Panthers Defensive Line: 2003 vs. 2013

Greg Hardy (76) and Charles Johnson (95) are a scary sight for RGIII, and all NFL quarterbacks. - Rob Carr

Which is better, the Super Bowl season defensive line or the current one? The answer may surprise you.

Ah, 2003. Facebook was but a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Twitter was three years away from seeing the light of day. Beyonce’s Crazy in Love was the Billboard #1 single, and the final movie in the Lord of the Rings series, The Return of the King was the highest grossing film. And I was but a lost college student, basking in the glow of undergrad life and the amazing season of the Carolina Panthers.

Better known as the Cardiac Cats. the 2003 Panthers were most remembered for their last minute victories led by QB Jake Delhomme. They are arguably the most successful team in franchise history; with an 11-5 season and an NFC Championship, the 2003 Carolina Panthers reached Super Bowl XXXVIII, where they lost on a last second field goal to the New England Patriots. If you feel nostalgic and want to relive this magical season, take a detour and watch the following:

This Super Bowl contending team was known for its incredible defensive line, comprised of Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Brentson Buckner, and Mike Rucker. This incredible line combined to put up incredible numbers: 24.5 sacks, 174 total tackles, 6 forced fumbles, 3 blocked kicks, and an interception to boot.

Fast forward to 2013, where an emerging defensive line looks eerily similar to the highly acclaimed one in 2003. They both have a solid, underrated, veteran defensive end (Charles Johnson and Mike Rucker) paired with another that us young, ferocious, and on-the-brink of stardom (Greg Hardy and Julius Peppers). The interior also combines a wily, journeyman veteran (Dwan Edwards and Brentson Buckner) with a young runstuffer (Star Lotulelei and Kris Jenkins).

With the hype so high surrounding this year’s defensive line, Panthers fans are clamoring that this is the best defensive line ever. Question is: which one is the best ever? Let’s take a closer look and compare each position.

Right Defensive End: Charles Johnson (27 years old) vs. Mike Rucker (26)

In this corner: Charles Johnson is highly paid for a reason. He is a sack master (33 sacks in the last three seasons) and a turnover machine, forcing 7 (!) fumbles last year. As captain of the defensive line, Johnson clearly leads the way for this illustrious defensive line.

In the other corner: Long ago, Mike Rucker was also captain, and every bit as impressive as Johnson. In the Super Bowl season of 2003, Rucker was a disruptive force, totaling 12 sacks and even an interception. Overlooked was the fact that Rucker won NFL Defensive Player of the Month in September 2003, for his 5 sacks, 21 tackles, 13 hurries and one batted pass performance. As much as Johnson is considered underrated, Mike Rucker is equally so.

The decision: Mike Rucker, 2003. Although it is a close contest, Rucker takes the victory as a result of a better body of work up to that point, and has a Pro Bowl and Defensive Player of the Month awards to his name. With Johnson being 26 and Rucker being 28 in the Super Bowl year, Johnson still has plenty of room to improve and eclipse Rucker one day.

Left Defensive End: Greg Hardy (25) v. Julius Peppers (23)

In this corner: Known as the Kraken by many, Greg Hardy is on the verge of stardom. While his early career was derailed by injuries, Hardy broke onto the scene last season, notching 61 tackles, 11 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 4 stuffs at the young age of 24. The future looks bright for the Panthers defense, and Hardy is a big reason why.

In the other corner: Although his nickname, Pep, is less heralded than Hardy, Julius Peppers’ game speaks louder. Peppers was also very young (23) in the 2003 season, but did not put up the numbers you would have expected. During their Super Bowl run, Peppers recorded a modest 43 tackles, 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 4 stuffs. He did, however, have 1 blocked field goal in an important divisional game against Tampa Bay.

The decision: Draw. This might be surprising, but looking at where Peppers was at that point in his career, Hardy is equally as productive. Time will tell if Hardy can continue his ways and match Peppers’ legendary career.

Left Defensive Tackle: Dwan Edwards (32) v. Brentson Buckner (32)

In this corner: Though he was signed late (September!) and was his first year as a Carolina Panther, Dwan Edwards made his mark quickly. He had an amazing stat line for 2012, 52 tackles, 6 sacks and a forced fumble. Unfortunately, whether it was because of age or because of overuse, he did appear to overmatched at times, particularly late in games.

In the other corner: Brentson Buckner was nomadic before coming to the Panthers. Prior to his stint in Carolina, Buckner had stops in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, and was not considered a star signing by any means. But when he arrived, he was more than a "serviceable vet;" he was a consistent interior force in the pass rush, which more than what the Panthers have had recently. Although he is considered as the least heralded of the 2003 defensive line, he held up his own with 5 sacks and 32 tackles.

The decision: Dwan Edwards, 2013. This was the toughest matchup of the four, as this was a battle between the model of consistency in Buckner, versus the up and down performance of Edwards. I believe at Dwan’s best, he is a tick better than Buckner at his best.

Right Defensive Tackle: Star Lotulelei (23) v. Kris Jenkins (24)

In this corner: Star Lotulelei is the star of 2013 Panthers draft; the once considered top-3 pick fell into their laps, and is expected to be a godsend for the run defense. In his senior year at Utah, he was a first-team All-American for his eye-popping performance: 42 tackes, 11 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 4 pass breakups, and 3 forced fumbles. He has yet to take an official snap for the Panthers, so his actual performance remains to be seen.

In the other corner: Kris Jenkins is quite possibly the best second round pick in franchise history. In his career, he was a complete force, making the Pro Bowl four times; the All-Pro team, three. In 2003, he was nearly unstoppable, with 46 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble, and 2 blocked kicks, both in the same game!

The decision: Kris Jenkins, 2003. With Lotulelei yet to play a game and Jenkins being one of the top DT’s at the time, this decision was the easiest of the bunch. Let’s hope Lotulelei does not suffer fate as Jenkins, as injuries and weight ruined a potentially Hall of Fame career.

The Final Count

The 2003 Panthers narrowly defeat the current defensive line by a split decision, 2-1-1. But seeing that the lines are even closely matched (even in age!) gives hope that the 2013 season will be a successful one for the Panthers. (Just don’t expect me to go Ryan Kalil on you and predict a Super Bowl win.)

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