The Carolina Panthers expected to get a boost on their defensive front in 2012, drafting two tackles in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft and signing veteran nose tackle Ron Edwards over the offseason.
Plans kinda fell through.
Expectations for Edwards were pretty high in Charlotte. While he's never been a Pro-Bowl talent, he put together some solid seasons in Kansas City and would certainly have been an strong replacement for last year's starting nose tackle Derek Landri. But he went down in training camp with a torn triceps and was lost for the season before playing a single down in a Panthers uniform.
That left the task of clogging up run lanes to the Panthers' two rookies, Stanford's Sione Fua and South Florida product Terrell McClain. The Panthers managed to hit the trifecta of bad luck when when they placed both DT's on the injured reserve after Week 13's win over Tampa Bay.
When the Panthers took Fua with their second third-round pick in 2011, several draft experts called it a reach. And to be honest, he played up to that stigma during the season. Fua impressed enough during camp for the Panthers to cut youngsters Corey Irvin and Nick Hayden during training camp, but it's clear to anyone who watched that he wasn't ready to start at the NFL level.
He did get better later in the season and he would have greatly benefited from playing behind a veteran like Edwards. The 300-pounder might have enough athleticism to become a starting nose tackle, but I'm not convinced he has enough talent. While I'm sure the experience he gained this season will benefit him greatly down the road, he needs to develop another season or two before he's ready to man the middle in Carolina.
McClain showed a little more promise then the man lining up to his right. The 6'2" 290-pounder showed more lateral agility along the line and was much more effective providing pressure up the middle. After a shaky start he was starting to play really well leading up to his injury, compiling 13 tackles and one sack in Weeks eight through 13 after having just six in the seven weeks prior.
We probably won't see any lingering effects from the left knee injury that sidelined him for the season, and a starting DT job should be McClain's to lose next season. But give the youngster a full offseason with Ron Rivera (who's orchestrated top-five defenses everywhere he goes) and we should see a much improved McClain in 2012.
To fill the gaping hole in left in Fua and McClain's absence, Carolina relied heavily on the undrafted second-year player Andre Neblett and rookie Frank Kearse, who both played really well in their own rights. Kearse is a big body at 6'5" 325 and eats a lot of space along the defensive front; however, he doesn't really have the stamina or athleticism to be much more than a depth and situational player.
Neblett, like McClain, also showed a knack for collapsing the pocket, logging 23 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and two fumble recoveries in 12 games (four starts) last season. He has a chance to compete with McClain for significant playing time next season, and it should be an interesting battle to watch.
2011 Performance Grade: D
The Panthers were among the league's worst against the run, especially on rush attempts up the middle. But even still, I think Rivera and company did a decent job filling in players as injuries decimated the line. When Edwards went down, so did the lines leader. Aside from the 11-year vet, the senior-most member on the line when camp broke was the second-year Kearse.
It's hard for any unit to be productive without any veteran presence on it (just look at the entire Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
But it might not be any different next season.
There's been grumblings that the team will release Edwards, taking his $3.5m owed over the next two seasons off the books. Whether they do this or not depends on how we use our first round draft pick in the draft.
If the Panthers decide to take a Michael Brockers or Devon Still with the eighth pick, Ronnie-boy might be the odd man out. If they go in another direction, I think Edwards gets his chance in Carolina.