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Projected Panthers 2009 Depth Chart: Linebackers

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Recently, the Panthers have had one of the deepest LB corps in the league, full of guys with speed and ability. It's clear that the team values the position, as they've not only had up to eight roster spots used on the position (nine if LS Jason Kyle is counted), but also have shown they're willing to pick up talent there even if the depth chart has them blocked initially. Both Jon Beason and Dan Connor were drafted early with no regard for the fact that neither seemed to have a starting spot available to them. Beason, however, took the reins early in his 2007 rookie season after a Dan Morgan injury, and Connor showed he could be a valuable contributor on special teams even if he wasn't getting defensive playing time, leading the team in ST tackles prior to a torn ACL while covering a kickoff in the third game of the season against the Vikings. After the jump, we'll take a look at how this year's LB depth chart is shaping up.

Na'il Diggs Jon Beason Thomas Davis
Landon Johnson Dan Connor James Anderson

Last season, the Panthers carried seven linebackers on their 53-man roster (not including Jason Kyle, who was listed at the position, but was exclusively a long-snapper). All six of the players listed above were members of the opening day roster, but the Panthers also saw a couple players who were on the active roster leave in the offseason. Adam Seward, a backup MLB who played exclusively on special teams in an injury-riddled '08 season, signed a one-year deal with the Colts and is currently listed as their top backup at MLB. Donte' Curry, a special teams ace who found a roster spot after Dan Connor's season-ending knee injury, was second on the team in special teams tackles in just 13 games, but was not resigned by the Panthers and is currently a free agent.

Now, a look at the players on the current 80-man roster.

Jon Beason (3rd year, University of Miami) - 6'0", 237: Beason has been a sensation since he entered the league. He set a Panthers record for tackles in his rookie season and engaged in a very close Defensive Rookie of the Year race with Patrick Willis of the 49ers. In his second year, he showed an even more diverse range of skills, increasing his interceptions from 1 to 3, including two important picks that helped close out wins against Arizona and Green Bay. He also had an interception in the playoff loss and total of 9 PDs on the year, showing he is primed to be a force in coverage under Ron Meeks, who has shown a willingness to let his linebackers get involved in the passing game in the past. Perhaps most impressively, though, he played most of the season with a torn labrum suffered in the week 8 win against the Cardinals, an injury that occurred just two plays before the aforementioned INT. As Beason put it,

I was basically playing with no strength. When I tackled someone it was almost like throwing a pillow at them. I had no grip in that arm, no way to stop someone. I played like that the rest of the season, just fighting to get the job done. It took away my range of motion. But I know my teammates would do the same for me.

Impressive willpower and drive on his part. He's only 24, and should only continue to get better as Carolina's rock-solid MLB for years to come.

Thomas Davis (5th year, Georgia) - 6'0", 240: Davis was moved to the third position of his NFL career last year, and he may have finally found a home at weakside linebacker. He was able to establish new career highs in tackles, sacks, and PDs as the coaching staff found a way to take advantage of Davis' speed and reaction instincts while finding a way to minimize his occasional struggles in coverage which were more apparent at safety and LOLB. This coming year will be an important one for Davis, as the Panthers have allowed him to reach the final year of his rookie deal. With a young gun in Dan Connor likely ready to take over next year, Davis will be playing for a job one way or another.

Na'il Diggs (10th year, Ohio St.) - 6'4", 240: Diggs arrived in Carolina before the 2006 season as an affordable veteran who could add depth to the position and perhaps compete for a starting spot, but Diggs had other ideas. He's started 35 of the last 45 games at OLB for the Panthers, and is currently the starter at strong-side LB. Last season, he fought off a challenge by Landon Johnson, a free agent with a much bigger contract than Diggs, and he will likely have to fight for this job against both Johnson and Dan Connor, but at this point, his steady play likely makes him a clear favorite to win the position. Diggs is a solid player and a good special teams contributor, if not a flashy, big-impact player (involved in just two turnovers in his three years here.) I'd say he'll probably win this job unless Johnson or Connor very clearly outplay him during the preseason or camp, but even if he doesn't, he'll likely be kept around, as he's under contract for a very cap-friendly average of $1.25 million over the next two years.

Landon Johnson (6th year, Purdue) - 6'2", 232: Johnson was the Panthers' biggest free agent signing of the '08 offseason, but was largely a disappointment in his first year as a Panther following a successful start to his career in Cincinnati (average of 13 GS and 100 tackles.) He had shown the ability to start at all LB positions, but struggled to pick up the defense here, and made most of his contributions on special teams, including a forced fumble on KR Skyler Green of New Orleans which was recovered and returned for a TD by Dante Wesley, points that proved crucial in a 33-31 victory that secured the division crown. Johnson was considered a candidate to be released this offseason, but restructured his deal in a way that allowed the team to keep him and save the same amount. He will continue to be a special teams stalwart and will compete with Diggs and Connor to start at LOLB.

Dan Connor (2nd year, Penn St.) - 6'2", 231: Connor was a surprising third-round draft pick by the Panthers in 2008, who already seemed to be set at the linebacker position. As a projected first round pick by some, though, his value was simply too high to pass up when the Panthers pick came at #74 and Connor was still on the board. Connor rewarded their diligence, too, leading the team in special teams tackles as a standout on both kick and punt coverage through the first two-plus games. However, during the third game against the Vikings, Connor tore his ACL while covering on a kickoff and required season-ending surgery, although he actually covered one more kickoff after the injury. Connor was profiled as a solid, instinctive player with the ability to play any of the LB spots, and there was actually some talk early last summer that he could take over the MLB spot and the team would move Jon Beason to the outside, where he began his career before a Dan Morgan injury moved him to the inside. Connor should continue to be a presence on special teams and will compete to start at LOLB.

James Anderson (4th year, Virginia Tech) - 6'2", 235: Anderson is a former third-round pick who has never quite lived up to expectations, although the talent in front of him has had much to do with that. He was retained with the low RFA tender offer ($1.01 million) which would have returned a 3rd-round pick to the team had he been signed away, but received no interest on the FA market. Anderson only played defense in two games last year, and has started just three games in his three years here, so he is the most likely of our veteran linebackers to be cut, to which his non-guaranteed salary also contributes. Still, he should have a leg up on the remaining candidates to make the roster, who are all undrafted free agents with fewer than two years of experience in the league.

Jeremy Leman (2nd year, Illinois) - 6'2", 240: Leman is a former college All-American who went undrafted in 2008 and spent the preseason with the Vikings before being released in the final round of cuts. He was regarded as an instinctive player with high football IQ who lacked the physical attributes to be an NFL player. Chance of making team: 3.75%

Anthony Heygood (rookie, Purdue) - 6'1", 225: Heygood is a former running back who converted to linebacker and started for two years. He was considered a draftable prospect by some sources, and despite his inexperience at the position, he was a productive player due to his athleticism and instincts, and was voted the team's MVP by his teammates this past season. His future in the NFL--if he has one--is likely as a special teams demon and at the weakside LB position. Chance of making team: 6%

Mortty Ivy (rookie, West Virginia) - 6'1", 239: Ivy was another possible late-round pick who was a three-year starter. He likely projects as an OLB in the pros, but he also got some experience in the middle, and could conceivably play there in the NFL if he improves his football awareness. He was a first team All-Big East player for the 2008 season, and once came back from a torn ACL in April to play in 11 games for WVU. Like Leman, and unlike Heygood, he is considered a player who has used his intangibles to overcome a lack of extraordinary physical abilities. Chance of making team: 4%

EDIT: A girl I work with who's a WVU fan says, and I quote, "He's good." So I think that tells me two things: relatively casual fans of the team are aware of his existence, which means he was making plays, and they don't hate him. So those aren't bad things. :)

EDIT: These next two guys have been cut as of 6/30, but I'll leave their profiles for posterity's sake.

Brit Miller (rookie, Illinois) - 6'0", 243: After playing alongside Leman on the outside, he took over the MLB spot last year and was incredibly productive, leading the Big Ten in tackles per game at 11+. He is an experienced (38 career starts), huge LB, but there are concerns about his tackling technique, conditioning ("He's one of the only LBs in FBS with a gut"), and work ethic. A message board post compared Leman and Miller thusly:

J (Jeremy) was just a very emotional and smart player, but he has physical limitations. Brit is built better, he's much faster, he's better in coverage, and he's more versatile.

Chance of making team: 3.5%

Mike Juergens (rookie, Wyoming) - 6'3", 230: Juergens was a two-year starter at OLB who led the Cowboys in sacks last year. He posted decent numbers in the agility tests at his pro day with a 7.16 three-cone drill time, a 4.27 short shuttle time, and a 12.00 in the long shuttle. Chance of making team: .01%