The 5 Unsung Heroes of the Panthers 2011 Season

Tyler Horner@BR_TylerHornerCorrespondent IIJanuary 6, 2012

The 5 Unsung Heroes of the Panthers 2011 Season

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    A lot of big-name players stepped up this season and had huge seasons for the Carolina Panthers. Cam Newton was at the forefront of the media's attention and Steve Smith's resurgence made for an exciting season. 

    However, the complete turnaround this season did not come because of a few players. It happened because the backups and practice squad players were brought into the starting lineup due to injuries. 

    By the end of the season, there were starters on this defense whom many fans had never even heard of. Their fame did not match their play, though, as many played an integral part in a strong finish to the season. 

    Here are five players who contributed most when many expected the least. 

Antwan Applewhite, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker

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    With injury after injury interrupting any consistency that was beginning to form on the defensive side of the ball, some players were forced to play multiple positions. One of those players was Antwan Applewhite. 

    The defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid played well for the Panthers, becoming one of the only healthy pass rushers on the team and also giving the defense the flexibility to mix in a 3-4 scheme at times. 

    Applewhite isn't the most athletic player and was taken advantage of in coverage on occasion, but you have to take the bad with the good when you're playing defensive ends at linebacker. 

Thomas Keiser, Defensive End

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    A very heady player, Keiser did not only excel at understanding blocking schemes, but he also was an effective pass rusher. 

    The rookie defensive end quickly earned his spot on the team after being called up from the practice squad. Playing in only eight games while coming off the bench, Keiser still managed four sacks, good for a pace of eight over the course of an entire regular season. 

    He's a player that does not have sky-high potential, but he is a backup that you want to lock up as a key rotation player for as long as you can. 

Jason Shirley, Defensive Tackle

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    Jason Shirley only played four games this season, but he may have earned himself a spot on the 2012 depth chart with his play down the stretch. 

    Not only is Shirley a massive 6'5, 345-lb beast, he's nimble enough to get to the quarterback for 2.5 sacks in only four games. He is a definite space eater as well and has the talent to become the future starter for the Panthers. 

    Shirley is not an extremely defined 345 lbs, but with some added muscle, he could become the key piece of the puzzle that Ron Rivera needs to run a 3-4. Obviously, with his size, Shirley could play nose tackle in this scheme. 

Andre Neblett, Defensive Tackle

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    Andre Neblett earned the confidence of the coaching staff when he stepped up as the team's best run-stuffing defensive tackle when he saw an increase in playing time midway through the season. 

    Neblett is a sure candidate to start immediately next season for the Panthers, and is well-rounded enough to do so. He's not a great pass rusher but is often responsible for flushing the quarterback out of the pocket with consistent pressure up the middle. 

    Neblett's presence was clearly missed against the Saints and it's become obvious that the rotation consisting of Shirley and Neblett will fare much better than that of Sione Fua and Terrell McClain heading into next season. 

Brandon Hogan, Cornerback

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    The Panthers may very well have gotten a great steal in the fourth round of the 2011 draft with this cornerback out of West Virginia. 

    Hogan, who was kept off the field until Week 15 with a knee injury, immediately started for this defense and played exceptionally well. He understands the scheme and exceeds in zone coverage, using his quickness and instincts to make himself a valuable asset. 

    Hogan has plenty of room to grow, and if the Panthers elect to draft a cornerback in the 2012 Draft, we would fit in perfectly as the team's nickelback and could potentially become a replacement for veteran cornerback Chris Gamble.