The numbers might not have been great, but Carolina has one of the better defensive end units in their division. While they didn't play particularly well last season (like the rest of their injury-riddled defense), there's reason to feel optimistic about the Panthers' pass rush in the coming years.
After a monstrous 2010, the Panthers paid out the nose last offseason to lock down Charles Johnson, paying him $72 million over the next six years to man the left side of their defensive front. In 2011, he showed that he was worth every penny of that contract.
The tackles and sacks were down, but this was more a product of shoddy play around him and teams game-planning for the former Georgia Bulldog. Despite facing constant double teams without any real help from the interior lineman, he managed to get to the quarterback nine times and be a real run disruptor.
Johnson is quickly climbing the ranks as one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL, and he's a lock at the position for years to come in Carolina. We saw just how effective he can be when he has a healthy Panthers defense around him, and with Ron Rivera at the helm the future looks awfully bright for the 25 year old.
On the other side of the defensive line lives the Kraken, Greg Hardy. Just like Johnson his numbers don't tell the whole story, but he doesn't have the same kind of happy ending.
Hardy was first among the Panthers' linemen with 50 tackles, was on the field for a division high 87.1 percent of the Panthers' plays, led the team with 17 quarterback hurries and was second on the team in passes defensed with 11 (more than any other lineman in the NFL).
Put all that together, and it looks like a disruptive, resilient, high-engine pass-rusher. And while Hardy could be that guy, he just isn't yet.
Who should line-up opposite Johnson next season?
At 6'4" and 277 pounds, Hardy is an athletic freak who certainly has the potential to develop into a well-rounded defensive end, and like I said he is putting together some nice numbers. Particularly, I love the way he gets his hands up at the line of scrimmage; 11 passes defensed in your first season as a starter is nothing to shake a leg at.
But Hardy still has a long way to go. While he is able to create some pressure on the outside and create some significant problems for the quarterback, right now his high-powered motor moves in only one direction, and that's forward. He's dreadful against the run, and doesn't really have the capability to move laterally along the line of scrimmage and clog up holes.
If he doesn't work on this, he might develop into a third-down specialist/situational-type player. But I'm not ready to give up on Hardy just yet, and there's a lot of things that can help out the MIssissippi product.
We need to remember this past season was just his first as a starter, and he didn't have the benefit of a full offseason in Rivera's system. Will a full spring of OTAs and training camps, combined with a hopefully healthy defense, the Kraken just might blossom this season.
With Ron Edwards clogging up the gaps and a healthy linebacking corps providing more pressure in the middle and on the gaps, Hardy might be able to run rampant into opposing teams' backfields.
The anomaly in the unit is Thomas Keiser. He, like fellow defensive lineman Andre Neblett, was an undrafted player who provided a much-needed boost to the Panthers' defense late in the season. In just eight games, Keiser racked up four sacks (tied for second on the team), 13 tackles and an interception.
He still has to develop significantly before he can contribute on a consistent level, but I like what I've seen out of Keiser. While he might have benefited from another year at Stanford, he has the physical tools to grow into a key reserve in Rivera's system.
His presence in the lineup also allows the Panthers' front office to put the money originally set aside to bring back Antwan Applewhite elsewhere.
While Applewhite played a lot of key (and productive) minutes for the Panthers last season, and has a history of playing with Rivera in San Diego, I think the Panthers have to let him walk. He'll likely demand more than the $500,000 he made in 2011, and the Panthers have other more pressing needs they should address this offseason.
Keiser is four years younger and will come with a cheaper price tag. While he doesn't have the same kind of experience in Rivera's system, the Panthers have already remedied that by signing former Charger Jyles Tucker to a one-year contract.
After an impressive rookie campaign and solid sophomore season, Tucker was battling ankle and pectoral injuries before finally being released by San Diego three years into his five-year contract. Originally thought to be the heir apparent to Shawne Merriman, Tucker is just one of those players whose career has been derailed by injuries.
The signing represents a low-risk, high-reward move by the Panthers, and at the very least Tucker can become a mentor to the young ends on the roster and add some significant depth at the position.
2011 PERFORMANCE GRADE: C
Johnson got his, but overall the group did not meet expectations. Like I said, a lot of this can be pinned on the exorbitant number of injuries to positions that would have provided pressure and helped players like Johnson and Hardy to get after the quarterback.
After the Tucker signing and barring any injuries, I don't really think the Panthers need to do anything here. A full offseason with Rivera might be all some of these guys need to develop into a strong pass-rushing unit.