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Panthers 2018 season review: Cornerbacks

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The Panthers secondary didn’t play particularly well in 2018, but there is hope for the future.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers defense as a whole didn’t quite live up to the usual expectations in 2018, and the front seven deserves a lot of the blame (the coaches do, too, obviously). However, the secondary wasn’t exactly consistent either. The passing defense was by far the worst statistical performer to end the year. That’s certainly not good, but at cornerback the Panthers do have some pretty decent pieces going into 2019. Do they need to enhance the secondary or focus more on the front seven? Let’s examine that.

Familiar territory

2016 second round pick James Bradberry enters a contract year, after a consistently inconsistent career in Carolina. Sometimes he looked like a lock-down corner, other times he didn’t even look like a starter. If this narrative sounds familiar, its because former Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman followed a similar path in Carolina, but after a break out performance in 2015, Norman ended up a free agent after then-GM Dave Gettleman rescinded the franchise tag following a breakdown in negotiations.

Bradberry is a very similar player. He’s a long corner who the team has counted on to cover number one options. He’s played some really great lock-down games (especially against Mike Evans) that make him look like the number one corner you’d like on a top NFL defense. However, in 2018 Bradberry often seemed like he was in perfect position, only for wide receivers to come down with big catches for big plays. He didn’t get beat badly super often, but he did come inches away from big pass breakups and interceptions. With five interceptions over a three year span, you’d like to see more from a player who is given so much responsibility in this defense. Much like Norman, 2019 could make him a top tier free agent, or just another guy who flashed but never delivered consistently.

Speed and swagger

This Carolina secondary has lacked two things for the last two seasons; speed, and swagger. And you know what? They got both in 2018 second round pick Donte Jackson. Jackson logged four interceptions (five if you count his pick on a two point conversion attempt against Drew Brees) and nine passes deflected as he stepped into the second starting corner role. Jackson quickly opened many eyes as a ball hawk who isn’t afraid to get in there and make some tackles. He wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but he faced elite level competition at times and held his own. If 2018 is any indication, he should be playing in Carolina for a long time. He can play nickel and safety, but the Panthers seem fine with keeping him on the outside. And in a division with tons of wide receiver talent, this might be the best call. I’d like to see him shadow some of the faster options in 2019, but by all indications Marty Hurney hit a home run with this pick.

Veteran uncertainty

The Panthers have two major question marks with the rest of the cornerback group going into 2019:

  1. Does it make sense to bring back Captain Munnerlyn as the starting nickel corner?
  2. What can we reasonably expect from Ross Cockrell?

Both questions aren’t easily answered. Munnerlyn, while underwhelming in 2018, is really the only guy who the Panthers could count on at nickel cornerback. The next man up would be Corn Elder, who was overwhelmingly bad when he did get a chance to play. Cockrell, meanwhile, appears to be a perfect fit for Ron Rivera’s heavy zone defenses, a highly graded zone corner but an average at best man corner. However, he doesn’t possess the skill set or ideal body type to play as an inside corner. So, where do the Panthers go from here?

In my mind, they should cut bait with Munnerlyn for the cap relief. It isn’t much, but Munnerlyn hasn’t proven to be worth that. So if this group rolls into 2019 unaddressed, I’d think the best case scenario is to keep Bradberry and Jackson as the starters, but when nickel defense is needed they kick Jackson inside and let Cockrell play outside where he belongs. Is it the best answer? No, definitely not. But at the moment, this team really has to rely on Jackson to be a versatile threat, unless they spend draft capital or free agent money at corner.

All the rest

Kevon Seymour didn’t play a snap during the 2018 regular season following a shoulder injury that sent him to IR. Technically, he is still under contract for the 2019 season, and you could do much worse as far as cornerback depth. Corn Elder didn’t live up to his “under drafted” hype, and would really need a strong offseason to warrant significant time in the 2019 defense. Lorenzo Doss wowed in training camp, and is also still under contract in 2019.

The team could theoretically go into 2020 with this group, however, that means they’d be spending all of their capital on the front seven and safety positions (more on that later) and hoping it turns this defense around. I think looking into a nickel corner in the offseason makes a ton of sense, especially since the team will likely sport a multi-scheme 4-3/3-4 hybrid in 2019. A strong presence at the nickel spot, whether it’s a safety or corner, would help tremendously.