Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera mentioned something sobering about his defense while wrapping up spring workouts: In his tenure, which began in 2011, the secondary has not featured the same players in consecutive seasons.
The goal this fall is to build consistency, and keep it into the future. Outside cornerback James Bradberry, the last in a trio of corners drafted in 2016, and veteran safety Mike Adams are the only returning starters for five available positions (including the often-used nickel).
After trading starting outside corner Daryl Worley to Philadelphia, the Panthers brought in Ross Cockrell and safety Da’Norris Searcy. The latter is the current favorite to start alongside Adams, and will have competition with rookie draft pick Rashaan Gaulden.
But the opposite cornerback position and the featured nickel spot are very much up for grabs.
Carolina wants to play a matchups game in its secondary, and that means building a group that correlates with the opposing pieces it will face six or more times per season in the NFC South. Each team has a big feature receiver, a speedy outside receiver and a shifty slot man, plus more mismatches in pass-catching tight ends.
So the Panthers diversified their defensive backs, retaining 4.39-second 40-yard dash runner Kevon Seymour (the current favorite to start opposite Bradberry), adding lightning fast outside corner Donte Jackson (who could compete at nickel as well), and increasing the competition in its current room of nickels, which includes Corn Elder, Captain Munnerlyn and Cole Luke.
With this group, and including the team’s big nickel package that can feature linebacker Shaq Thompson, safety Colin Jones or Gaulden, the idea is to counter any offensive mismatch a foe throws the Panthers’ way.
Jackson is cocksure, versatile and athletic. He wasn’t as talkative this spring as he learned the Panthers’ playbook — a wise rookie decision. In camp, expect him to make some big plays and show off his speed and tenacity — the qualities that earned him the comparison to another former LSU star: The Honey Badger, Tyrann Mathieu.
To be decided in camp
Gaulden’s usefulness to the Panthers is reliant on his ability to seamlessly transition from position to position in the defensive backfield. His attention to detail will be crucial as Carolina flips him between the big nickel and both safety spots.
Underdog to watch
Perhaps he played too much last season to be considered an underdog, but Seymour has a chance to shine in his second year in the Panthers’ system. He’ll have some tight competition.
Also keep an eye on ...
Bradberry underwhelmed at times in his second season, but also was able to show flashes of his substantial potential. He’s also self-aware about his need to become more consistent, and is in a leadership role as one of the few defensive backs with tenure in the system.
Three bold predictions
▪ Bradberry will make the Pro Bowl for the first time.
▪ Gaulden will play the “buffalo” (big nickel) position if needed in the first four games, as Thompson plays traditional linebacker while starter Thomas Davis serves his suspension.
▪ Corn Elder will get some snaps at outside cornerback while competing for the nickel spot, and will flash in a big way on special teams with a punt return for a touchdown.