Throughout the 2011 season we discussed the need for the Panthers to drastically improve their defense. Week after week we watched them get decimated by almost every offense they faced. What fell by the wayside during this time was just how pathetic the special teams were, being overshadowed by that defense. The 2011 ST unit couldn't block, were terrible in coverage, allowed far too many players within range of blocking kicks and punts, and were unable to get a reliable PR working. The only bright spot was Kealoha Pilares at KR who broke several long returns during the season, but even he was hampered by the lack of blocking support.
With the news last night that LB Jordan Senn was returning the Panthers we now have a semblance of a very stout special teams unit. One that has been populated with other team's standouts, while bringing back some familiar faces. After the jump we'll look at the main players who will be shaping the ST unit in 2012, and what they bring to the table.
Should Nakamura wrestle the starting spot from Sherrod Martin you can sub his name in here.
While Jordan Senn is returning to Carolina, it's under much different circumstances. With Thomas Davis injured last year Senn was required to start at OLB, which limited the time he played ST. In 2012 he'll be able to return to his natural position where he'll be able to make plays. Added to the gunner unit are Onatolu and Nakamura- two players who were regarded as their respective team's #1 ST aces. In each of the last two seasons with Panthers have tried to bring in these kind of players with Wallace Wright and Aaron Francisco, but neither carried the same weight Onatolu and Nakamura have. Carolina now have three legitimate ST gunners who will have a huge impact on the overall speed and ability of the coverage unit. Tucker is worth a mention here, but he doesn't carry the same reputation as the other three players do.
Along with being a do everything backfield player it's a given that Mike Tolbert will be one of the key players on special teams as a lead blocker. The Panthers desperately need help opening lanes on both the KR and PR, and to this end he will help immensely. Greg Smith was signed back in early January so it's easy to forget this TE, but he was a player who was lauded for his fine special teams play, particularly as a blocker.
The Kickers: Justin Medlock and ????
Is it too soon to give up on Olindo Mare? I'm not sure, but Medlock ensures that winning the job outright may not be so easy for Mare in 2012. While he wasn't kicking on the brightest stage up in the CFL he was insanely reliable, and good enough to be the equivalent of a pro-bowler. Making him the kicker would be the path less traveled, but he has upside- a rare trait for a kicker. At punter we have no clue what the plan is. Logic would say the Panthers will take advantage of a deep punting class to draft one, but we're not really sure. In order to get the most out of these gunners we need a great directional punter with a big leg, and those are not always easy to find.
Provided the 1st team defense can remain relatively healthy we wont experience the talent drain on ST we saw in 2011. I can't wait to see what the revamped unit can do with some real talent in the coverage and return units. This is the year we'll really get to see what Pilares can do, and whether AE is the long term PR option.