The Carolina Panthers‘ defensive front seven have fallen on hard times since Kris Jenkins and Julius Peppers departed. There have been injuries to the linebacking corps and there is a lack of talent in the interior of the line which leads to huge running lanes and a meager pass rush. The unit was much better last season with Greg Hardy exploding to nearly match the production of established beast Charles Johnson, Thomas Davis finally having an injury-free season and Luke Kuechly arriving in Charlotte. This season the front seven have been outstanding, pushing the Panthers to tenth in total defense, seventh in rushing defense and third in scoring defense. How have the Panthers become so dominant up front?
As previously stated, the Panthers’ front seven weren’t always great. Some teams might become desperate and look to sign some quick talent through free agency, but the Panthers solved their problems the old-fashioned way: smart drafting. Five of the seven starters up front were drafted by the Panthers (it was six, but Jon Beason lost his weak-side spot to Chase Blackburn last week), and all of them have made tremendous impacts. With four of the Panthers’ most talented players up front (Luke Kuechly, Star Lutulelei, Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson) being 27 or younger, and with Kawann Short waiting in the wings to replace 32-year-old Dwan Edwards, the Panthers’ front should be good for a long time.
Johnson and Hardy piled up sacks last year, but the Panthers didn’t get enough push up front to truly disrupt the passing game, and the vulnerable secondary got shredded as a result. With a limited interior presence, opposing quarterbacks could step into their throws and get great accuracy and velocity while also being able to avoid Hardy and Johnson. The Panthers fixed that problem in the offseason by drafting Star Lutulelei and Kawann Short, who have both made an immediate impact. Lutulelei has the power to get a consistent push up front, drawing double teams, penetrating gaps in the run game and collapsing the pocket as well. Short is a very athletic rusher, and could post Warren Sapp-like numbers in the future, if given the playing time.
The Panthers have a history of great linebackers, but this year’s group may be the best in franchise history, if not the best in the league (at least in a 4-3 defense). Luke Kuechly may be the best middle linebacker in the league and could push for the Defensive Player of the Year, while Thomas Davis is one of the league’s best cover linebackers and can also easily post 100+ tackles when healthy. Beason hasn’t been the player he used to be, but Blackburn played well against his former team, the New York Giants, and is stout in the run-game.
The Panthers’ front seven is certainly the best in the NFC, but I’m not ready to declare them the best in the NFL. I would love to be able to say that, but with Beason not at full strength, I can’t put them over vicious AFC units like Kansas City, Cleveland and Houston. Seattle was also high on my list for best in the NFC, but while the defensive line talent is about the same, Carolina wins out due to its superior linebackers. San Francisco was also highly considered, but they haven’t performed that well this season besides their Thursday night stomping of the Rams, and the absence of Ian Williams and Aldon Smith makes a huge difference. The Panthers have the tools for a dominant defense, if only they could fill the holes in the secondary.