Defense Rhules For Panthers In First Draft Under New Coach

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Everyone knows the Panthers made history by using all seven draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on defensive players.  No one knows how the picks will ultimately pan out, but I couldn’t be more excited about Carolina’s choices in their first draft led by new coach Matt Rhule.

In my draft evaluation, I give the Panthers an “A” for effort because they addressed positions of need with high upside players.  Evaluating drafts before games are played is purely speculative at any rate, so I’m considering the philosophy more than the absolute impact on the field.

Here are the Panthers’ 2020 NFL Draft selections with the round they were selected in parentheses: defensive tackle Derrick Brown(1); defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos(2); safety Jeremy Chinn(2); cornerback Troy Pride Jr.(4); safety Kenny Robinson Jr. (5); defensive tackle Bravvian Roy(6); and cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver(7).

I want to see the Panthers fly around and make plays on defense.  I want to see hard, legal hits.  I want to see pick sixes and fumble recoveries for touchdowns.  I want to see an enthusiasm for the game.

After watching videos of all these players, I think Carolina is headed in the right direction.  They will be fast and free on defense and with the supplement of future drafts, could become a very good unit.

I know all of the draft picks won’t be stars and some might not stick with the Panthers, but I’m excited about the type of athletes coach Rhule is choosing for his and defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s secondary.

My biggest complaint about Ron Rivera’s Panthers was always the secondary and especially the safety position.  I don’t remember Carolina drafitng hard-hitting, ball hawking safeties during Rivera’s tenure.  Analytics seem to de-value safeties for reasons I don’t understand but the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl with one of the best safeties in the game, Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.

The secondary of the 2015 Panthers team that made it to the Super Bowl featured 34-year-old Charles Tillman, 33-year-old Roman Harper, 28-year-old Josh Norman and 27-year-old Kurt Coleman.  Josh Norman was a First Team All-Pro that season and was the only one of that group drafted by the Panthers, but even that group didn’t strike fear in the hearts of opponents.

The NFL is a passing league and while cover-corners get all the attention, and money, the best safeties set the tone for the defense as far as the passing game is concerned.  They can also be like extra linebackers in the running game if they are physical, solid tacklers.

Safeties are literally the last line of defense.  My hope is that Jeremy Chinn and Kenny Robinson Jr. become the type of intimidating forces that make coaches, quarterbacks and receivers hesitant to test the deep middle of the field. If that comes with a few penalties, so be it.  Coach Matt Rhule said he thought Chinn could have gone in the first round because of his combination of size and speed, in an interview with ESPN’s Trey Wingo.  Robinson Jr. played in the XFL before the league folded, due to the coronavirus, and was having a strong season by all accounts.

Cornerback Donte Jackson is the most talented remaining member of the secondary following the departure of James Bradberry in free agency. Jackson has had his ups and downs but he is fast and has good ball skills. Tre Boston is a great locker room presence and leader.  Carolina signed defensive back Juston Burris this offseason.  Burris can play safety and some corner.  He should add depth to the defensive backfield.  The Raleigh, North Carolina, product had two interceptions in 14 games with the Browns last season and is just 26-years-old.

Hopes are high for Greer, South Carolina, native Troy Pride Jr., who some believe could develop into a Pro Bowl caliber cornerback.  Stantley Thomas-Oliver was definitely worth a seventh-round draft pick but will probably be most impactful on special teams to begin his career. Both of these young corners have good size and are willing tacklers, as well as cover guys.  With a new coaching staff and so many young unproven players, the comeptition for playing time should be fierce.  It is not beyond reason to think Pride Jr. or Thomas-Oliver could emerge as a surprise contributor if given the opportunity.

I’m confident Derrick Brown and Bravvian Roy will help K.K. Short shore up the interior of the defensive line.  I think Yetur Gross-Matos will team up with Brian Burns to give us an explosive young pass rush in Coach Snow’s 4-3 defense, along with defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who the Panthers signed away from Minnesota this offseason.

Shaq Thompson is blossoming into an All-Pro caliber player. No one can replace Luke Kuechly, but Thompson is already a rangy, powerful linebacker that opposing teams must account for.  He will lead a linebacking core that should be solid if not spectacular.  Thompson was a college safety, so he fits the mold of hybrid, positionless players the Panthers covet.

Coach Matt Rhule and General Manager Marty Hurney said they didn’t intend to pick all defensive players but the few offensive players they targeted were chosen before they picked. Carolina signed several undrafted offensive players following the draft.

We know what we have in Teddy Bridgewater, Christian McCaffrey, and DJ Moore.  We can use a tight end, although Ian Thomas is serviceable.

We can always use offensive linemen.  Hopefully Russell Okung will provide blind side support and the offensive philosophy of quick intermediate passes out of multiple-receiver sets will take some pressure off of the linemen.

Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady was über successful at LSU. His high-powered offense averaged 48.4 points a game, according to LSUsports.net, won a national championship, and produced a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback.

So, if Brady’s offense translates, and the players we have perform at the level expected, the Panthers should be alright on the offensive side of the ball.

The truth is, Carolina doesn’t have an identity yet because they haven’t played any games, but stockpiling young athletic defenders is a great way to begin creating an identity on that side of the ball.

The young draft picks will make mistakes and hopefully learn from those mistakes in the process. For this season, at least, they will learn from established pros like Short, Thompson, and Jackson at each level of the defense.

So, in about two years, this draft class and the remaining veterans should still be young, but they will have grown into a cohesive unit that knows what the coaches want and can execute the game plan from a mental and physical standpoint.

The combination of young athletes and savvy veterans on both sides of the football is a recipe for success for a rebuilding franchise.

I’m just excited that Coach Rhule sees where the game is going and is investing in they types of players who can make the Panthers a successful and relevant franchise on the field for years to come.