The Carolina Panthers didn’t get a win on Sunday against Seattle, but there was one big bright spot amongst the frustration. While the offense plodded stagnantly and the secondary was getting torched by Russell Wilson, the defensive front seven for the Panthers was dominant, limiting Pro Bowl back Marshawn Lynch to 43 yards rushing and putting heavy pressure on Wilson. It’s clear that the Panthers have assembled a formidable front seven, in great contrast to previous years when long runs up the middle were a regular occurrence, but how did they do it?
Many teams like to bolster their team and create dominant units by signing savvy veterans in free agency instead of taking a chance on youth (like the Washington Redskins‘ “Over the Hill Gang”), but the Panthers formed their defense au natural. All but one starter on the front seven, Dwan Edwards, was drafted by the Panthers, and all of them have proven to be brilliant picks. It all started with Thomas Davis, the first of the current front seven to be drafted, who was picked as a safety out of Georgia in 2005. The Panthers quickly converted him to a linebacker, noticing his nose for the ballcarrier. While Davis’ career was almost ended by knee injuries, he has played exceptionally when healthy, garnering two 100-tackle seasons.
Charles Johnson and Jon Beason came two years later, and while I was skeptical of Beason at first, seeing as I had never heard of him, I thought that Johnson would make a great replacement for Mike Rucker. Both have excelled, with Johnson piling up 33 sacks in the past three year as a third-round pick, and Beason was an All-Pro before knee injuries hampered him the past two seasons. Johnson got his partner Greg Hardy in 2010, who was highly touted coming out of Ole Miss until a wrist injury late in his senior year, which shied away scouts. Hardy didn’t stand out in his first few years, but he exploded in 2013, finishing second on the Panthers with 11.5 sacks.
The unit was rounded out in the last two years when the Panthers selected Luke Kuechly and Star Lutulelei. The selections display the power of drafting talent over need, something many teams have had to learn the hard way. When the Panthers selected Kuechly ninth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, they desperately needed help on the defensive line, but instead they chose the best player available. Kuechly went on to lead the NFL in tackles and be named the Rookie Defensive Player of the Year, and then this year the Panthers selected Lutulelei. The Panthers were patient and took the best player, and still ended up with two studs.
The Panthers have built a dominant defense the old-fashioned way, and it has paid enormous dividends. The Panthers may have the best front seven in football, and they are all young. Edwards is the most seasoned at 10 years, so hopefully this brilliant unit can last for a long time.