Defensive Overview

Upset with their inability to get off the field on third downs last year, the Carolina Panthers made every effort to upgrade in that area during the off-season.

The first order of business was signing cornerback Ken Lucas from Seattle, a move that allows the team to use Ricky Manning Jr. as a nickel back. Lucas, who got a #13 million signing bonus, will start in the base defense alongside last year's rookie standout Chris Gamble.

Lucas and Gamble tied for the NFC lead in interceptions last season with six.

Manning replaces Artrell Hawkins in that role, giving the Panthers three solid cornerbacks in passing downs.

The Panthers then went after versatile Thomas Davis in the first round of the NFL draft, a move that should also upgrade their speed on third downs.

While Davis is likely to start at strong safety this year in base defenses, the Panthers have him playing what they call the "joker" position at linebacker on third downs. It's unclear at this point if Davis will be paired with Will Witherspoon or Dan Morgan at the other linebacker spot on third downs.

The Panthers will miss outside linebacker Mark Fields this year. Fields' Hodgkin's disease returned after it appeared he had the disease licked. He will miss the entire season.

Brandon Short, who backed up Fields last year and started for the New York Giants in the past, and Chris Draft, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent from the Atlanta Falcons, will battle for Fields' spot at strongside linebacker. There's a chance the Panthers could move Davis to outside linebacker at some point down the road.

Carolina's defense line remains one of the best in the league, returning all four starters and perhaps the NFC's top defensive end in Julius Peppers. Mike Rucker, a Pro Bowl pick in 2003, will line up opposite Peppers, while two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Kris Jenkins hopes to return to form after a shoulder injury sidelined him for 12 games last season. Brentson Buckner is penciled in as the other starting defensive tackle, but don't be surprised if Kindal Moorehead takes over in that role soon.

Davis is expected to battle for a spot at strong safety with nine-year pro Mike Minter. If Minter loses the job to Davis, he could move to free safety, where incumbent Colin Branch is attempting to hold off competition from free agent pickups Idrees Bashir and Marlon McCree.

At punter, Tom Rouen appears to be the likely replacement for Todd Sauerbrun, who was traded to Denver after several off-the-field problems.

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