Can you see the invisible player that Martin is tackling behind Kevin Smith? Me neither. The cover picture would be funny if it weren't so sad. This image really is a glimpse of the season as a whole for the Panthers starting safety tandem. To say that the back line of the Panthers defense was abysmal in 2011 might be an understatement. Every game seemed to be rife with fundamental mistakes. If Martin wasn't missing tackles, he was inexcusably getting beat on a last second first half touchdown. If Godfrey wasn't taking the wrong angles in both pass coverage and run support, he was dropping easy interceptions. There is no doubt that the first two lines of defense weren't holding up their end of the bargain and our safeties were pushed to the limit more than they ever had been before, but that is no excuse for completely falling apart at times.
I guess it wasn't all bad because they individually and collectively had their moments. A late interception against Indy to seal the game may have been the finest moment of the season for starting free safety Sherrod Martin, but overall, he regressed more than anyone else on the team last season. Godfrey, the Panthers veteran strong safety, played better than Martin, but that isn't saying very much. They may have started over the past several seasons, but they will have their work cut out for them if they want to keep that streak going. After the jump, we'll take a look at some of the newcomers who will get a chance to supplant the incumbents.
Let's take a look at the seven current safeties on the Panthers roster, two of which were recently signed as free agents and one that was drafted.
DJ Campbell- At 22, this 2012 seventh round draft pick will have his work cut out for him when it comes to vying for any playing time on defense in his first season with the Panthers. His bread will be buttered on special teams just like it was at California before emerging as a viable starting safety during his final college season. By my estimation, Campbell has a 40% chance of making the 53 man roster .
Jonathan Nelson- If you aren't familiar with Nelson, let me introduce you to this sleeper pick for an increased role with the Panthers this upcoming season. He was originally drafted in the seventh round of the 2011 draft by the Rams, but he was unable to make it past the final cuts just before the season started. A couple of months later, the Panthers signed him to their practice squad, and five weeks later, he was promoted to the active 53 man roster. Approximately twenty-four hours after being called up, Nelson was starting in his first NFL game against the Bucs, and, to his credit, he played surprisingly well. He recorded seven tackles and made an interception after a pass was tipped up in the air by James Anderson. With that being said, he isn't a lock to make the roster, especially after the Panthers went out and signed some guys who could make some noise of their own at the strong safety position. I give Nelson a 40% chance to make the 53 man roster.
Jordan Pugh- At 24, he is already entering his third season as a back-up strong safety. Although he showed some promise early on during his first NFL training camp, he hasn't been able put it all together up until this point. That's too bad, because our very own Beast was 'very impressed' with him after some of their initial practices together in 2010, and even took his praise a step further by saying that Pugh reminded him of Chris Harris a little bit. Maybe this is the year the light bulb comes on and he becomes another one of the Panthers sixth round picks who went on to overachieve. I'm not counting on it with our influx of recent safety signings. He's got a 40% chance of making the team.
Reggie Smith- After spending his first four seasons in San Francisco, Smith will be vying for a starting position at strong safety, but I'll be surprised if he is able to wrestle it away from Godfrey. As a former third round pick, Smith has certainly underachieved up until this point. Maybe a change of scenery in a different defensive scheme will be the catalyst to jump-start his career here in Carolina, but I wouldn't count on it. I'll give him an 60% chance of making the team and a 5% chance to start.
Haruki Nakamura- Here's another sixth round safety who will be trying to win a starting position outright for the first time. His chance to start certainly went up when he chose to sign with the Panthers this offseason. After backing up free safety Ed Reed in Baltimore for the past several seasons, he will undoubtedly give Sherrod Martin a run for his money. I'll give him a 95% chance of making the team and 50% chance of earning that starting spot.
Charles Godfrey- Although our starting strong safety slightly regressed last season, I don't think he will lose his starting job to newcomer Reggie Smith. But there is no question that he will need to step up and earn that gaudy extension he signed in 2011, or he might be on the chopping block next offseason. He has a 100% chance of making the team and 95% chance of starting.
Sherrod Martin- Did Martin have a downright despicable 2011 season? Of course he did. Will he be able to retain his starting free safety spot? I'm not so sure, because I absolutely expect the battle to be fierce between he and Nakamura come July and August. With that being said, I'll give the incumbent Martin the same odds as the newcomer from Baltimore. 95% chance of making the team and a 50% chance of starting. If Martin loses, he will be cut.