The Carolina Panthers have lacked stability at the safety position for several years now. Last offseason, Panthers GM Dave Gettleman signed veteran free agents Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper as short-term stopgaps at the strong and free safety positions, but both performed extremely poorly during the 2014 season. DeCoud’s play was so bad, the Panthers ended up benching him after Week 11. DeCoud’s replacement was rookie Tre Boston, who played extremely well as the starter for the rest of the season at the free safety position.
Roman Harper’s play during the 2014 season was also not much better than DeCoud’s, although his play did improve after Boston’s insertion into the starting line-up. However, even with Harper’s improved play late in the year, he was still a liability against the run and pass, and was probably the worst player overall on the Panthers defense. The 2015 season will likely be Harper’s last in Carolina, so the Panthers absolutely need to find a long-term starter at the strong safety position to moving forward.
Could Alabama safety Landon Collins be that long-term solution? Most talent evaluators consider Collins to be the top safety in this year’s Darft, and are projecting him to be a mid-first round pick. It will be fascinating to see what Dave Gettleman does if Collins ends up "falling" to the Panthers 25th overall pick.
Collins is arguably the best safety in this year’s Draft. He showed the ability to line up and play anywhere in Alabama’s defensive formation -- close to the line of scrimmage as a blitzer, as a run defender in the box, and also in single high coverage shells as the last line of defense. Collins also showed the ability to use his size (6-feet, 228 pounds) and athleticism (4.53-40) to match up well against tight ends and slot receivers in man coverage. He displayed good instincts and was a solid downhill tackler.
Collins doesn’t have fluid sideline-to-sideline ability, so he likely won’t be a free safety in the NFL. He best projects as an in-the-box strong safety, or as a half-field defender in Cover/Tampa 2 formations. In the Panthers defense, Collins could play almost like a third linebacker in the box alongside Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in the Panthers nickel formations. This would be similar to how the Seattle Seahawks use oversized strong safety Kam Chancellor, a player with a similar playing style as Collins.
The Panthers have lacked reliable play at safety for several years now, and part of that has to do with the lack of investment they have made in the position early in the Draft. Adding a safety like Landon Collins in the first round would allow the Panthers to keep their strengths on defense strong, while finally getting a long-term answer at the strong safety position.