I’ll start this off by saying that I was an avid advocate for the Panthers signing or drafting another safety outside of Eric Reid this offseason. However, as the active part of free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft have come and gone, the Panthers still haven’t done anything aside from release veteran safety Da’Norris Searcy since signing Eric Reid. They also didn’t do much to address nickel corner, instead opting to see what they have on the roster. However, they have done enough that I’m willing to observe the offseason activities and training camp with an open mind, and here’s why.
The Panthers drafted edge rusher Brian Burns in the first round, and edge rusher Christian Miller in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, indicating a big philosophical shift defensively. The Panthers have been known for a stout defensive line for most of their history, however for the last near-two decades it has been under a 4-3 front (four defensive lineman, three linebackers) as they let their front four do most of the work rushing the passer and setting the tempo in the trenches. After two seasons of becoming relatively more blitz oriented to create pressure (mainly because they needed to), the Panthers have went full on into a new defensive game plan, which is to rush from wherever and whenever they want. Combine those draft picks with acquiring defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and it has become clear the Panthers are doing something that should sound familiar. Let’s examine what their front seven looks like right now with projected starters (a 3-4 assumption).
- DE/OLB Mario Addison/Christian Miller
- DE/OLB Brian Burns/Bruce Irvin
- DT Kawann Short
- DT Gerald McCoy
- NT Dontari Poe
With that front five backed up by Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson, it’s clear that the Panthers went all in on building back up a once stout front seven. The last time they had a truly elite front seven? Why, the 2013 season of course! With bookends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy around an elite pairing of Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, the Panthers linebacking core thrived, boasting an elite defense that helped bring them Cam Newton’s first appearance in the playoffs, and that was with a VERY sub par secondary. Let’s look at that starting group for a moment.
- CB Captain Munnerlyn (who shifted to nickel corner in three cornerback sets)
- CB Melvin White
- CB Drayton Florence
- S Mike Mitchell
- S Quinton Mikell
What a group of world beaters there, right? Well, that defense was arguably the best they’ve fielded since the early 2000s. But a stout front seven can often mask a mediocre-to-bad secondary. But guess what? This Panthers secondary is actually #prettygood.
James Bradberry and Donte Jackson are by far the most talented starting two corners the Panthers have fielded since Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere/Charles Tillman, and before that, probably Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas. Behind them are safety Eric Reid, and 2018 3rd round pick Rashaan Gaulden, who appears penciled in as the starter opposite Reid barring an injury or a really terrible preseason. On top of that, the nickle corner position remains up in the air, as only Corn Elder has seen any real game snaps at nickel in this current crop of cornerbacks.
But hey, it really isn’t all that bad. For starters, the Panthers could opt to use career outside zone corner Ross Cockrell as an outside corner in nickel sets, kicking Donte Jackson inside, which IS something he did in college. In addition, Ron Rivera’s defenses don’t usually have a set FREE safety and STRONG safety, as the two share similar responsibilities and often take about 50/50 snaps at each spot. Rivera has made defenses work well with worse safeties (Mikell and Mitchell above for example), and usually the catalyst for a successful secondary is a strong front seven.
The Panthers defense has been at its best when the Panthers can rush the passer effectively, it forces the ball to come out faster and allows the corners to be more aggressive with their coverage. A top tier run defense also helps, as the Panthers secondary can focus on their assignments like containing the outside rush and filling gaps in the interior. A good front seven is their best friend, and will help mask weaknesses where the secondary comes up short. Rush the passer, dictate the tempo, dominate the line of scrimmage, and you see profit on the back end.
Could the Panthers benefit from trying to find another safety? Sure, absolutely, but they opted to double down on a strength rather than sign a safety off the street with the limited capital they had in the cap space, electing to see through their investment on Gaulden last season in the draft. They’ve given their secondary a better chance to succeed by loading up on pass rushing talent, who make everybody’s jobs easier on passing plays when they play well. And with this hybrid front they claim to boast, pressure will come from all sides and keep the opposing offense on its toes.
I’m not saying Gaulden will be a great starter, but we’ve seen the Panthers put together an elite overall unit with much worse on the back end. And heck, even if Gaulden doesn’t work out, Colin Jones has experience starting behind elite front sevens :)