The Panthers' defensive backfield has been a revolving door ever since the release of Chris Gamble as a cap casualty. The Panthers have had to replace three starters in the secondary this past offseason. Luckily, in 2013 Dave Gettleman managed to turn water into wine with the acquisitions of Mike Mitchell, Quintin Mikell, and Robert Lester. All three came in and saw significant playing time after Charles Godfrey went down with an achilles injury early in 2013. In turn, Mike Mitchell excelled as the starter at Free Safety while Mikell and Lester shared snaps at Strong Safety all season. Lester and Mitchell were certainly bright spots, but the turnaround makes the 2014 safety group look much different than last season's group.
With Mike Mitchell being awarded with a fat contract in Pittsburgh and Mikell likely playing his last snaps in the NFL, the Panthers were tasked this offseason with finding at least two replacements, and they may have found their guys in Thomas Decoud and Roman Harper. Both appear poised to start or at least see the bulk of the snaps while 2nd year safety Lester and rookie Tre Boston will compete for snaps.
The former New Orleans Saint is certainly a familiar (with infamous being a better word to most) face here in Carolina. Harper is a big strong safety who has made his mark as a force in run support and the turnover game. Harper brings a physical presence at strong safety we haven't really seen since the departure of Chris Harris.
While many fans will remember Harper with angst, we should expect solid production out of Harper, who has never really played with a front seven sported by the Panthers defense. He should thrive in run support and in the blitz game while filling in as well in "heavy nickel" formations. Harper should at the very least match Quintin Mikell's production last season, and will probably share snaps with Robert Lester and Tre Boston. The strong safety position may be more wide open than people think, but I think Rivera's inevitably will give the veteran nod here. I'm excited to see Harper lay some hits on the Saints for the first time in Charlotte.
Chances of Starting: 75% Chances of Making Roster: 100%
Decoud is another familiar face acquired from free agency. Thomas Decoud joins his fellow pro bowler Roman Harper on a team they both have played twice a year for the past several seasons. Decoud is coming off his worst season as a pro after an excellent 2012 season that granted him his first Pro Bowl nod. In 2012 he logged career highs in interceptions (6) and pass deflections (9). He's slotted to start at free safety here in Carolina with very little competition as former FS Charles Godfrey was moved to cornerback.
Decoud was showing steady progression and consistency over his career prior to 2013. He's started at least 15 games every year since his rookie season and has been a turnover machine over the course of time. It's very hard for me to believe that someone playing at his level for multiple years would fall so far off the wagon in one season, especially behind a front seven that was not on par with the prior years. Atlanta only logged 32 sacks as a team in 2013, a full 28 sacks less than Carolina. While Decoud certainly didn't play up to standard, a mediocre front seven can hinder it's secondary. And by the same token, a great front seven can hide deficiencies in the secondary, as evidenced by the pay days that Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn received. Mitchell played well in 2013, but it was his first year of real production. Munnerlyn was a good nickel cornerback in Carolina, but in years past the secondary was a huge problem before the emergence of an elite front seven. A good front seven can mask the weaknesses in a defense, a bad front seven makes them worse. I have no doubt that Decoud will make a visible improvement in 2014, and he should start over Colin Jones and Tre Boston, his only real competition at FS.
Chances of starting: 95% Chances of making roster: 100%
Robert Lester was a pleasant surprise last season. He and fellow undrafted free agent Melvin White started multiple games in relief of injuries, and played well at that. For his very first start, the Panthers only had Lester and Mike Mitchell starting, with only perennial special teamer Colin Jones backing them up. Lester responded with 5 tackles, a pass deflection, an interception, and a fumble receovery. Not bad for a UFA rookie starting his first NFL game. Lester would go on to start 3 more games and logged two more interceptions, both of which were highly impressive. One came against Larry Fitzgerald in a jump ball situation, and the other was the game winner in a controversial Patriots game on Monday Night Football.
Lester is the only safety left who started a game last season for the Panthers at his position (Godfrey moved to cornerback). He should be able to work his way into the rotation, though it remains to be seen how many snaps he actually gets. While Lester shined in limited action, he has a long way to go before he could be an every down starter for Carolina. Lester shows a nose for the football and forcing turnovers, but he was piss-poor in run support last season, and his inexperience really showed in the 49ers playoff game when Quintin Mikell went down with an injury. These are nitpicks however for an undrafted rookie, and Lester has a chance to improve while working with two veterans of the game and should get decent rotational time on passing downs. Lester was an excellent low risk pickup last season, and he may have an extended role ahead of him. While his job isn't exactly secure with two veteran pickups and the acquisition of Tre Boston in the draft, I'm fairly sure he will make the roster and see the field a bit more this season.
Chances of starting: 25% Chances of making roster: 75%
The former UNC safety/cornerback was the Panthers 4th round pick in 2014. The Panthers apparently considered fellow draftee Bene Benwikere at that spot, but elected to get Boston instead. Boston was a pick to address concerns of long term depth in the secondary, as in 2013 and 2014 Dave Gettleman signed free agent "mercenaries" to fill the void while long term options were unavailable. Boston possesses good ball skills and instincts, but is lacking in the run support department. He was willing to mix it up in the box in college, he just needs to be coached on tackling and angles. Boston is however a decent open field tackler, and should see competition from 2nd year player Robert Lester and special teamer Colin Jones.
While the strong safety spot is still slightly up in the air, I'm fairly certain Thomas Decoud will be the every down free safety. However, Boston may be a better fit for the free safety position should injury occur, as Lester is a better fit at strong safety. Boston will likely get reps at both spots, but I think he sticks as a backup free safety while he tries his hand at special teams in 2014. He will battle Lester for reps in training camp, but I think barring injuries he will get the year to learn the defense and adjust to the speed of the game at his pace. He should be a lock to make the roster, as the Panthers didn't burn a draft pick on Lester and acquired Colin Jones via trade for a late round pick.
Chances of starting: 15% Chances of making roster: 100%
Colin Jones is a guy I've been very high on for a long time. He came to us in August of 2012 via a trade with San Francisco for a 7th round pick, and has been an excellent special teamer ever since. He's notched at least 10 special teams tackles in the last two seasons and has been there when we needed him in a pinch. He stepped in at free safety towards the end of 2012, and saw action early on in 2013 with Quintin Mikell and Charles Godfrey all dealing with injuries. He actually made an interception against Buffalo that would have sealed the win had a penalty not been called on Luke Kuechly. His play over the past two seasons earned him a two year extension to play here in Carolina. And he definitely deserved it, watching film Colin Jones was definitely at or near the ball on the majority of special teams plays and is a solid open field tackler. He also shined in the preseason, snagging two interceptions against the Steelers in the final week of the 2014 preseason. He does just enough when on the field to not hamper the team into a loss, and is reliable in a pinch.
Jones likely won't see much of the field barring a drastic turnaround with injuries to the safety core, but after a dreadful special teams group not long ago, I'm glad to have the guy here playing. If the Panthers choose to roll with five safeties he will definitely make the roster. If they roll with four then things get a little sketchy, and the practice squad may be utilized. But after signing a well deserved extension I don't think we will see him go.
Chances of starting: 0% Chances of making roster: 75%
Russell should be another familiar face to Carolina fans. Last season he stuck with Carolina all the way up to September before being waived on an injury settlement, before reverting to injured/reserve for the remainder of the season. Russell shined on run support during the preseason, forcing fumbles and logging multiple sacks over that span. Russell showed value as a special teams guy who can knock the ball out and has good size. He can certainly be a contributor, but the Panthers defensive backfield is surprisingly deep this upcoming season. We have three guys with starting experience, a fourth round rookie, and a proven special teams commodity already in place. On top of that, Charles Godfrey should make the roster, and while he is technically a cornerback in 2014 he does possess extensive experience at both safety positions and will likely be considered should the injury bug bite. Russell will really have to outplay someone to make the final 53. But you never know in the NFL.
Chances of making roster: 25%