This is where it starts to get a little dicey, folks. With MLB Jon Beason and OLB Thomas Davis coming off major injuries, the Panthers jumped at the chance to draft another linebacker who happened to also be the best player available at #9.
Enter OLB/MLB Luke Kuechly. With Kuechly and OLB James Anderson in the fold, the LB corps--almost regardless of what happens with Beason and Davis--will at least be serviceable in 2012. But if Beason, Davis, Anderson and Kuechly are all healthy for 16 games, this group should be dominant.
We've heard some chirping from fans about how the Panthers should play a 3-4 defense since they have four capable LBs with a mediocre defensive line. Two things make this unrealistic to someone capable of tying his/her own shoes...
First, you are working under the assumption that all four LBs will stay healthy all season long. One of them had his achilles snap in half last September and another popped the ACL in his right knee for the third time. It would probably be wise to afford them some rest during games by putting only three of them on the field at the same time.
Second, Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott are 4-3 coaches. Marty Hurney is much more familiar with 4-3 personnel and the Panthers have signed a 4-3 DE to a $72 million contract. Like it or not, this defense will be a 4-3 defense for the foreseeable future.
It actually kind of works. The Panthers have four LBs who must fill three starting spots. The extra man allows for some rotation without any drop-off in play. Aside from the top four LBs on the depth chart, the Panthers will probably keep another four LBs who will be injury insurance and special teams regulars.
Let's examine what might happen with the top four LBs (Beason, Kuechly, Anderson, Davis) and then take a stab at predicting how the roster shakes out with LBs five through eight.
The first four...
Beason is recovering nicely from an achilles injury. In April, a video of him doing sprints and agility drills surfaced on YouTube. It was incredibly impressive to see him running around like that just eight months after his injury. An achilles used to be an 18 month ordeal, at least for the mortal man. On Thursday, May 24th, a report surfaced from the Charlotte Observer explaining that Beason is being held out of live drills until training camp, when he is expected to be a full-go.
Let's be honest, Beason is the undisputed leader of this defense. He is the heart and the soul--two elements that appeared to be lacking in his absence. It appears that Beason will be healthy for the 2012 season. If so, there is absolutely no way that Beason gets moved outside for performance issues. Again, if healthy, Beason will likely play every defensive down in 2012.
Chance of starting at MLB: 100% (Percentages based on top four LBs staying healthy.)
Anderson, the forgotten man, was the sixth leading tackler in the league in 2011. Part of the reason for this was because no one else could make a tackle, but that would be taking away from Anderson, who has developed into a terrific linebacker.
He is not great in coverage and he gets swallowed up by lineman, but if he can run free Anderson can be a difference maker. Ron Rivera has praised Anderson for taking on a bigger leadership role while Beason and Davis were on the shelf.
Look for Anderson to contribute more on early downs when the opponent is more likely to run the ball. He is the second-best blitzer (behind Davis) in the LB corps, so he will probably be on the field for the Panthers' more aggressive packages.
Chance of starting at an OLB spot: 75%
Kuechly is being called the 'Brian Urlacher to Beason's Lance Briggs.' If the two 'backers can put together a run like Urlacher and Briggs, then the Panthers defense should be respectable if not dominant for years to come.
Kuechly is big, fast and instinctive. He is excellent in pass coverage and very good against the run.
If there is one aspect of his game that is under-developed, it is his pass rush. At Boston College he was asked to patrol the box from sideline to sideline. With the Panthers, he will be called upon to rush the passer from time to time. While asking a more experience pass rusher (Davis, Anderson) to go get the QB would probably be the smarter move, the defense, like the offense, cannot be too predictable. So this is an area of Kuechly's game that must improve. And as much of a natural as he is, surely he'll pick it up in no time.
Look for Kuechly to pair up with Beason in the nickel defense, each player taking a half of the field to cover the short and intermediate routes.
Chance of starting at an OLB spot: 75%
In what is probably his last go of it, Thomas Davis has decided to make one more comeback attempt after tearing his right ACL for the third time in the span of 22 months. He is now able to move around a bit, and he is at OTAs with a large knee brace on.
The Panthers are taking it slow with Davis, too. They know that if he injures the knee again, that's going to be it. There is hope for Davis, though. During his last procedure, doctors took a tendon from his other leg and used it to rebuild his knee. So instead of tearing a thrice-torn ACL again, he would be injuring a tendon for the first time. It makes the idea of a full comeback a bit more likely.
Davis is still fast for a LB. He runs under a 4.6-40 yard dash even after three knee reconstructions. He is also a great blitzer, so he will likely be in most of the blitz packages. Davis could come in fresh to rush the passer. That could be more or less his role in 2012. Think of a Von Miller in Denver. Davis isn't Miller, but if he can boost the pass rush he could still play a key role the Panthers' defense.
Chance of starting at an OLB spot: 50%
The other guys...(calculating their chances of making the roster)
Five men, four spots. That's how the remainder of the LB corps looks to shake out. We'll start with the 'safest' players and move down the line:
A valuable special teams player and spot-duty LB. Senn can play a game or two without a noticeable drop-off. Combine that with his speed, tackling ability and toughness and Senn is almost a lock to make the roster.
Chance of being on the roster week 1: 90% (Again, these percentages are if no one gets hurt.)
The Nebraska-Omaha Maverick turned Minnesota Viking is entering his 4th season as a pro. During his time in Minnesota, Onatolu was known for his special teams prowess. He is not the biggest of players, but neither is Senn. In a way, they are much the same player.
Ron Rivera brought Onatolu in to help a punt coverage unit that allowed the highest return average in the league in 2011 (not to mention three TDs). You probably don't sign a guy to a four-year deal if you plan on cutting him in camp.
Chance of being on the roster week 1: 90%
Williams is a bigger linebacker, at 6-1 and 244lbs. Not much is known about the 26 year-old from Western Illinois, but he has proved to be a serviceable backup in spot duty with the Panthers. In the two games he played a significant role on defense, Williams finished with 7 and 8 tackles. The former third round draft pick of the Cowboys is more of a plugger, so he is not going to contribute as much on special teams as the speedier Senn and Onatolu. Still, he is a solid player who could play the strong-side should something happen to Anderson.
Chance of being on the roster week 1: 50%
Waived by Baltimore in September, Phillips appeared in four games last season for the Panthers before being placed on IR with a calf injury. The promising young player is more of a box linebacker, like Williams, but he did play on most of the special teams units in his four games last season. The Panthers signed Phillips to a contract extension in February, so he has a decent shot at making the team as a backup.
Chance of being on the roster week 1: 50%
Wilson, a former Charger (who would have guessed?), was signed as a free agent on November 16th. He was on the Panthers' practice squad for about six weeks prior to being singed to the active roster. He contributed six tackles--two of those on special teams.
Wilson will likely be the odd man out if the Panthers do decide to keep eight linebackers. His saving grace might be his experience at inside linebacker. The Panthers don't have any ILBs besides Beason and Kuechly, but Williams and/or Phillips would probably be capable.
Chance of being on the roster week 1: 20%
There you have it. The 2012 Carolina Panthers linebacker depth might look something like this:
Beason, Anderson, Kuechly, Davis, Senn, Onatolu, Williams, Phillips.