The Panthers Rebuild Continues…
By: Adam Hulse
During the offseason preceding the 2020 NFL season, the Panthers as an organization decided it was time for a full rebuild. They parted ways with long time head coach Ron Rivera and hired the young and promising Matt Rhule out of Baylor to see if his success with turning teams around in college could translate to the NFL. Rebuilding can sometimes be a long process, but Carolina has at least got the ball rolling.
The Panthers were a below average team in 2020 with only 5 wins. The offense struggled and finished ranked 21st in the league, but that should improve next season when they get Christian McCaffrey back, who is one of the best weapons in the entire league. This offense as a whole is respectable on paper, and with a few small changes they could take a big leap.
The defense on the other hand is a little bit of a different story. They finished as the 18th ranked total defense last season and are looking to make some changes in hopes of improving next season. They have already released Tre Boston, Kawann Short, and Stephen Weatherly as they aim to overhaul their personnel on the defensive side of the ball.
The Panthers have a ton of cap space to work with this offseason and plenty of free agents to choose from. Because they are in a rebuild, it would make sense for them to target young defensive free agents with high upside to potentially grow together with their current younger core including Derrick Brown, Shaq Thompson, and Jeremy Chinn. Let’s take a look at 3 free agents, one from each defensive level, that fit this philosophy.
A 24 year old free safety out of the University of Utah, Marcus Williams has shown loads of potential in his first four seasons in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. The Saints have had one of the top defenses in the league for a few years running, and Williams has been a key contributor to that.
He is a dynamic safety who is just as comfortable playing a zone as he is matching up and playing man coverage. He has the ability to generate interceptions and has recorded a minimum of two of them in each of his four seasons in the league. He is a useful defender in run support as well and has recorded at least 55 tackles each year so far, with his highest total coming back in the 2017 season where recorded 73 tackles.
At his young age and with his current skill set, Williams would be an instant upgrade for the Panthers. He is a jack of all trades who could help this defense in multiple ways. He definitely has the potential to grow into an elite safety in this league, and Carolina could be where he blossoms.
A 5 year veteran edge defender out of the University of Maryland, the 25 year old Yannick Ngakoue has already shown that he is a premier pass rusher. His consistent production speaks for itself. He will be a highly desired target and for very good reason.
Through 5 seasons in the league between the Jaguars, Vikings, and Ravens, Ngakoue has already accumulated an impressive 45.5 sacks. That’s an average of just over 9 sacks per season, with his highest total being 12 sacks in the 2017 season. Pressuring opposing quarterbacks is his specialty, and that is a quality that will always help to improve any defense.
Ngakoue would fit in very well with the Panthers defensive scheme because his natural position is a 4-3 defensive end, and that’s exactly what they run. He would bring their pass rush to the next level by joining Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos to form a solid young rotation on the edge. This is a move that would instantly improve the Panthers defense regardless of anything else they do in the offseason.
A versatile linebacker out of UCLA, Jayon Brown has spent all of his four seasons in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. He is the type of player that may not be excellent at any one thing, but he is good at everything. The soon to be 26 year old contributes production in all areas on defense and still has plenty of potential to further improve his game.
Brown is averaging over 80 tackles per season in his career so far with his highest total coming in 2019 when he had 105 total tackles. He is very good in pass coverage from the line backer position but also has the ability to contribute in the pass rush as well. His skills as a blitzer were best showcased in 2018 when he recorded 6 sacks that season.
The Panthers defense needs a little bit of everything, so adding a player like Brown who helps out in so many different areas would be extremely beneficial. His youth along with his unique versatility make him a prime candidate to potentially grow into a star with this young defense.