The Panthers Went All in On Defense: Here's Why

The 2019 Carolina Panthers were in the bottom echelon of defenses in the NFL. Their run defense was porous, their pass defense uninspiring. After losing star cornerback James Bradberry to the New York Giants in free agency and the sudden retirement of legendary linebacker Luke Kuechly it was clear to incoming head coach Matt Rhule that this defense needed an infusion of talent. This led to the Panthers 2020 draft being an extremely unique one in the modern era of the NFL. 

For the first time in the common draft era, a team picked all defensive players with their seven picks in the draft. In the first round they selected defensive lineman Derrick Brown from Auburn, Brown is a monster who will be a day one difference maker for this team. The second round saw them double dip. Taking bendy pass rush Yetur Gross-Matos from Penn State and Jeremy Chinn a versatile safety from Southern Illinois. The fourth and fifth rounds brought more secondary help with Troy Pride Jr from Notre Dame and Kenny Robinson, a former West Virginia free safety who had been playing in the XFL. In the sixth they took Bravvion Roy, a defensive behemoth who played for Rhule at Baylor. Finally with their seventh round pick they took Stanley Thomas Oliver III from FIU, a developmental corner.

This was an aggressive attempt to improve one side of the ball in what is year one of a rebuild. There has been a clear strategy from the Panthers who prioritised the offense in free agency, bringing in Teddy Bridgewater and Robby Anderson whilst also extending star running back Christian McCaffrey. All these weapons will be coached by rising star college passing game co-ordinator Joe Brady, who was most recently a college national champion with LSU. With the offense taken care of, Rhule and GM Marty Hurney went all out to improve this defense. Let’s look at how the new players fit and where they will bring the improvement. 

Improving the Worst Run Defense in the NFL

5.2 yards per carry, 31 touchdowns, 128 first downs rushing. All figures that were the worst in the NFL last season. The 2019 Carolina Panthers were incredibly bad against the run and it undermined their defense as a whole. Star defensive lineman Kawann Short missed all but two games of the season due to injury and free agent Gerald McCoy failed to impress in the black and blue. Rookie pass rusher Brian Burns had a very bright start to the season but tailed off as teams began to shift more double teams his way. The defensive line needed an infusion of youth this offseason and it got it in a big way. 

The Panthers were worst against runs up the centre of the defense, conceding 12 touchdowns and 5.71 yards per carry. The return of Short and the addition of Brown will improve that massively. Brown had 33 tackles for loss in 46 college games, including 11.5 in 12 games as a senior in which he was doubled teamed constantly. Short has been a monster throughout his NFL career, putting up double digit TFL three times in the four seasons he has been a regular starter. Brown and Short immediately become one of the best interior pairings in the NFL. 

On the edge, Burns will be an established starter heading into 2020, his five TFL in five starts last season were a good indicator of his potential as an edge sealing presence with his lightning quick first step and tackling ability. On the other side, second round pick Yetur Gross-Matos was a monster against the run in college. Standing at six foot five with long arms, the former Penn State edge put up a hair raising 36.5 tackles for loss in 34 college games. Add the talent of these two edge players to their counterparts inside and you have a nasty defensive line that should hold up well against the run in defensive co-ordinator Phil Snow’s preferred 4-3 scheme.

The linebacker corps have been boosted by the signing of Tahir Whitehead in free agency to try and fill some of the huge hole left by Luke Kuechly. Shaq Thompson is a player that has improved massively in recent seasons and the drafting of small school safety Jeremy Chinn who is likely to play as a hybrid safety/linebacker at the next level gives this defense some solidity over the middle of the field.

I would expect the Panthers to bounce back in a major way against the run in 2020. The line is much more stout than it was in 2019. The Carolina Panthers front office should be applauded for tackling the teams most major need head on and doing a stellar job in adding supremely talented players. 

The Pass Defense is All About Replacing What Has Been Lost

The Carolina Panthers chose not to pay cornerback James Bradberry in free agency. Bradberry would go on to sign for the Giants, meaning that heading in to the draft the Panthers secondary was devoid of playmakers in the secondary. Veteran free safety Tre Boston is okay as an option to provide help over the top, but an infusion of coverage talent and play making skills were needed. 

In the fourth round the team added Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. Pride is a stellar athlete who possesses decent length and man coverage ability. Pride projects as an outside corner at the next level and will probably line up outside alongside Donte Jackson, a third year corner who is primed for a leap in 2020. Together they will form a play making young tandem, but also a tandem that could be attacked by some of the stellar quarterbacks in their division. The lack of experience in the pairing will make them a target for teams in 2020, and as such we could see a repeat of 2019 where the team was poor against passes down the field. 

The pick of Robinson in the fifth round is an interesting depth pickup. Robinson projects as a move piece in his first year, and I would expect him to spend some time in the nickel and in coverage over the middle of the field with increasing snaps as the year goes on.

The team also drafted Jeremy Chinn who many expect to play in a hybrid safety/linebacker role. Chinn will spend a lot of time covering tight ends and running backs to make use of his athletic traits and size. Coverage over the middle of the field shouldn’t be too big of an issue for the Carolina Panthers in 2020. 

How Good Can The 2020 Carolina Panthers Defense Be?

The Carolina Panthers will be much better against the run in 2020, after giving up league high amounts in yards per carry, touchdowns and first downs in 2019. I would expect them to bounce back in all areas. The additions at the top of the draft should increase their tackle for loss count, thus putting their opponents on the back foot more often in the passing game. 

The passing game defense will probably take a small step back in 2020. Losing Bradberry is a bitter blow and will likely force inexperienced players to start in 2020. Donte Jackson needs to make a jump in his contribution if this unit is to be around the middle of the pack in terms of yards and touchdowns conceded. I’m excited to see how defensive co-ordinator Phil Snow uses Jeremy Chinn both in coverage and against the run. 

Whilst most of the talk about the Panthers will be centred around the offense co-ordinated by Joe Brady and led by Teddy Bridgewater. Don’t sleep on the Panthers defense that could be a fun unit in 2020. It is a unit that will be tested by some of the best quarterbacks to have played the game in the last 20 years. But it is a unit that could make a huge leap forward in 2020. 

Alex Chinery

Head of Analytics