The Carolina Panthers established an NFL first when they used each of their pick in this spring’s draft on defensive players. We won’t have to wait to see how well that strategy pays off. If the players in the Panthers’ locker room look to their left and then their right, chances are at least one of the three is a rookie. Carolina has four first-year players listed as starters on its depth chart for the opener against the Raiders.
First-rounder Derrick Brown will line up at defensive tackle. Second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos will be next to him at end. Behind them, safety/linebacker hybrid Jeremy Chinn (late second round) and corner Troy Pride Jr. (fourth) should also start.
Four day-one starters in four rounds either speaks extremely highly for the Panthers scouting staff, or it’s an indictment on the talent level of this year’s defense.
The front four appears solid, with Brown and Gross-Matos on the right side, and veteran Kawann Short and last year’s first-rounder, Brian Burns, on the left. Depth is a question mark, however, with journeymen backing up at most spots on the line. The Panthers also brought in a street free agent after teams made their final cuts, signing Shareef Miller, who played in two special teams snaps for the Eagles last year after being drafted in the fourth round.
While Miller was a disappointment in Philadelphia last year, he caused even more disappointment in Charlotte, as the team cut popular British defensive end Efe Obada, who made the team in a rags-to-riches story two years ago, to make room. Obada was later re-signed when corner Eli Apple went on the injured list.
The addition of Brown and a return to health by Short, limited to two games last year, should help shore up Carolina’s run defense, which struggled immensely last year. Of course, the improvement to the middle of the line could be at least partially canceled out by the loss of retired linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers’ biggest weapon against the run for nearly a decade.
The revamped linebacker unit includes Shaq Thompson, Jermaine Carter and Tahir Whitehead. They’re solid, but certainly not the first spot circled by opposing offenses as they were in Kuechly’s heyday.
The secondary could be the team’s trouble spot. Donte Jackson established himself at one corner spot last season, but he’ll be playing across from the rookie Pride.
Veterans Juston Burris and Tre Boston manning the safety spots has a likely ceiling of “not a glaring weakness”. They have virtually no experience behind them. One backup is undrafted rookie free agent Sam Franklin, who played at Temple, new coach Matt Rhule’s former college stop. The other is Chinn, who, as stated earlier, is also splitting time at linebacker.
Another street free agent was brought in from Philly to back up at cornerback. Rasul Douglas was released by the Eagles over the weekend after three inconsistent seasons.
The offense appears to be in better shape, with plenty of names at the skill positions. Christian McCaffrey will once again be carrying the bulk of Carolina’s hopes on offense. Teddy Bridgewater, by all accounts, has successfully taken over the offense at quarterback, and he has his choice of receivers in DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson.
As was the case when Cam Newton was taking snaps, however, the offense will only go as far as the line allows. Shaky protection can make Bridgewater look far from ready and McCaffrey much less elite. Matt Paradis was rated as one of the worst centers in the league last year and struggled at times in training camp. He’ll have two new guards beside him in Dennis Daley and John Miller. Daley filled in at various spots last year when injuries arose. Miller was brought in as a free agent. He’s a lunch pail guy and veteran of five seasons and should be solid.
Russell Okung struggled with health problems last year and reportedly considered retirement and opting out before reporting to camp this season (although he denies it). He’ll man the left tackle spot. The senior member of the line, Taylor Moton, who has been a Panther for all of three years, returns at right tackle.
There are building blocks along the line, but for a position so dependent on chemistry and experience playing together, there’s a lack of familiarity in a preseason that was cut short.