Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 4 of 5

Chaz Estes breaks down the Carolina Panthers Defense and Special Teams and discusses where they need to go from here to improve. <br><br> Part 4 in a series of 5.

Defense

Defensive Line

The Panthers' defensive line began the season as one of the team's strongest units and, perhaps, one of the league's best. Injuries and inconsistency poked a hole in that bubble.

All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, widely regarded as the best defensive tackle in the league, played several weeks with a torn labrum, which eventually led to a torn right biceps muscle. The injury forced Jenkins under the knife and out for the season. While Jenkins played hurt, the line struggled to stop the run. And when Jenkins went on the IR, the line struggled to stop anything.

Suddenly, one of Fox's constants faltered and the team suffered. The Panthers will work hard this offseason to keep this from happening again.

The good news is that depth was created when second year player Kindal Moorehead developed into a play-making defensive tackle, taking Jenkins' place, and role, in the lineup. Jordan Carstens, a former practice squad player, played well in reserve and will compliment defensive end Kemp Rassmussen, a valuable special teams player, who also continues to develop.

Good, too, was Julius Peppers' emergence as a dominant defensive end. Peppers opened eyes around the league with his incredible athleticism and explosive game-changing plays. Folks knew Peppers was good, but not this good. If all falls well, Carolina could have two of the league's best players at their position in Peppers and Jenkins. And they're both locked up for years to come. It's what helps John Fox sleep well at night.

The same can't be said for the rest of the defensive line.

Starting defensive end Mike Rucker had a sub-par campaign as he battled injury and, perhaps, the onset of age. His high cap figure will give the Panthers pause this summer as they evaluate the defensive line. Fellow starter Brentsen Buckner, the unit's emotional leader for the past three seasons, hinted at retirement at the end of the season and may not return. The Panthers have little quality depth should Buckner retire or the team release him in a salary cap move.

The offseason goal of the front office will be to sign a free agent defensive tackle, preferably one with run-stuffing prowess, draft for depth at tackle and end, re-sign Rassmussen for another season and throw a bone at Buckner in the form of a nice signing bonus. Rucker's deal may be restructured if Carolina gets tight with the cap.

Linebackers

The Panthers suffered injury problems on most of its units and the linebacking corps was no exception. OLB Mark Fields returned from a season battling Hodgkin's disease and was slow to round into football form. Opposite number Will Witherspoon eluded the injury bug but struggled in run support – though he did excel in pass defense, leading the team with four interceptions. Middle linebacker Dan Morgan, again, sat out numerous games recovering from concussions, but performed with enough impact to merit an All-Pro nod.

Offseason acquisition Brandon Short was valuable in reserve, while Brian Allen took a few snaps when Morgan went out and contributed to the special teams. Due to injury in training camp, Jessie Armstead never made onto the field for the Panthers, though he remains under contract for 2005.

Like the repeated story elsewhere on the Panthers' roster, the linebacking unit will be a projected strength for next season's squad once it returns to health.

Carolina will tender Will Witherspoon before the onset of free agency, hoping to negotiated a long-term contract with their future core player. If Witherspoon signs with another team, the Panthers will receive a first round pick in compensation. Morgan is in the last year of his rookie deal and Hurney will take a look at locking him up long-term. Fields is an unrestricted free agent, but has an emotional investment in the Panthers. Carolina will reward Fields with a fair contract after a strong second half of the season showed that Fields still has pass-rushing value.

Armstead may be released, but not until after June 1 where his cap hit will be lessened. If healthy, Armstead may be re-signed to a lower contract. Allen is not projected to return unless willing to sign for the minimum.

Fox and Hurney will expend a first-day pick on a linebacker, perhaps as high as the second round if they go offense in the first. There is more immediate need on the defensive line, but linebacker is often a developmental position and always a key special teams need. The Panthers have drafted linebackers well and it would be confirmation of Hurney's goal of building through the draft to have an all-drafted starting unit in 2006.

Secondary

Drafting cornerback Chris Gamble in the first round last spring turned out to be a Panthers' coup. Gamble's brain caught up with his athleticism by the last third of the season and he finished the campaign as Carolina's best secondary player. Fellow starting left corner Ricky Manning, Jr. performed well in his second season, but struggled at times in one-on-one matchups with bigger receivers. Injuries reduced free agent signee Atrell Hawkins' contribution early on, but his steady play in nickel and dime sets, accented by his excellent run support abilities, give the Panthers hope for next season; however, cutting Hawkins may be a necessary evil to create more cap space. The promising Will Hampton fell early to injury, but showed enough talent and versatility to bring back for another season. Hampton can play safety as well as cornerback and is one of the team's best special teams performers.

Strong safety Mike Minter has been a Carolina Panther forever. Team captain and defensive leader, Minter's value isn't measured purely by on-field production. But Minter carries a high cap figure and is entering the last year of his contract. Those two factors alone, even considering Minter's tenure, create the need to evaluate his cap impact.

Free Safety Colin Branch disappointed in 2004-2005, failing to provide the kind of run support or field coverage against the pass expected by the coaching staff. But that's not entirely Branch's fault. Gamble, a rookie, started on Branch's side of the field, which carries its own problems, and Branch suffered from the imbalance injury caused the rest of the defense. Branch was often out of position and had troubles of his own with a broken wrist, but appeared to round into form by season's end. Like Manning, Branch's future in Carolina will depend on next season's performance. A year of experience under his belt, though painful for both he and the fans, will help.

The Panthers had no real depth at safety last season and that will be addressed this offseason. A starting-caliber free agent free safety will be pursued as well as an eye toward taking one in the draft. Third round is a good place to find a safety. The training camp return of the injured Hampton and Travares Tillman will help ease the depth concerns of the secondary.

Minter's contract is ripe for restructuring. Though Carolina's philosophy is to develop younger players and part ways with veterans who become too expensive, Minter's overall value to the squad is worth a final contract. Such a contract will be back-loaded, but Minter is a realist and will take the deal.

Cornerback will not be an immediate need as both starters return, but Hawkins' cap number is too high for a reserve and may have to restructure or face release after June 1. The coaching staff has always been high on drafting corners, as they are true skill players, so don't be surprised if the Panthers go after a corner in round one or two. Any free agent brought in will be mostly for training camp competition and/ or for special teams.

Special Teams

By its own standards, Carolina's special teams had a disastrous season. Injury to key players, combined with the released of an immature Jarrod Cooper, led to inconsistencies in kick coverage and the tendency to commit penalties in the return game. It was total dysfunction from beginning to end.

Some critics blame injury and the challenge of working in new players every week for the poor play of the special teams unit. But it might be more truthful to lay responsibility on special teams coach Scott O'Brien, whose past brilliance brought new meaning to the label "special teams player" and whose leadership and teaching produced numerous All-Pros, including Todd Sauerbrun and Karl Hankton.

O'Brien stated a desire last offseason to leave football entirely and retire to his Western US ranch. John Fox's response to that was to elevate O'Brien to Assistant Head Coach and place a great deal of player evaluation into O'Brien's hands. It could be argued that O'Brien's increased duties sapped his usual enthusiasm for special teams. The fact that he wanted to retire in the first place, leads one to believe that his performance suffered – and his special teams unit suffered with him.

It would be unfair to place all blame at O'Brien's feet, of course. Injuries and shuffling of personnel do have their effects. But it's hard to ignore the results. Especially since O'Brien followed through on his threat and recently retired so he could take a front office position with the Miami Dolphins. O'Brien isn't the most convenient target for the special teams' failures, but he's the most visible.

Statistically, punter Todd Sauerbrun had a good season. He should; the highest paid punter in the league should do well. But his production doesn't necessarily translate into real value. It's not the numbers - it's the rest of Todd Sauerbrun that gives the coaching staff headaches. Krispy Kreme and his own ego fed Sauerbrun in 2004-2005 – and that might add just too much fat to his middle and his head than his contract will allow. As a result, Sauerbrun has allowed himself to become an easy salary cap victim. The Panthers have already signed a punter to an offer sheet and hope to provide competition in training camp. That's a line-drive message, just like most of Sauerbrun's punts.

There's no such trepidation where kicker John Kasay is concerned. Kasay is as valuable today as he was when training camp broke for the first time in 1995. Though aging and prone to injury, Kasay is one of the few constants John Fox can count on. As things like this often go with veterans, Kasay's steadiness in the locker room is difficult to put a replacement value on.

The knock on Kasay, and what ultimately must be addressed – perhaps in training camp - is his inability to get deep on kickoffs. Much of Fox's game planning centers around field position. If Kasay can't get it done off the tee, another kicker or Sauerbrun will be called upon. Another kicker means another salary slot that can't be used on a reserve lineman or for injury protection from a practice squad elevation. And Sauerbrun needs to concentrate on punting, though if the coaching staff calls him to serve on kickoffs, he'll have to do it no matter how much he or his agent might crow.

Danny Crossman takes over the reigns from O'Brien, and how his unit performs will depend largely on the relative health of the players. The return to action of Hampton, Tillman, Armstead and Joey Harris, supported by Ross, Sean Tufts, Colbert, Minter and other starters, joined by potential re-signees Hankton, Allen, Smart and Rassmussen could propel the Panthers back into the upper-echelons of NFL special teams elite.

Knowing the importance Fox places on special teams, it's not too much of a stretch to think that the 2004-2005 disappointment was a blip not a trend.

To be concluded later this week in part 5 of 5; The Blueprint.

Discuss this article and more Panthers topics at PantherInsider.com

- Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 1 of 5
- Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 2 of 5
- Carolina Panthers Offseason Blueprint: Part 3 of 5

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