and even corners to be involved in applying pressure to opposing offense's backfields and support the run defense when the Panthers defense returns to the field in 2012, as well as more "Press Man" coverage involving contact at the line of scrimmage and man coverage down the field.

Talent Upgrades

The general consensus among CSR readers this offseason has been the team should identify a number two cornerback to step up and replace Captain Munnerlyn as Chris Gamble's running buddy, as well as bring in competition for Sherrod Martin at the starting free safety position. Many wouldn't mind parting ways with Martin altogether.

This sentiment about the way Martin performed during his sophomore 2011 campaign may be shared by some at the top level of Panthers management if Owner Jerry Richardson's reaction to his name during a game of word association with the in an interview earlier this year with the Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorenson .

"I think he plays Safety," Richardson glossed over the former Troy cornerback's name in January. This after first retorting, "What about him?"

Even more telling than the curtness of the quote is the greater context of the conversation, during which EACH of the other players whose names were mentioned - without fail - earned some type of praise.

Wilks may well have further tipped the Panthers hand going into the Draft shortly after joining the coaching staff during Senior Bowl Week, when he commended the depth and quality of this year's defensive back Draft pool, remarking "it's probably one of the best classes they've had in years as far as corners and safeties."

There is a school of thought the team already has a replacement for Munnerlyn on its roster in Brandon Hogan. The team drafted the corner in the fourth round last year as a senior coming from West Virginia University. He was considered by many to have a first-round grade in the 2011 NFL Draft, but was befallen by a knee injury in his college's bowl game that sidelined him for the majority of the season last year. When he did get on the field against the Houston Texans late in the season, Hogan put some flashes on tape and should be healthy coming into Camp.

The situation at safety is more dire, as there is no perceived savior waiting in the wings aside from Sherrod Martin, who may well be the problem.

Combine Defensive Backs

A list of Combine participants can be found on the NFL's Website at: http://www.nfl.com/combine/participants. This is a long list of athletes, including more than 35 corners and 21 safeties, which is broken into two groups at the Scouting Combine. Both groups step onto the field for workouts in Indy Tuesday.

Safeties

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Alabama Strong Safety Mark Barron is widely considered the best safety in this year's draft class headed into the Scouting Combine. - via www.nepatriotsdraft.com

The Safety position may be one that is a bit thin in this year's class, though the Cornerback position is quite deep with big-bodied small school and mid-round prospects who would be ideal candidates to make the transition to Safety.
Alabama SS Mark Barron is the consensus top prospect in this draft class whose strength at the top appears to be the Free Safety position. Valued at a mid- to late-first round draft grade, he may fall between the Panthers value of picks at nine and 40, though the team would certainly give him a look if he's there when they draft in the second round.
At Free Safety, several players come in with second- or third-round projections that would appear to be likely candidates for the team to bring into camp. Boise State's George Iloka and Oklahoma State's Markelle Martin perhaps being chief among them. Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, Michigan State's Trent Robinson, San Jose State's Duke Ihenacho and small school prospect Janzen Jackson from McNeese State all come into the Combine with high draft grades according NFL.com.
A homer pick for the Panthers organization, who have shown a willingness to draft from their backyard in the past, would be to bring in South Carolina SS Antonio Allen, who could be available as late as the third or fourth round, though NFL.com pegs him behind Barron as the second highest graded Strong Safety among the participants.
He played the hybrid "Spur" position for the Ole Ball Coach in Columbia, a cross between a linebacker and a safety, and could help the team beef up its safety presence in the box, even if in a situational role at the outset of his professional career. He projects as a solid Strong Safety in the league.

Cornerbacks

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LSU Cornerback Morris Claiborne is considered the top cornerback prospect in the NFL headed into Combine workouts, and is a player whose progress the Panthers will monitor until April. - via media.nola.com

The conventional mode of thinking has been the class of the cornerbacks in this April's Draft is LSU standout Morris Claiborne headed into the Scouting Combine, with a deep pool of talent including several prospects who can elbow their way high into the first round with a strong performance.
Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick displays unusual size and athleticism for the position, but will have to answer questions about a recent off-the-field incident involving marijuana possession in which no charges were filed against him. In a similar position, North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins wishes he only had one incident to explain. He was kicked off Florida's team prior to last season after a series of off-the-field incidents and arrests, yet possesses a unique skill set that he's displayed at multiple levels and most recently at the Senior Bowl where he was a standout.
There are, literally, a ton of intriguing prospects behind this top-three going into the Draft, many of whom have been scouted and outlined previously on CSR. I'd note several prospects who show some promise and have been on display for football fans in the Carolinas in Virginia's Chase Minnifield, Georgia's Brandon Boykin, North Carolina's Charles Brown, South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore and Vanderbilt's Casey Heyward, who could do much to make their case to Panthers scouts why they should stay in the region to play pro ball. The NFL also ranks Nebraska's Alfonzo Dennard, Montana's Trumaine Johnson, Oklahoma's Jamell Fleming and others as above-average prospects.

Conclusion
Cornerback talent is certainly vociferous at this year's scouting event, so I wouldn't be surprised for the Panthers to be scoping a guy in the second or fourth to fill that role. This is provided Claiborne doesn't experience a Draft Day slide that delivers him to Charlotte's waiting arms.
Perhaps even more urgent is the team's need to shore up its safety unit, and the safety class appears to be less replete with easily distinguishable talents. There also may be a feeling the changes to the coaching staff can help develop Martin during his third year in the NFL, and mean the team could get by with bringing in a solid backup next year.
If the team does look safety, it too would seem to have to come in the middle rounds, since there is no talent that has served notice it is worthy of the ninth pick before the Combine.
Free Agency may also play a factor in this equation.
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