Despite Cam Newton’s presumed return in 2019, perhaps the Carolina Panthers’ most important offseason development is a rebuild of the defensive front. In other words, they have been forced to address the pass rush. The Panthers struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks in 2018, ranking 27th in the league with only 35.0 total sacks. To make matters worse, Julius Peppers retired and Mario Addison will be 32 at the start of the season. The organization needed to improve the pass rush in 2019 and appear to have added the right pieces.
Addison returns as 2018’s sack leader, but the rest of the depth chart features new faces. As a matter of fact, Carolina’s highest profile signees have been defenders who can get after the quarterback. Carolina led off the off-season by signing edge defender Bruce Irvin. In eight NFL seasons, he has 43.5 sacks and 99 quarterback hits. With the Panthers moving to a more 3-4 defensive scheme in 2019, Irvin’s versatility allows him to see the field as an outside linebacker, or as a down lineman.
Following the Irvin signing came the addition of 16th overall pick Brian Burns. Despite being undersized for a defensive end, Burns racked up 23.0 sacks and forced 7 fumbles in only 33 games at Florida State. Burns can play standing up or with his hand in the dirt and is often compared to Von Miller.
In addition to Burns, the Panthers also selected pass-rusher Christian Miller. The fourth-round pick struggled with injury throughout his Alabama career but looks impressive when on the field. In 14 games last season, the linebacker recorded eight sacks and 11.0 tackles for loss. Carolina’s new 3-4 defense could be a perfect fit for the former five-star prospect.
Carolina put their front seven over the top by signing the best player left on the open market. After spending the first nine years of his career with the Buccaneers, Gerald McCoy signed a one-year pact to play with Carolina in 2019. McCoy is a six-time Pro Bowler and has once been named an All-Pro. According to Pro Football Focus, McCoy ranks sixth among interior defensive linemen in quarterback pressures since entering the NFL in 2010. Adding McCoy to a tackle rotation that already includes Kawann Short and Dontari Poe makes for a very difficult challenge for opposing blockers.
After running a traditional 4-3 scheme for years, Ron Rivera has elected to switch to more 3-4 looks this upcoming season. As a result, longtime Panther Thomas Davis got the boot while younger players earn a chance to showcase their talent. It’s not a coincidence that Carolina drafted two players who are hybrid-type defenders. Both are quicky, agile players who specialize in coming off the edge. Playing in a 3-4 defense means they will both be asked to drop into coverage at times, and because of their versatility, should be able to do so as they get adjusted to the NFL.
The same goes for Irvin, albeit he’s a much more seasoned player. It seems that some of the league’s best rushers, such as Von Miller and Khalil Mack, are fitting the hybrid mold, so the Panthers could be converting to a more modern approach to fixing the pass rush.
The addition of McCoy also helps add to the Panthers’ versatility, although in this case strictly on the defensive line. McCoy can line up at end or inside. Short has also been effective in moving inside and out. In fact, Short’s best season (2015) came when he was often shuffled along the line. Also, as an added benefit, McCoy should help alleviate many of the double teams that Short has drawn over the past couple seasons. The combination of McCoy and Short, along with Dontari Poe inside, makes for one of, if not the most, intimidating interiors in the NFL.
With the signing of McCoy, the Panthers' new-look defensive front should be in conversation for NFL's best
— PFF (@PFF) June 4, 2019
As far as other returners, Shaq Thompson is a very interesting piece. After Davis’ release, it became clear that the Panthers feel that Thompson is finally ready to take over at linebacker. During his first four seasons, Thompson had his share of both good and bad, but his versatility should be put into full effect in the 3-4 scheme. Thompson had the second-most sacks of returning Panthers and is tied for the most sacks among Panthers linebackers since he entered the league.
As far as being able to drop into coverage, he has been used as the nickel back at times during his career and was a defensive back in college. He knows how to defend against the pass, and he knows how to rush the passer. The new defense should align closer to his skill set, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a big leap in 2019.
Last Word On The Panthers’ Pass Rush
The addition of veterans, as well as infusion of young talent should make the Panthers’ pass rush much more effective in 2019. As a result, the pass defense and pass coverage should improve as well. McCoy is an immediate impact player and Irvin can be a good mentor for Burns and Miller. Add Thompson, Luke Kuechly, and Mario Addison into the picture, and Carolina’s sack numbers could very well return to being near the top of the league. The Panthers have seen a lot of defensive turnover in the past year, but forming a unit that can consistently disrupt the quarterback is a great place to begin a defensive rebuild.
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