Why the Carolina Panthers' Defense Will Be Better...or Worse
Defenses didn't get much more mediocre than that of the Carolina Panthers. The NFC South Champions didn't finish higher than 12th or lower than 20th in any of the four main statistics—points, total yards, passing yards, and rushing yards—last season with an average ranking of 16.5.
One thing is certain.
With an almost entirely new defensive coaching staff in place—secondary coach Mike Gillhamer is the only holdover from the Mike Trgovac era in Charlotte—Carolina's defense will not look the same next season.
Here are the top my top three reasons as to why the unit will be better. Or why it will be worse.
3. Youth Will Serve...or Struggle
With their first three picks in April's draft, the Panthers were intent on bringing in defenders that can compete for field time right away.
Their first pick (43rd overall) Everette Brown, is a quick—if not prototypically big at only 6'1", 256—pass-rushing defensive end that will take some of the pressure off of Julius Peppers as essentially the team's only threat to opposing quarterbacks.
New Carolina defensive line coach Brian Baker coached a similarly undersized end last season in St. Louis, James Hall.
Hall is 20 or so pounds heavier than Brown, but at just 6'2", he dealt with defensive tackles who were typically quite a bit taller than he was—with longer arms. All Hall did in 2008 was record a team-high six sacks—the same as Leonard Little—with 44 tackles (36 solo).
With its third-round selection, Carolina decided to bolster its secondary, which gave up 217.4 yards per game through the air (18th in the NFL) by taking Sherrod Martin, a safety out of Troy.
At 6'1", he likely will find his way onto the field as a cornerback in the mold of a former pupil of new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, Melvin Bullitt. In fact, all that separates Martin from Bullitt is three pounds.
In just his second pro season last year, Bullitt nabbed four interceptions. If Martin can match even Bullitt's rookie numbers—25 tackles with a pick—he could help push the Carolina secondary over the edge of mediocrity.
The Panthers also added a defensive tackle (Corvey Irvin) in the third round and another DB (Captain Munnerlyn) in the seventh, bringing the number of rookie defenders in Charlotte to four.
But before Panthers fans get to giddy over the unit's talented youngsters, they need to remember something.
They're still rookies.
Not usually the most consistent players, first-year pros more often disappoint than overachieve. The intense, all-football regimen that consumes an NFL player's life is something not seen in college, at least not at the same level. And thus, players—even those that have successes early—can hit the ever-feared "wall" by the later weeks of the season.
And these guys, especially Irvin and Munnerlyn, are far from guaranteed a spot on the field...or even the roster.
The amount of energy expended just earning playing time could lead to seasons that are less impressive than even the most pessimistic Panthers fan might expect.
2. Julius Peppers Is Unhappy...or Playing for a Big Contract
He's one of the most intimidating images in all of professional football. Julius Peppers has all the tools in the world. He's perfectly capable of having double-digit sacks each and every year.
But he's made no bones about the fact that he wants out of the Queen City. Whether it's the 4-3 defense that keeps him on the line of scrimmage nearly every down or the team's refusal to even look at trading the former No. 2 overall pick, he's sick of being a Panther.
With the franchise tag on him (if he ever signs the tender), teams would have to give up TWO first-round picks to sign him away from the Panthers, something few—if any—teams would be willing to do.
So he has had to come to the realization that he WILL be a Carolina Panther in 2009.
With the holdout still possible, it's not even a guarantee Peppers will be on the field. If that is the case, Brown—with nary an NFL snap to his name—will be the only legitimate pass rusher on the squad.
That would spell doom for not only the D-line, but also the secondary, which would be forced to cover receivers for a perceived eternity with QBs having all the time in the world in the pocket.
But lest one forget...with the franchise tag, Peppers is in a contract year. Even if teams understand his disgruntled status, that won't make them pony up a top contract for a player who didn't produce—or possibly didn't even play. Peppers likely thought 2008 was his year to wow suitors, and look what he did.
The former Tar Heel recorded 51 tackles and a career-high 14.5 sacks. If the "Get the Big Bucks" bug bites him again, he could put up similar, if not better numbers.
1. Ron Meeks and New Staff Will Inspire Unit...or Have Growing Pains
No one can argue that Ron Meeks hasn't seen astounding results in his time with the Indianapolis Colts.
He took a squad that was becoming the laughing stock of the league—and the Achilles heel of Payton Manning's crew—and transformed them into a dominant unit.
Sure, he arrived in same season as Dwight Freeney, but one freak defensive end can only do so much (and it seems Meeks has one such freak in Charlotte).
Not only is Meeks' resume impressive, but the rest of the new defensive staff brings nothing but excitement to the Panthers. Possibly the worst addition to the staff is new linebackers coach Richard Smith, who has coordinator experience in Houston and Miami.
His defenses weren't the best overall, never finishing better than 18th (his Texans unit never finished better than 22nd). But in his days devoted solely to linebackers, he developed four Pro-Bowlers and an ESPN.com all-rookie selection between 1997 and 2003.
Baker and secondary coach Ron Milus round out the new-look staff, each bringing impressive resumes along with them.
But 2009 will be a sure-fire case where the success of the defense depends on whether the sum of Meeks, Baker, Smith, and Milus are greater than the whole of its parts.
Fitting three new coaches into his system could prove more tricky than Meeks remembers, as he has had a relatively constant staff in Indy—defensive line coach John Teerlinck and linebackers coach Mike Murphey for all of Meeks tenure in Indianapolis.
Finding room for ideas, personalities, and possibly egos will be important if the staff is to be able to relate a clear-cut message as to how things should be done.
So...Will the Defense Be Better or Worse?
Obviously, that is a difficult question to answer.
The number of variables is by no means limited to the aforementioned three. Football is still a violent sport that sees season- and career-ending injuries. Right?
And seemingly sure-fire expectations—like Jon Beason leading the Panthers linebacking corps with another impressive year—still can go unexpectedly and mysteriously unfulfilled.
Not to mention the number of top-flight offenses on the Panthers' schedule, including road games at the Cardinals (Week Eight), Patriots (Week 14) and Giants (Week 16).
Who knows? After all this fuss, the Panthers could finish as a middle-of-the-road defensive squad again in 2009. The only thing that is certain is that how they get along that road will be vastly different from 2008.