It is really quite simple: the Carolina Panthers have to improve their pass rush if they want to beat good football teams in 2012. In 2011, the Panthers finished with 31 sacks (tied for 25th), and it's no coincidence that the better defenses can be found at the top of that list.
Let's think back to 2003...Dan Morgan and Will Witherspoon excluded, it was a defensive unit with mostly average to mediocre parts on the back seven, but it featured the most fearsome defensive line in the league over the last ten seasons. The Panthers don't have to have three pro bowlers on the line like they did back then, but the DE play must improve if they expect to get back into the postseason (so must the DT play, but this story is about the DEs).
Don't take this the wrong way. This is not a condemnation of the 2011 starters. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are good, young players. But what the Panthers must do is build quality depth around their starters, as not to have a repeat of 2011 (when Johnson was playing with several injuries that limited his snaps and his effectiveness, and Greg Hardy had to play nearly every snap). Playing hurt and/or playing every snap is simply asking too much of any defensive lineman. By the end of the year, a lack of quality depth rendered both players ineffective.
With both starters coming back and being a year older, stronger, healthier and more experienced, the key to improving the DE play will be strengthening the depth already there, and of course effectively folding in the new players.
Let's take a look at how the position depth might shake out, and what we could expect from these players in 2012...
In With the New:
Jyles Tucker, a Wake Forest alum, will compete for a roster spot. The 28 year-old former Charger has been in the league for four years, and has put some pass rush ability on tape, registering 3.5 and 5.5 sacks in his first two seasons. Since then, Tucker has dealt with injury, as he missed all of the 2011 season. Will he be healthy for the first time in two or three years? No one is going to hold their breath on this one, but if he can regain his 2007-2008 form he will be a serviceable part in the rotation.
In the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft, the Carolina Panthers traded away a 2013 third-rounder and 2012 sixth-rounder for the right to select Oklahoma DE Frank Alexander. In reviewing portions of his games, (and the entire game against RG3 and Baylor) you see a fluid pass rusher and a smart player who is able to shut down the run, particularly if he is not double-teamed. He is strong and fast and does not miss tackles.
Alexander was the Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. Look for Alexander to compete with Greg Hardy for playing time, depending on how quickly he transitions to the NFL game, of course. For Hardy fans, this is not a bad thing. Ron Rivera agreed that Hardy played too many snaps last year. Having Alexander here (a similar player) will simply allow the both of them to be more efficient with their snaps. Alexander will probably not start out of the gate, but fans and prognosticators expect him to be one of the top four DEs in a deep rotation.
Examining the Depth Coming Back:
The Carolina Panthers decided to bring back backup DE Antwan Applewhite for next season. He was not dominating, to say the least, but he delivered timely sparks to the defense with a sack/safety against Atlanta and another big game against Washington, registering five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He can play either DE spot, some linebacker and even some 3-technique. Expect Applewhite to compete for a spot in the rotation.
Second-year man Thomas Keiser is an undrafted player out of Stanford, and was arguably the best rotational player at the position last season. His 13 tackles, 4.0 sacks and one INT compile an impressive stat-line for an undrafted rookie. Keiser will likely compete with Applewhite and Alexander for the first backup DE spot.
Keiser recently finished his degree at Stanford despite having off-season workout responsibilities 3,000 miles away in Charlotte. The Hollidaysburg, PA native is quickly becoming a fan favorite for his hard-work, hustle and determination.
Third-year man and former fourth-round pick Eric Norwood has had an under-whelming career so far. The University of South Carolina product is probably a little small for an every-down 4-3 DE. Norwood would be better suited as a 3-4 OLB, and it will be interesting to see if he gets a chance with a 3-4 team if it doesn't work out in Carolina. Regardless, he is likely on the outside looking in along with undrafted rookie free agent Ryan Van Bergen, a 6-foot-4 290lbs bulldozer from the University of Michigan.
The preseason depth chart would probably look something like this:
Johnson, Hardy, Applewhite, Keiser, Alexander, Tucker, Norwood, Van Bergen.
Alexander could jump past Applewhite and Keiser, but the rookie is going to have to earn everything he gets.
The defensive end position looks to be deeper and more athletic going into 2012, due in large part to the addition of Frank Alexander. If this team has playoff aspirations, the sack total and the effectiveness against the running game must go up. The DEs are just one part of the equation, but if the Panthers can increase their sack total by ten (to 41.0), it would mean that they are getting teams off the field more on third down. (41.0 sacks would have ranked them tied for 10th last season.) Frankly it would be surprising if this did not happen.
With an improved pass rush, along with at least a small improvement against the run, Panthers fans might want to start saving some money for a playoff game in Charlotte.