The 2012 season was one that saw the defensive end position return to dominance in Bank of America Stadium. A stable of home-grown talent finally matured, giving the team its best pass rushing in a decade. Coupled with this, the team enjoyed production from unpredictable places, and now a position that looked so weak for so long, can be leaned on as a team strength.
It has been a long time since the Carolina Panthers had a dominant pass rush. Julius Peppers was the team's constant, but across from him was a cavalcade of mediocrity -- a talentless black hole, left void since Mike Rucker's retirement in 2007. When Julius bolted for colder pastures in Chicago, the Panthers had no plan -- only hope. That hope hinged on Charles Johnson, a then-young pass rusher that advanced metrics said was poised to break out, but who it was hard to throw unconditional faith behind -- especially with just 10.0 career sacks to his name. To the chagrin of the rest of the NFC South, he did break out, and in a big way. Now joined by Greg Hardy, whose coming out party happened in 2012 -- Carolina is a team to watch on the rush.
It's an absolute crime that Johnson wasn't named to the Pro Bowl over Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants. He finished his season with 12.5 sacks, and 7 forced fumbles -- those are spectacular numbers, but it's the overall pressure he generates on a quarterback that is most telling about his 2012 season.
A combination of sacks, hits, and hurries -- the PRP is a signature stat from Pro Football Focus that delves deeper into a pass rusher's ability, and removes the tired argument that sacks are everything. If you were to reduce a pass rusher to only his sacks, then we're lauding or chiding players for 12-20 plays per year, with no context for whether a quarterback slipped, or the protection was in such disarray that an easy sack was for the taking.
Just like fans are learning that cornerback INTs are unreliable, so too we're finding that a pass rusher cannot be judged on sacks alone. Herein lies the beauty of Charles Johnson's game -- how disruptive he is. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the third-most productive pass rusher in the NFL this year. Generating 47 total pressures on 267 pass rush snaps, he outranked players getting far more attention nationally.
This is absolutely, and utterly simple. The arguments on whether he is overpaid are really without cause, because Charles Johnson has earned every cent of that 'Big Money' contract since being courted in free agency. No, he probably wont ever have those 16+ sack totals, but it's vital to understand why he's so good at what he does -- rather than comparing him to the Jared Allen's of the league who get all the sacks, but who can't crack the top-20 in overall pressures.
I wont compare myself to Ron Rivera in many areas, except when it comes to being hard on Greg Hardy. The frustration of his 2011 season was due to seeing a player who had everything you could ever want out of a defensive end, but seemingly unable to put it all together on Sundays. He started 16 games in 2011, and could only show 4.0 sacks -- while also failing to make an impact in overall pressures.
His run stopping was worse. Directly allowing 2.6 yards per run play directed at him, Football Outsiders graded Hardy 52nd in run stopping among defensive ends. No, this wasn't the worst in the league -- but it was close. He had a tendency to react slowly to what was actually happening, over-pursue things that weren't, and too often find himself out of position. Quickly it was looking like Greg Hardy would be an Achilles heel of the defensive line, and soon-to-be relegated solely to third-down pass rushing. When the organization traded a future pick to select Frank Alexander, it looked to be the beginning of the end.
And then the light came on.
All the work put in by Ron Rivera and his staff worked in concert with Hardy better understanding the NFL. His run stopping improved 10-fold, and with Charles Johnson getting doubled across from him, he found he role. A furious, sometimes manic pass rusher -- Greg Hardy tore through offensive lines, registering 11.0 sacks on the year. His 61 total tackles led all defensive ends, and while he wasn't in the stratosphere that Charles Johnson was, Hardy had an exceptional season.
Greg Hardy isn't a complete product yet, and that's what makes his future so exciting. He still needs to better recognize plays pre-snap, which with further aid his first step, and generate more pressures. It remains to be seen what his long-term role in the organization is, especially with his contract up following the 2013 season, but for now it's nice to sit back, and enjoy one of the league's best pass-rush tandems.
We didn't get to see a lot of the Carolina Panthers' rookie, but what we did see was awfully encouraging. His lack of snaps came from Greg Hardy's breakout, but Alexander made an impact when he was on the field. It's all too easy to look at 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks and say 'ho, hum' -- but the reality is that those 2.5 sacks ranked him 4th among rookie 4-3 defensive ends in sacks, and tied 16th among all rookies, regardless of position.
Alexander is big, has good instincts, and has shown that the game isn't too big for him. His development will be something to watch moving forward.
Relegated to just six games due to injury, it's impossible to really grade Applewhite. He has versatility, which will play dividends in a defense set to feature more 3-4 looks, but he could also be a cut casualty.
Like Applewhite, the Panthers' biggest surprise in 2011 was unable to make an impact this year due to injury. His youth, and past ability will ensure he gets a chance this year -- despite that injury. Carolina will hope he's the final piece to their already promising unit.
One of Carolina's last-season "who the heck is this guy?" additions, Mario Addison was a welcome surprise for the Panthers. Registering a sack in his only start, he showed a surprising amount of ability -- especially from a player written off as a temporary fix. The level he played at will definitely give him room to try and compete from a rotational spot, and his ability to play outside in a 3-4 scheme will be welcome.