Shockwaves were sent through the Carolina Panthers organization last year when it was announced that all-pro defensive back, Josh Norman, would not return to the team in 2016. Perhaps it was in the cards all along for Norman and the Panthers organization. When he was drafted in the fifth-round of the 2012 draft he was already 24 years old; a full year or two older than most players when drafted out of college. Defensive backs generally start losing a step or two on the competition once they reach 30 and the team wasn’t willing to commit to Norman into his 30’s.
The team inevitably released Norman after both sides couldn’t agree on a long-term deal. Roughly a week later the Panthers entered the 2016 NFL draft looking to fill a massive void and with three of their five picks they drafted defensive backs: James Bradberry out of Samford, Daryl Worley out of West Virginia, and Zack Sanchez out of Oklahoma. To say the secondary struggled is a bit of an understatement. The Panthers pass defense ranked 11th in 2015 giving up 234.5 yards per game. In 2016 the secondary ranked 29th giving up 268.2 yards per game.
In their respective rookie campaigns, Bradberry and Worley had their struggles but each made strides in their first year in the league. Both men stepped in as rookies and captured the starting roles on defense and Worley even finished the year with the second-most tackles among cornerbacks. Sanchez didn’t fare as well in his rookie year. He ended up on the practice squad for the first four weeks of the season and it took the release of Bene Benwikere to be added to the main roster. After some inconsistent play especially in pass coverage Sanchez finished 2016 on injured reserve.
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With the 2017 season quickly approaching the Panthers secondary will welcome some fresh faces to build on last season. General manager Dave Gettleman went out and signed free-agent safety Mike Adams to a two-year deal to be a lockdown safety alongside Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston. Adams enters this season at 36 years old so his veteran leadership, experience, and competition can only help Boston develop. The Panthers also drafted Corn Elder in the fifth round out of Miami to add further depth to their secondary.
Despite the departure of Sean McDermott to become the head coach in Buffalo, New defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, has gone on record saying the team will stick with its Base 4-3 defense. Wilks has coached the defensive backs since 2012 and despite the injuries and inconsistent rookie play, the Panthers defense still forced 17 interceptions in 2016. So far in OTA’s Captain Munnerlyn and Elder, the team’s top nickel options, have had the opportunity to compete across Worley on the outside while Bradberry has been away from the team.
It’s still very early into OTA’s and training camp is still roughly two months away, but with Wilks now helming the defense it’s not unreasonable to expect a large amount of progress and growth heading into this season. This secondary will be worth keeping an eye on for the next couple weeks.