Panther fans will remember all the doubters who never failed to voice their opinions last season. They looked over the depth chart of the Panthers secondary and had the audacity to describe them as “weak” and “vulnerable” against the pass. They saw these guys going against the likes of Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year and assumed the worst.
Well, we know how that turned out for the Panthers. Defense was the strength of the team that went 12-4 in 2013 and finished the season ranked sixth overall in pass defense. When it was all said and done the Panthers secondary allowed an average of only 214 yards passing per game and hauled in 20 interceptions.
The preseason perceptions last year weren’t really off base. The Panthers secondary going into the season didn’t look all that great on paper. The important thing that should have been noticed was who these guys were playing behind.
The Panthers sport one of the best front sevens in the league on defense and they excelled in the trenches last year. Generating a league high 60 sacks over the course of the season, the Panthers kept consistent pressure on opposing passers all season.
When the pocket is continually closing in on the quarterback, mistakes will be made, balls will be tipped, and opportunities arise all over the field for the men covering the receivers.
Going into the 2014 season, the Panthers’ secondary has again fallen under scrutiny as many have come and gone in that unit this offseason. For a second time the most important thing to consider is being overlooked. The secondary will be playing behind a young defensive line and linebacking group that will only be better with an entire year of playing together under their belt.
New Faces in the Defensive Backfield
A quick look at his career numbers will show that even after a down year he has plenty of potential to bounce back. He obviously has the skill being only one year removed from a Pro Bowl season in 2012. At 29-years old, he could still have several productive years of football ahead of him. Look for him to flourish in the Carolina secondary and work even harder to prove the Falcons made a mistake letting him go. Getting let go had more to do with his cap number than it did his play on the field. During a season like Atlanta had last year, anybody could have met this same fate. It’s a great fit for the Panthers and they will make use of his inside information from a division rival.
Panthers fans know him well having seen him on the opposite side of the field twice a year for the past eight seasons as a New Orleans Saint. His cap number and age worked against him after a 2013 season when he struggled with injuries. He may be on the wrong side of 30 now, but has plenty of football left in him. Don’t let the gray hair fool you, this guy can still pack a punch. Harper brings experience to a young secondary and intimate knowledge of a big division rival. Harper has played his entire career facing Drew Brees during practices and undoubtedly has knowledge that will help come game time.
This can’t be seen as anything other than an upgrade at the corner position. The former first round pick by the San Diego Chargers in 2008 has had some struggles over the past few seasons, but the potential is still there. One of the best seasons of his career came when he last played for Coach Ron Rivera in San Diego, who was Defensive Coordinator for them that year. In 2010, Cason registered 67 tackles, 17 pass deflections, 4 interceptions, and a forced fumble. He is only 27-years old and still has plenty to offer. Look for Coach Rivera to get the right things across and reignite the fire inside him.
Also new to the secondary, are two defensive backs the Panthers drafted in later rounds this year, and they will both get a chance to prove themselves during preseason. In the fourth round, the Panthers took safety Tre Boston out of North Carolina. They followed that up in the fifth round when they selected cornerback Bene Benwikere out of San Jose State. As rookies, it may take them time to pick up the game at the NFL-level and may end up on the practice squad this year. In time, they can both develop into solid players, but at this point in the process, it’s too early to know how they will fit in.
Returning to build on the success they achieved last year are corners Josh Thomas, Melvin White, James Dockery, and Josh Norman. Thomas and White both held their own last season and Dockery filled in nicely at times. Norman didn’t dress for most of the season after missing assignments in the week two game against Buffalo but he is having a strong camp so far.
The Panthers will miss the hard hitting style of free safety Mike Mitchell who left for a long term contract in Pittsburgh. They will miss the ferocity that cornerback Captain Munnerlyn played with, despite his small size. Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence also contributed last year and made plays when it counted. They both remain unsigned going into 2014 and may not get opportunities unless someone gets injured during preseason.
These guys will be missed but the players taking their places are more than capable of playing equally as well and possibly even better. They will look great on the Panthers defense because they have the benefit of playing behind studs all along the front seven.
Panther fans don’t need to sweat anything they hear from critics or preseason analysts, because they know better. These guys said as much last year and they were wrong. Look for the Panthers defense to be even stronger and more dominate in 2014.