Burning question: can defensive improvement make the Panthers a Super Bowl team?

Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It’s shocking to think that a single player can make so much difference to a team, but the Carolina Panthers leaped from dead last in the league in points scored to 5th – a staggering increase of 30 touchdowns from the previous year. And that was in year one of Cam Newton. What’s possible in year two?

That depends on the defense. With two key members of the defense – Jon Beason and Thomas Davis – expecting to come back healthy after missing almost all of last season, expectations might be surprisingly high. Said Beason:

 ”No more playing for winning seasons or playing to make the playoffs or to go deep in the playoffs. The pieces are in place to win the whole thing, and that’s really how I feel about it. Anything less than at least an appearance (in the Super Bowl) is a weak year.”

While a 6-10 finish isn’t exactly a record that most teams would be content with, the Carolina Panthers may be one of the few exceptions.

After an atrocious 2-14 campaign in 2010, Carolina had nowhere to go but up – and they did just that. The Panthers tripled their win total in just one year and made a turnaround on offense that nobody saw coming. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton silenced all his doubters in Week 1 and kept them quiet for the remainder of the season.

However, it was the Panthers’ defense that proved to be the team’s major downfall in 2011. Youth, plus injuries to star linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis played a role in Carolina’s defensive struggles this year, but there is also a considerable lack of talent in several areas. Addressing this need is going to be a top priority for defensive-minded coach Ron Rivera’s team this offseason. Thanks to some cap mismanagement last year, they may be more heavily dependent on a good draft (and some good fortune) than other teams. 

Assessing the foundation pieces. 

Rookie defensive tackles Terrell McClain and Sione Fua struggled playing in the middle before both were placed on season-ending IR in early December. Frank Kearse and Andre Neblett were OK filling in, but not top-quality. As a result of all these factors, the Panthers struggled stopping the run. They finished the regular season 25th in the NFL in this category, surrendering an average of 130.8 rush yards per game.

Carolina wasn’t much better in the secondary, ranking 24th in the NFL in pass defense, giving up an average of 246.8 yards per game through the air. The Panthers could use a solid second cornerback to compliment Chris Gamble. Captain Munnerlyn is a solid nickelback, but his lack of size gives him trouble covering bigger receivers. The other defensive backs on the depth chart (Darius Butler, R.J. Stanford, Celtis Gordan, Josh Thomas) are not of starting caliber.The Panthers did draft Brandon Hogan in last April’s draft, but he has seen little playing time and hasn’t proven he’s a worthy starting NFL corner.

The wildcard in the secondary may be Jonathan Nelson, a late round pick of the Rams who spent most of the season on the practice squad, and was poached by Carolina late in the season. He immediately made an impact with an interception to help turn a close game into a blowout win over Tampa Bay. 

The return of Jon Beason in the middle of the defense will be a huge help in defending both the pass and the run. However, Thomas Davis’ future with the Panthers in unclear. The 28-year-old pro has torn the same ACL ligament three times now and it’s hard to have confidence that his knee will hold up.

Regardless, the Panthers need to address these holes on defense through the draft and free agency. Morris Claiborne, Devon Still and Quinton Coples are all names that immediately come to mind.

Draft directions. 

The Panthers and Dolphins, who finished with identical records, took part in the most democratic way of determining their draft order: a coin flip this morning at the NFL Combine. Alas, the Dolphins won the toss for the #8 pick, dropping Carolina to #9. (For those of you wondering, apparently there were no “heads” or “tails” on the coin – one side was for Miami, the other was for Carolina.) The trendy pick right now for Carolina at No. 9 is LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers.  But let’s see if the combine workouts change anything.

Either way, it’s not that difficult to project what Carolina might do. Mel Kiper of ESPN has the Panthers taking LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers and I think that’s entirely possible. Even with Ron Edwards expected back from injury and the presence of second-year players Terrell McClain and Sione Fua, the Panthers need to make sure they finally fix the middle of their defensive line. I could also see them going with a cornerback if Claiborne falls a bit.

Carolina linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, who each missed most of last season with injuries, are working hard on their comebacks. There’s not much doubt Beason will be back. But Davis is coming off his third torn ACL and has a big contract. Davis is confident something can be worked out on the contract situation and that he’ll be physically ready to play again.

One thing is for sure, if the Panthers can make the type of improvement on defense next year like the one they made on offense this year, Carolina will be a forced to be reckoned with in 2012.

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