Although the Carolina Panthers lost Superbowl 50 and then, late in the offseason, cut ties with their best defensive back, the future looks bright. The offense is sure to be dynamic and their linebacking corp is as skilled as ever. Brett Casella, however, thinks that the Panthers secondary will be better than many believe, which bodes well for Carolina fans.
Despite recent criticism from some in the media, the Panthers’ defensive backfield should hold strong in 2016. It’s not often a team cuts ties with an All-Pro cornerback, but that’s exactly what Carolina did in April, when it suddenly rescinded the franchise tag on Josh Norman. Washington quickly offered Norman the mega-money deal he was seeking, while the Panthers were left with nothing to show for the move. They can’t even use the money they saved to sign another big-name free agent.
Norman wasn’t the only defensive back to leave the NFC Champions. Other notable departures include Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan, and Roman Harper. ESPN’s John Clayton pointed this out in his article, “NFL Teams to Regress in 2016”:
With the losses of Norman, safety Roman Harper and cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan, the Panthers lost 2,539 snaps from 2015.
To replace these players, Carolina selected three cornerbacks in the draft:
Round 2: James Bradberry, Samford
Round 3: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
Round 5: Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma
Carolina traded its fourth-round pick to move up in the third and fifth round.
The Panthers completely overhauled their cornerback depth chart. Even though the Panthers lost 68% of last season’s snaps, lost Norman, and replaced the holes with three rookies, it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Out With the Old, in With the New
First, let’s take a look at the guys that left – starting with Harper, Tillman and Finnegan. Although they combined for more than 2,500 snaps last season, they did not put those snaps to positive use a majority of the time.
At a combined age of 100 – yes, 100 years old – none of the three are the same players they once were. Their experience and locker room presence may have been invaluable, but their on-field talent and production were not.
Losing Norman, on the other hand, will hurt. But how much? Norman’s first breakout year didn’t come until age 28, in a defense that was built for him to succeed.
Carolina utilized more zone coverage than nearly any team last year, and Norman is a textbook zone corner. His lack of athleticism limits his man-to-man coverage ability, but his height, length, and instincts allow him to thrive in zone.
Enter Bradberry and Worley.
These rookies don’t just fit Norman’s mold – they are taller, longer, and more athletic. Both also possess exceptional ball skills, something Carolina covets in its cornerbacks.
Norman was a fifth-round draft pick, and didn’t become a star until halfway through his third season. If Bradberry and Worley aren’t as difficult to coach, they could unlock their potential earlier than Norman did and immediately contribute to the secondary.
The 2016 Panthers Secondary
As of now, the Panthers have eight cornerbacks on their 90-man roster. Expect this number to be trimmed down to about five by the start of the season.
Although it’s still early, the favorites to make the final roster are: Bené Benwikere, Robert McClain, Bradberry, Worley, and Sanchez. But, don’t be surprised if we see a lot of changes in the depth chart as the season progresses.
With Benwikere recovering from a broken leg, McClain and Bradberry have been taking a majority of the starting reps in OTAs. Once Benwikere returns, he will likely step into the lead CB role – leaving Bradberry and McClain to battle it out for the #2 spot. McClain’s experience should give him the leg up going into the preseason, but it shouldn’t take long for Bradberry to earn his spot in the starting lineup since McClain’s time as a starter is running out and the draft capital spent on Bradberry will give him the edge.
Sanchez should expect to see a different role than his draft mates. Standing at just 5’11”, 185 pounds, he will likely be the team’s nickel corner at the start of the season.
Does that make third-round pick Worley the odd man out? Maybe not.
If Bradberry and Worley can both develop into starting outside CBs, Benwikere may see a move back to the slot. He played this position during his first season, and was quietly one of the best corners in the NFL as a rookie.
Whoever the starting cornerbacks might be, they will be getting a lot of help from the rest of the defense.
What the Panthers lack in an edge rush, they more than make up for with their ability to pressure the passer from the inside. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is one the league’s best interior pass rushers, and 320-pound rookie Vernon Butler could quickly enter the conversation as well. An incredibly athletic defensive tackle, many believed Butler should have been drafted earlier than he was and his interior penetration should pay dividends for the Panthers.
In the back seven, Carolina is loaded with speed. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson form one of the most athletic linebacker trios in the NFL. While most linebackers are liabilities in pass coverage, this group is a valuable asset in it.
At safety, Carolina will start Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston. While neither one is a true strong safety, the duo came on late last year by making plays in the passing game. Both players are ballhawks who can cover lots of ground – the Panthers can use this to their advantage by providing their corners with extra support downfield. Plus, Thompson has the size and speed to step in and fill the box safety role if needed.
Between an above-average pass rush and coverage help from their linebackers and safeties, the burden placed on these young corners will be significantly lightened.
Trust the Process
David Gettleman is a good general manager, and deserves to be trusted for his decision to cut Norman. His other unpopular decisions – namely parting ways with fan favorites such as Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams – have all seemed to work out in time.
In Gettleman’s first three drafts he procured nine starters, two players who will be competing for starting jobs, and two high-end backups.
He was blasted by the national media after his 2014 draft, a class that included Kelvin Benjamin, Trai Turner, Kony Ealy, Andrew Norwell, Boston, and Benwikere – all starting players. He was also mocked for under-the-radar free agent signings such as Kurt Coleman and Michael Oher, and look how they turned out. Analysts and fans alike should give Gettleman the benefit of the doubt and time for the secondary to come together before declaring the secondary a liability for the Panthers.