Carolina Panthers 2011 Defensive Preview

Tyler HornerCorrespondent IIAugust 10, 2011

Carolina Panthers 2011 Defensive Preview

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    The Panthers have a great defensive staff this season, and with all of their returning talent, the Panthers could surprise the NFL in 2011. 

    Head Coach Ron Rivera is a defensive mastermind who has found success wherever he has coached. Now in Carolina, Rivera has brought in former Eagles Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, a protege of the late Jim Johnson. 

    The list of great defensive coaches does not end there though. Ron Meeks, the team's Defensive Coordinator in 2010, has accepted a role as the Secondary Coach. Needless to say, there is a long list of successful coaches that will get the most out of a defense that ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per play lat season. 

    Here's a peek into what to expect from the Panthers' defense in 2011. 

Defensive Line

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    On the Roster (Notable Players): 

    DE No. 91, Everette Brown, Third NFL Season

    DE No. 76, Greg Hardy, Second NFL Season

    DE No. 95, Charles Johnson, Fifth NFL Season

    DE No. 92, Eric Norwood, Second NFL Season

    DT No. 96, Ron Edwards, 11th NFL Season

    DT No. 94, Sione Fua, Rookie

    DT No. 93, Corvey Irvin, Third NFL Season

    DT No. 97, Terrell McClain, Rookie

    DT No. 68, Andre Neblett, Second NFL Season

    Overview: 

    At defensive end, the Panthers have a lot of potential. While Charles Johnson is already a proven asset, Greg Hardy, Eric Norwood, and Everette Brown have only shown flashes. Johnson put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season, despite consistently facing double teams. His performance earned him a $72 million contract, which is well deserved. Many experts around the league feel he is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. 

    The Panthers got a steal with defensive end Greg Hardy in last year's draft. He is a great pass rusher with huge upside. Look for him to make a huge jump in production this season. His physical tools are bound to remind some of Julius Peppers—the big difference is that Hardy is known as a hard worker on every play, something that Peppers received some flack for not being.  

    Behind Hardy, there is a competition between Everrete Brown and Eric Norwood for the third spot in the rotation. The team gave up a first round pick to draft Brown in 2009, but he has disappointed. His lack of size has given him trouble. Norwood has been the better performer thus far into training camp. I think that gives him an edge for now. 

    At defensive tackle, there is a lack of clarity now that veteran Ron Edwards is out for at least two months. Corvey Irvin has been very impressive though. He is clearly the strongest of the defensive tackles currently healthy and could be the run-stuffer that will step up in Edwards' absence. 

    Rookies Terrell McClain and Sione Fua have not gone unnoticed though. McClain has been inconsistent, but clearly shows talent. Fua is really on the other end of the spectrum. He has been consistent, but with less glaring moments of talent. They will both contribute though, with Fua possibly starting. 

    Projected Starting Lineup:

    Defensive End: Charles Johnson

    Nose Tackle: Sione Fua

    Tackle: Corvey Irvin

    Defensive End: Greg Hardy

    Final Grade: 74 (C)

Linebackers

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    On the Roster (Notable Players): 

    No. 50, James Anderson, Sixth NFL Season

    No. 52, Jon Beason, Fifth NFL Season

    No. 55, Dan Connor, Fourth NFL Season

    No. 58, Thomas Davis, Seventh NFL Season

    No. 59, Omar Gaither, Sixth NFL Season

    No. 57, Jordan Senn, Fourth NFL Season

    Overview: 

    The Panthers clearly have one of the most talented groups of linebackers in the NFL. Jon Beason, the leader of the defense, is one of the most explosive linebackers in the league. He's incredibly instinctive and brings a lot of speed and ability in pursuit to the position. 

    Next to the Pro Bowl middle linebacker stand Thomas Davis and James Anderson. Anderson has improved a lot in the past two seasons and will likely be the day one starter for the Panthers. He has exceptional speed and it seems that he makes his reads quicker and quicker every season. 

    Thomas Davis has been injured for nearly two years straight and his absence was a huge hit for this team. Similar to Beason and Anderson, Davis is slightly undersized. However, being a former safety, Davis brings a very unique skill-set to the Panthers' defense. His lateral range is as good as any linebacker in the league and he delivers some nasty hits. 

    Dan Connor and Omar Gaither are starting-caliber linebackers as well. Both are huge contributors on special teams, as is Jordan Senn. Unlike Senn, Gaither and Connor will see a good amount of playing time. Connor is smart and very competitive; a solid inside linebacker. Gaither is great in coverage so expect him to replace James Anderson in many third down situations. 

    Projected Starting Lineup: 

    Weakside Linebacker: James Anderson

    Middle Linebacker: Jon Beason

    Strongside Linebacker: Thomas Davis

    Final Grade: 89 (B+)

Secondary

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    On the Roster (Notable Players): 

    CB No. 26, Kendric Burney, Rookie

    CB No. 20, Chris Gamble, Eighth NFL Season

    CB No. 36, Robert McClain, Second NFL Season

    CB No. 41, Captain Munnerlyn, Third NFL Season

    CB No. 27, C.J. Wilson, Fifth NFL Season

    S No. 37, Sean Considine, Seventh NFL Season

    S No. 30, Charles Godfrey, Fourth NFL Season

    S No. 23, Sherrod Martin, Third NFL Season

    S No. 29, Jordan Pugh, Second NFL Season

    Overview: 

    Cornerback is clearly one of the team's weaknesses. They are very young and don't have a tall, physical player that can match up against the Larry Fitzgerald's and Andre Johnson's of the NFL. The roster is not set though. It remains to be seen whether they will seek out a talented corner through trade or after teams begin to cut players during the preseason. 

    Gamble had a bad season in 2010, but I'm confident he'll return to the play that earned him the huge contract that he's under right now. Gamble is athletic, quick, and consistently involved in run support—at least, until last season. He can shutdown many of the league's No. 1 receivers, but most teams have multiple talented receivers. 

    Captain Munnerlyn is a physical cornerback, but he can be overpowered by taller receivers due to his lack of height. He is a great nickel back because of his quickness, but is a weakness when matched up on wideouts that can out-physical him. 

    Draftee Brandon Hogan looked like he could have been a huge steal for the Panthers, but injury will prevent him from competing for the starting job this season. However, UDFA Kendric Burney has been a pleasant surprise and could become the team's nickel or starting cornerback this season. 

    At safety, the Panthers are deep. They have four starting caliber players, but all have their flaws. Charles Godfrey is fantastic in run support. He pursuits very well and can fly around to deliver explosive hits. 

    Next to Godfrey is Sherrod Martin, a sprouting ball-hawk and converted cornerback. Martin can change games with his ability to read a quarterback and break on the ball. Nevertheless, he can be a liability in run support at times. 

    Jordan Pugh will push them for playing time though. Pugh is a well rounded player who has potential to be a very good safety. Pugh is also a converted cornerback who has surpassed expectations early on. 

    Projected Lineup: 

    Cornerback: Chris Gamble

    Strong Safety: Charles Godfrey

    Free Safety: Sherrod Martin

    Cornerback: Captain Munnerlyn / Veteran Acquisition

    Nickelback: Kendric Burney

    Final Grade: 79 (C+)

Final Wrap

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    Under Sean McDermott and Ron Rivera, this will be an attacking defense. The talent is there, as is evident by the performance of this group last year. With a year more of growth, they are likely going to be even more formidable in 2011. 

    Rivera and McDermott will get the most out of the defense, but it remains to be seen what the ceiling for the defense is. If they are unable to sign a cornerback, they can only go so far. While Richard Marshall was not a consistent player, he did have the ability to match up on many receivers that Captain Munnerlyn cannot. 

    Howbeit, the key will be Thomas Davis. If he's healthy, this can be a top 10 defense. He brings that much to the Panthers' defense. Watch film from 2008 and you will see the impact he makes. 

    Total Defense Grade: 81.4 (B-)