If NFL games are truly won at the line of scrimmage that’s going to turn out to be very good news for the Carolina Panthers. All of the resources the organization spent rebuilding their defensive front this offseason should pay off big for Ron Rivera when the regular season kicks off.
It’s obvious that last season collapsed for the Panthers when Cam Newton went down to injury. The team’s offensive swoon successfully covered up another ugly problem in Carolina. The once vaunted defensive front led by the ageless edge rusher Julius Peppers suddenly had transformed into a below-average NFL unit.
The retirement of Peppers will gain a lot of notoriety for sentimental reasons, but the truth is that his departure made it easy for GM Marty Hurney and the front office to turn the page. They responded by making a concerted effort to give head coach Ron Rivera a ferocious front four. The organization spared no expense in their quest to win the defensive battle up front in 2019.
In fairness, the defensive line cupboard wasn’t completely bare. Mario Addision led the team last year with nine sacks. He doesn’t have the prototypical size to hold up as a three-down lineman against the run though. Addison is best used as a type of specialist on obvious passing downs. He may officially be listed as a starter in Carolina this year, but keep a close eye on how high his snap count really creeps.
In other words, the Panthers still needed to come up with two starting edge rushers this offseason. Hurney and the front office certainly did that. They accomplished their ambitious goal by dipping equally into free agency and the NFL Draft.
Spending a first round pick on Brian Burns was an obvious effort to strengthen the team’s pass rush. His collegiate tape at Florida State shows a supremely talented pass rusher. The question is whether or not he can improve his consistency at the professional level. Burns is going to get every opportunity to earn serious playing time. He should switch back and forth from defensive end to outside linebacker depending on the matchup week to week.
The same can be said for free agency signing Bruce Irvin. He’s closer to the sunset of his career than the dawn, but he can still terrorize opposing offensive tackles off the edge. The Panthers may try to limit his snap count to keep him fresh for the full season, but he’ll be a central figure in their efforts to harass the opposing quarterback this year.
Carolina’s attempts to win the battle up front aren’t just limited to the defensive end position. They continue to boast one of the strongest defensive tackle groups in the league. Tampa Bay’s curious decision to let Gerald McCoy gave the Panthers a golden opportunity to double down on an area of real strength. The former Buccaneers star will combine with Kawann Short and Dontari Poe to form a terrific trio of interior pass rushers for the Carolina defense.
Fans shouldn’t underestimate the potential of the depth behind those front line defensive stars either. Vernon Butler has been a disappointment since being the team’s first round draft pick back in 2016. He’s going to be playing for his next contract this season after the team declined to pick up his fourth-year option. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see the talented big man enjoy a breakout campaign.
Bryan Cox should make the team as the fourth defensive end and he’s a young player that Rivera and his staff really like. He doesn’t have the same kind of talent that made his dad a standout linebacker during his career, but he’s got a nose for the football. At the very least, he’s a player who has a chance to make quality plays if he’s forced into meaningful action.
The Panthers clearly made these moves to strengthen their defensive line to combat what they face in their own division. Playing Matt Ryan and Drew Brees at least two times per season make it an imperative for Carolina to forge a pass rush capable of forcing those quarterbacks off their spots. Even Jameis Winston is capable of giving the Panthers trouble in Bruce Arians’ offense.
Fans should keep a close eye on how the Carolina front looks right out of the gate this season. The Panthers will be tested right out of the gate by the Rams high-flying offense in Week 1. Whether or not Rivera’s team can pay off as home underdogs in Week 1. How Carolina looks on opening weekend versus Los Angeles will tell you a lot about how successful the team’s defensive rebuild will be this season.