Chris Gamble is the best cornerback in the NFL nobody talks about, and he should be great again in 2012. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Players don't simply forget how to play football. Every year we see scores of players come off fantastic years, and follow them up by looking like a shadow of their former self. On the 2011 Carolina Panthers this scenario belonged to Captain Munnerlyn. In 2010 he was amazing- far and away one of the best nickel-backs in the NFL. Statistically he was in the upper echelon in stop rate, pass yards allowed and run yards allowed. Excitement was brimming on the prospect of the Panthers finding 7th round gold as they attempted to move Munnerlyn into the role of starting cornerback in 2011- then they found out he couldn't do it.
Match him up on a smaller slot receiver and ask him to cover the 0-15 range- he's dynamite. Munnerlyn possesses a fantastic ability to stay in a receiver's pocket on slant, drag, in, and out routes, quickly making the tackle and preventing YAC, or breaking up the pass all together. On the outside his ability to cover degrades from the 15 yard point on- and when this is coupled with his small stature against increasingly larger wide receivers it's a nightmare. It's far too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and label Munnerlyn as 'worthless', but there was perhaps no player more out of his depth in 2011 than Captain. Moving him back to that #3 CB role will allow him to shine again, and it's important to remember just how good he is in that role.
Now we get to the fun part- who will be the Panthers' #2 cornerback 2012? We'll look at that, and more...
After the jump
Any article discussing the CB situation would be remiss without extolling the virtues of Chris Gamble again. The Panthers' star cornerback is the best player in the NFL nobody outside of the Carolinas pays attention to. Year in, year out (with the exception of 2010) Gamble possesses an innate ability to stick on a receiver like glue, and as such quarterbacks are simply unable to throw to their #1 target. He's the definition of 'lock-down', but never gets any national attention.
As great as Gamble is, it's the spot across from him that could be a major headache for the Panthers again in 2012. It's likely 2011 4th round pick Brandon Hogan will fill the role, but it's important to keep measured expectations from the 2nd year player. There has been quite the tall tale surrounding Hogan in terms of his selection. The Panthers rolled the dice on a talented player who waited until the 4th round because of his off-field, and injury issues. Like all tall tales this did the round through the fanbase, picked up steam- and now it's routine to see comments like:
"Brandon Hogan was projected as a 1st round pick without the off-field stuff"
Let's go ahead and put this one to rest right now- no, he wasn't. In talking to scouts, and reading reports, he graded out as a late-second to early-third round pick. From there the off-field stuff knocked him down further, but it's of vital importance not to equate Hogan to Janoris Jenkins- they're not remotely in the same ball park. Now, Hogan definitely has the ability to be as NFL starter, as most guys taken in the 2nd and 3rd round do- but to rely on him being the next Asante Samuel only sets one up for disappointment.
It's impossible to project whether Hogan can fill the role as #2 CB, because we don't have any sense of how his football, or personal development is going. Jon Beason and Jordan Gross briefly alluded to Hogan needing to "Understand how the league works" in an April radio interview, but outside of that we don't have any idea about how he is coming along. This is compounded by the injury he carried into the season, which sidelined him for almost the entire year. That being said, when you are projecting a depth chart you need to take a leap of faith- so for now I'm penciling in Hogan to start.
Rounding out the CB depth we have rookie Josh Norman and veteran Darius Butler. Norman has a lot of promise as we've looked at before- but it can be very difficult for a rookie corner to adjust to the NFL, especially at a position requiring so much nuance, and coming out of a program that saw such lackluster competition. In my projected depth chart Norman starts as low man on the totem pole, and in time will work his way up. However, unless he completely breaks out in Spartanburg it's not realistic to think he'll make a big impact early on.
Darius Butler was a solid waiver signing by the Panthers, and displayed a mix of both good and bad in 2011. At times he did a great job filling the nickel role, or swinging out wide when needed- but on other occasions he looked lost like Captain Munnerlyn. Unlike Captain, he lacks the strength to bring down ball carriers and isn't quite as good stopping YAC, but he plays the ball better in the air than Munnerlyn does, and for now I have him as the 4th corner.
Projected Depth Chart
LCB: Chris Gamble/ Captain Munnerlyn/ Josh Norman
RCB: Brandon Hogan/ Darius Butler/ R.J. Stanford
This is a good group, but there's a lot of risk too. When you rely on this much youth at the CB spot you could get burnt, and the Panthers will require another astounding season from Chris Gamble to help ensure their pass defense can pass the muster in 2012.