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Carolina Panthers, Enough Personnel for a 3-4 Defense?

Do the Carolina Panthers have enough [

Throughout the year, the defense of the Carolina Panthers became one of the worse in team history. Often described as the strength of the team, the 2018-19 campaign quickly drowned in uncertainty and a drastically lowered quality of play. Players declined, loses mounted, coaches were fired, and fans wanted and expected more from a defense that featured Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, newly signed Dontari Poe, Kawann Short, Hall of Famer Julius Peppers, and eventually the powerful hitting Eric Reid. Expectations were exceptionally high in long offseason and with a  a 6-2 start to the season, yet the metaphorical bottom fell out and the team suffered a seven game losing streak that took all hope of playoff contention away.

Head Coach Ron Rivera remained positive despite the mounting loses, and many people wondered if the two-time Coach of the Year would return to the team after the sudden collapse. Yet, the man known as Riverboat Ron remained while others would depart (Perry Fewell, Jake Peetz, Everette Brown, and recently retired Ben Jacobs were hired to replace departing coaches while Sam Mills III was promoted to the new position of Game Management Coach), whether by termination or by choice.

With smaller positions taken care of (possibly more to come) the bigger news of the offseason came as a shock to fans. The continued use of Eric Washington as the Defensive Coordinator after a disastrous season in which Rivera completely took control of defensive play-calling and the equally important news that the team would possibly consider a change to the more effective 3-4 defense. Though both bits of information raise more than a few questions, considering the change to a new defensive look could be equally beneficial and damaging without the right personnel to pull it off. Would the Panthers have the right players in position to effectively pull off the transition? Here, we will look at the position groups to determine if the Panthers could expect a successful turnover or another losing season.

San Diego Chargers v Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, NC – DECEMBER 11: Kawann Short #99 of the Carolina Panthers looks on after a play against the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter during the game at Bank of America Stadium on December 11, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The defensive front was long considered a relatively successful group prior to the last season. With Short and Poe lining up in the middle while Wes Horton and Peppers on the edge, the team should have played more effectively, but stalled early and often. This season, the Panthers are as of now to return with only Short and Poe as the leaders of the defensive front. Peppers has since retired, Horton is a free agent, backup tackle Kyle Love is a free agent, and 2016 first-round draft pick Vernon Butler underperformed and could possibly be cut in the offseason. Yet, on the inside, Short and Poe are both great candidates to play nose tackles in a 3-4 defense. Short, who has always thrived in Carolina’s front is a powerful blocker who has the strength, length, and speed to get to quarterbacks. Poe, who is technically listed as a nose tackle has tremendous experience in the position and has had great success with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons in the position. The edges remain an issue however.

Even if the team were to resign Horton, there would be no clear cut partner to complete the tandem needed to be a successful 3-4. 2018 fifth-round pick Marquis Haynes would be a candidate as a end or a outside linebacker, but doesn’t appear to be ready as a featured or contributing defensive end for a new defensive scheme, and Horton doesn’t inspire enough fear in offenses to adequately be fits in for the switch. With switching to a newer concept, you would expect the team to look at more experienced players to lead the way initially.

Possible Defensive Ends: Jarvis Jenkins (31), Ziggy Hood (31), Ezekiel Ansah (30, 4-3 DE) Muhammad Wilkerson (29), Rakeem Nunez-Roches (26), Trey Flowers (26, 4-3 DE)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, NC – NOVEMBER 04: Luke Kuechly #59 and teammate Donte Jackson #26 of the Carolina Panthers react against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 4, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Linebacker corps start with the heart and soul, Kuechly. After moving on from Davis, the team decided to go younger in an effort to become more relevant and competitive, and having the still improving Shaq Thompson helps alleviate some of the loss of losing a longtime Panther in Davis. Newcomer Jermaine Carter Jr. should also help the Panthers this season as he is perceived to man Thompson’s recently vacated position as the weak side (Will) linebacker. Everyone league wide knows the kind of perennial Pro-Bowler that Kuechly is. Possibly an all-time, team great, and Future Hall of Fame player, Kuechly automatically makes any defense above average from the middle linebacker position. Thompson and Carter Jr. are both players who are trending up. Thompson, the soon to be fifth-year player has improved every year since being drafted in 2015. The heir to the strong side linebacker (Sam), Thompson is a tackling machine that can run sideline to sideline and defend multiple positions. While at the University of Washington, Thompson played several positions (safety, linebacker, and running back) during his three-year collegiate career. Carter Jr., the soon to be second year pro is also a young player with great potential.

A four-year player, Carter notched at least 90 tackles in his last three seasons at the University of Maryland. Though he may need more time to grow into a better and more fluid linebacker, Carter has the ability and potential to contribute and excel as a weak side linebacker. The only thing missing for the Panthers would be a solid compliment to Kuechly on the inside. Sure, the Panthers could potentially slide Thompson to the inside where he’s experimented in small doses, but the best course of action would be to find a new face to pair with the six-time Pro Bowler. Ideally, you’d look for a veteran with experience over a rookie or new player with little to no experience, but a talented player with great mobility and a high IQ could be an average to better than average fit in this scheme.

Possible Linebackers: Clay Matthews (33, OLB) K.J. Wright (30, OLB), Will Compton (29), Manti Te’o (28), Jordan Hicks (27), Shane Ray (26, OLB), Kwon Alexander (25)

PHILADELPHIA, PA – OCTOBER 21: Tight end Zach Ertz #86 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs for a touchdown against strong safety Eric Reid #25 of the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on October 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The secondary core should theoretically play better this season than last. With the Panthers deciding to part ways with two of the senior defensive backs (Mike Adams and Captain Munnerlyn), the Panthers would theoretically be looking to only add one additional player at the safety position. With a 3-4 defense, the use of a nickel cornerback would be nonexistent, as one of the linebackers or a safety would cover the slot receiver if needed. The Panthers are seemingly set at cornerback with Donte Jackson and James Bradberry returning as starters. But one name to keep an eye on is Ross Cockrell, the player returning from injured reserve after a terrible leg injury. Cockrell is a physical player who was not only challenging for a starting spot last year, but could still possibly challenge Bradberry to up his game, spell him for a time, or even challenge his position in the depth chart. Additionally, if the team uses multiple fronts, Cockrell could also become a nickelback if needed as well as the young but inexperienced Corn Elder.

The safety position should look drastically different than it did last offseason. With Adams gone and Reid attending his first offseason with the team, the new leader of the backfield has a lot to live up to. Reid is a powerful strong safety who doesn’t mind roaming the backfield or attacking the offense at any given time and wasted no time reminding the NFL and its fans the kind of talent that he possesses. However, after Reid is where the problems arise.

The Panthers have two possible candidates that could man the position if needed, but neither one offers the peace and safety of improved play. Da’Norris Searcy and Rashaan Gaulden are players at two different points of their careers. Gaulden, a player fresh off a rookie campaign that didn’t see much action and so-so results. After converting from cornerback to safety in college at the University of Tennessee, Gaulden has taken a back road to the veterans before him and could use the information to better himself for a second year. Searcy, is a player with eight years of NFL experience.

A University of North Carolina product, Searcy is another hard hitting player who could be a contributor on a number of NFL teams. Unfortunately the problem with Searcy are concussions. Not only did Searcy suffer two concussions, but the 5’11 strong safety suffered both concussions in a span of 30 days, bringing the question of long-term health into question. Though a good player, Panthers should be reluctant to play a player with multiple concussive issues. As was the case with Michael Oher (who has yet to play another game in the NFL after suffering a severe concussion that robbed him of the entire season), Searcy only played in two games for the Panthers while notching four tackles on the season and could possibly be a player the team looks to cut due to medical reasoning. With that being said, the team could look to add another player capable of providing the security blanket that the team has lacked since Kurt Coleman’s first two years in Carolina.

Next: NFL Combine: Day 2 Prospects to Watch

Possible Safeties: George Iloka (29), Josh Shaw (27) Tre Boston (26), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (26), Adrian Phillips (26), Landon Collins (25)

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