The Panthers defense is the strong suit this season. The stats don’t necessarily reflect it, but a struggling offense often times forced them to be on the field a great deal longer than one would expect with an even middling offense. Matt Rhule did accomplish one thing; he created a defense that can hang with most offenses in the NFL. The elite passing offenses and the teams that can devote most of their game plan to running the football (often game-script dependent) have managed to cause plenty of issues, but overall I believe the next head coach has a defense they can lean on. Let’s take a look. I will grade some individual players while offering an overall score.
Brian Burns: A
Burns has already set a career high in sacks with 10 on the season, and he is pacing a career high in hurries with 8 compared to 16 in 2020. Burns is a franchise cornerstone at this point, and should garner a big extension going into 2023. If he doesn’t, the Panthers should be able to trade him for some premium draft capital. I’d personally expect them to retain him.
Derrick Brown: B+
Derrick Brown is coming into his own this season. He is finally the centerpiece of the defensive line, consistently creating chaos both in the passing and rushing game. He only has 1 sack at the moment, but he is pacing a career high in hurries and has already blown away his career high with 50 combined tackles this season compared to 41 all of last season. Man is a wrecking ball.
The rest: C
Marquis Haynes is on his way to a career high in sacks, with 3 on the year compared to 4 in 2020. He is a good rotational pass rusher, however the plan for Haynes and Yetur Gross-Matos to pick up the slack as the replacement for Haason Reddick as the outside force opposite Burns is not working as well as needed. Matt Ioannidis has managed to be disruptive at times opposite Brown on the interior, but overall this defensive line as a whole likely needs to add a piece or two in the offseason, especially with Ioannidis set to become a free agent.
Frankie Luvu: A+
Luvu quickly became the biggest playmaker on the defense. His impact can be seen in every game he’s been healthy. Between forcing fumbles, making big tackles for a loss, or picking off passes for touchdowns, Luvu is the most impactful linebacker we’ve seen since Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Not much else to say.
The rest: C+
Considering this group was expected to be a major weakness in 2022, I am pleasantly surprised at their performances. Shaq Thompson is the leader of the defense and consistently makes some big tackles in every game, while Cory Littleton and Damien Wilson have filled in as effective starters. Luvu is the star of this group, but it is overall solid considering how thin they should be on paper. Brandon Smith should be fun to watch as he gets some more snaps in the rotation.
Jaycee Horn: A+
The first round pick from 2021 has matched his counterpart in Ikem Eckwonu from 2022. Horn consistently grades in the upper echelon of his position in the NFL. He has 2 INTs and 5 pass deflections on the season, and he factors into basically every play. The Panthers throw him on the outside to shadow number one receivers, into the slot, and send him on both run and pass blitzes. The kid can do it all and is an elite piece for this secondary.
The rest: C-
Donte Jackson is hurt once again, throwing doubt onto his career going forward. He was having himself a nice season, though that doesn’t sound any different from the rest of his career; big plays here and there, big misses, and injury. CJ Henderson was the hype of the offseason, though he’s had some of the worst mishaps of the secondary and allowed some crucial gains on both receptions allowed and bad penalties committed. Keith Taylor looks like a future piece as an outside corner, but I need to see more.
Xavier Woods: B-
Xavier Woods quietly excels as a safety. He’s just dropped or missed too many potential turnovers for me to give him an A. He is a leader in this secondary however, and I think he might be the best defensive piece the team added via free agency in 2022.
Myles Hartsfield: B+
Hartsfield gets this grade because he can fill in literally anywhere in the secondary. He was initially pegged as a nickel corner for Carolina (since they apparently decided Jaycee Horn or CJ Henderson should start there initially). However, his biggest contribution in 2022 came after Jeremy Chinn’s injury. Hartsfield was thrust into a starting safety role and he never looked back. He was never perfect, but he looked solid everywhere Carolina put him. I like his potential and he should at least be the starting nickel in 2023.
The rest: C
I personally think Jeremy Chinn will thrive if Carolina can find themselves another full time safety to play opposite Woods (that could even be Hartsfield). Chinn unfortunately dealt with injury time this season so far, but it is pretty clear he thrives in a hit-man type role. He tackles well, he forces fumbles, and plays the line of scrimmage like a linebacker. That’s not to say he can’t play safety, I just don’t believe he should play it full time. Hanging back in deep halves or thirds in coverage just doesn’t suit his skillset. The Panthers should utilize his strengths. Let him play Joker, let him play Robber (both of those allow him to hang in the middle of the field and make plays as he sees fit), let him play big nickel, just let the guy roam all over the defensive backfield. Sam Franklin also impressed me a lot against the Broncos after being called in for some extended play time, and due to his heavy special teams production he should stick around as a depth piece.
In summary, the Panthers have assembled a defense with a ton of speed and versatility. Just about every level has a player that can play every position around them. Still, they’ll need a little bit more to become an elite defense. Luckily, all of their elite pieces (aside from Myles Hartsfield, don’t @ me) are under contract for 2023. I would love to see QB-DEF-DEF taken as their top 3 picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. And you all know how much I love drafting safeties.
What are your thoughts, Panthers fans?