The Carolina Panthers had the 28th-ranked defense in the NFL in 2011, including a No. 24 ranking against the pass, so they will have to make significant changes to their starting secondary this season in order to become a 2013 NFL playoff contender in the pass-happy NFC South.
Chris Gamble was the lone bright spot in the Carolina Panthers secondary a season ago, which included fellow starters Captain Munnerlyn (cornerback), Sherrod Martin (free safety) and Charles Godfrey (strong safety).
Though Gamble was left off the NFC's 2012 Pro Bowl roster, he had a season deserving of a bid.
However, Munnerlyn was often overmatched in one-on-one coverage, and he struggled mightily in his first full season as the Panthers' other starting cornerback.
The Panthers' starting safeties, Martin and Godfrey, did not fare much better than Munnerlyn in 2011, as they each ranked among the worst tackling safeties in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
There will be changes throughout Carolina's defensive lineup in 2012, and the most visible will likely be at the No. 2 cornerback position and free safety.
Here is a look at each position in the Carolina Panthers secondary with their 2012 training camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, less than two months away.
No. 1 Cornerback
Chris Gamble is the best player in the Carolina Panthers secondary and a quiet on-the-field leader.
Though Gamble is not known as the most vocal player on the field, he is one of the top cover corners in the NFL and lets his play do the talking.
According to Pro Football Focus, Gamble ranked fourth in the NFL in completion-percentage-against in 2011, allowing only 45.0 percent of all passes thrown his way to be caught by the man he defended—who was generally the opposition's best receiver.
Gamble, 29, has the Panthers' No. 1 corner position on lockdown for at least the next several seasons before he has to start worrying about losing a step.
No. 2 Cornerback
The Panthers lost starting cornerback Richard Marshall to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency prior to the 2011 season, opening up the corner position opposite Gamble for Captain Munnerlyn.
Munnerlyn is a scrappy defender, an excellent nickelback in three-corner defensive sets and a solid special teams player, but he is not starting NFL cornerback material.
In fact, Munnerlyn was statistically the NFL's worst cornerback in 2011, allowing an NFL-high 73.8 percent of all passes thrown his way to be completed.
In one play that epitomized Munnerlyn's entire 2011 season, the diminutive corner matched up in press coverage against the Green Bay Packers' Jordy Nelson at the Packers' 16-yard line.
Nelson used a quick swim move and an inside step to beat Munnerlyn off the line of scrimmage, caught a quick hot-read pass from Aaron Rodgers, then turned upfield and outran Munnerlyn and the rest of the Panthers defense on his way to an 84-yard touchdown.
Munnerlyn will continue to play an important role on the Panthers defense as a fifth defensive back during the 2012 season, but the Panthers cannot afford to start No. 41 at cornerback again this season.
The Panthers have a pair of young cornerbacks in camp this season with 2011 fourth-round draft pick Brandon Hogan (West Virginia) and 2012 fifth-round selection Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina).
The aggressive Hogan is active in 2012 after spending most of his rookie year on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list with an ACL tear suffered against Rutgers in his final college season.
Conversely, the rookie Norman was an FCS All-American in 2011 and one of the top cornerbacks in the 2012 NFL draft despite playing in the NCAA's lower Division I tier.
Hogan and Norman will each have an opportunity to wrestle the starting No. 2 cornerback position away from Munnerlyn in training camp before the 2012 season begins.
In a postseason interview with the Charlotte Observer's Tom Sorenson in which he was asked to assess the play of several key Carolina players, all Jerry Richardson could say about his big-hitting free safety Sherrod Martin was, "I think he plays safety."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement from your team's owner, particularly when the Panthers later acquired former San Francisco 49er Reggie Smith and Ed Reed's understudy from the Baltimore Ravens, Haruki Nakamura, to compete for Martin's starting spot in the Carolina secondary.
Martin, who had three interceptions last season, ranked 82nd out of 88 eligible NFL safeties in tackling efficiency in 2011 after missing one tackle out of every 4.5 attempts. He has acknowledged that is an area where he has to improve in 2012. Via the Charlotte Observer:
A big part of the game that I messed up on last year was tackling. That’s something I’ve got to improve on. Other than that, just coming out and working. Just constantly getting better and putting myself in better position and just finish plays.
Martin's on-field aggression also led to a propensity to get beaten deep on pass plays thrown over the top, and he will have to show improvement in that area of his game as well.
Martin is entering his fourth season in the NFL, and Coach Rivera told the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person that the most important thing for Martin is to learn from the experiences he gained on the field last season. Via the Charlotte Observer:
I think [Martin is] an aggressive young player that’s learned, and learned some valuable lessons. The best thing that happened to Sherrod last year was he played. And I think we can build on those types of situations.
Martin will have to show his coaches that he has improved his tackling form in 2012 by not always going for the big hit if the Panthers' second-round draft choice from 2009 is to retain his starting spot.
Charles Godfrey was not much better than Martin in tackling efficiency in 2011, ranking 77th out of 88 eligible safeties with a missed tackle ratio of one per 4.9 attempts last season.
Godfrey ranked second on the Panthers defense with 84 total tackles to go along with a pair of picks in 2011, but he also missed his fair share of open-field takedown opportunities.
However, Godfrey still has a good nose for the football and he has big-play potential, as evidenced by his five interceptions in 2010.
Though he will likely be the Panthers' opening game starter at strong safety, his job will be on the line heading into the 2012 season as well.
Recent articles by Jimmy Grappone: