Carolina Panthers

With new vets, draft picks, Panthers’ D line should improve. But will results follow?

For the Carolina Panthers’ defensive line, this offseason representing a restocking of the war chest.

After a lackluster season from that unit in 2018 — Carolina ranked an underwhelming 27th in the league in sacks — general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera set out to overhaul the team’s pass rush. That included drafting EDGE rushers Brian Burns and Christian Miller in the first and fourth rounds, respectively, of the NFL Draft.

It also meant signing defensive end/outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, who has had at least 5.5 sacks every year for the past five seasons. Then in May, the team persuaded defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to sign in Carolina instead of Baltimore or Cleveland. McCoy becomes the team’s third former Pro Bowl defensive lineman, joining nose tackle Dontari Poe and longtime Panther Kawann Short.

But to maximize this talent, Rivera has had to rethink the team’s approach. Rather than resting on the same 4-3 defensive philosophy, he and defensive coordinator Eric Washington have incorporated many more 3-4 elements to the defensive front. That means playing with three down linemen instead of four — think Short, Poe, and McCoy all on the field at once — supplemented by outside linebackers like Irvin or Burns rushing the passer from a standing position.

It’s an exciting transition, but not one that comes without its questions: How does the team balance 3-4 and 4-3 calls? Will the Panthers’ run defense suffer as a result? And with the stable of pass-rushers now at Rivera and Washington’s disposal, how do they juggle snaps for all those players?

The answers will start to materialize at training camp later in July. But based on what we saw during spring workouts, there’s already much to be discussed.

Breakout candidate

Not that he hasn’t already established himself as one of the NFL’s elite defenders, but how McCoy fits alongside the rest of Carolina’s defense will be fascinating to watch. He has registered at least six sacks the last six seasons, albeit with fewer in recent seasons, but with substantially less help around him in Tampa. Now in Charlotte, he’s got other Pro Bowl-caliber talents at every level of the defense — will that lead to a rejuvenated McCoy?

To be decided in camp

Burns and Irvin will both see a plethora of snaps as two of the team’s primary pass-rushers, but the question of who starts on the outside in the team’s 3-4 alignments will be decided in camp. Burns had arguably the fastest get-off of any defensive end in this year’s draft, but Irvin’s experience in the system may give him a slight edge.

Underdog to watch

A fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, defensive end Marquis Haynes never quite got comfortable as a rookie last season. But given his slighter frame and straight-line speed, the SEC’s all-time leading in sacks could see a serious uptick in production this season as a stand-up edge rusher. There might be nobody on this defense who benefits more from the switch to 3-4 than Haynes.

Also keep an eye on...

Efe Obada’s difficult past endeared him to Panthers fans last season, but so did his talent. In Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals, his first career game, Obada recorded a sack and an interception en route to earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Where he slots into the team’s rotation of pass rushers is still up in the air, but he’s proven he belongs.

Three bold predictions

McCoy has made it clear since signing in Carolina that he’d like a little revenge against his old Tampa teammates, and he’ll get it in the form of two sacks in the teams’ Week 2 matchup in Charlotte.

Defensive end Mario Addison gets back to double-digit sacks this season and earns his long-awaited first trip to the Pro Bowl.

With a talent infusion and scheme adjustment, Carolina finishes the season in the Top 10 in the league in sacks.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
Support my work with a digital subscription