CHARLOTTE - The Panthers finished the 2021 season ranked second in total defense, which is far better than it was the year before (they were 18th in 2020). That's good.
There are still things to work on, especially with the way things unraveled late in the year after injuries and attrition hit.
And if we're taking an honest and a clear-eyed look at where they are, it's reasonable to be encouraged by the direction they're headed defensively, while acknowledging the areas of need. They need to be better in the red zone, better against the run, and deeper in general. They ranked 21st in the league in points allowed, with some games getting away from them during the season-closing seven-game losing streak.
And since most of the attention this offseason will be paid to what they do on offense - with their stated goal to fix the offensive line, and continue to look for quarterback answers - we can start here at the moment.
The Panthers have 22 unrestricted free agents, meaning there's work to be done on both sides of the ball.
So it's worth taking a look at where the roster stands at the moment on defense, entering what should be a busy offseason (Tune in tomorrow for a look at the other side of the ball).
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What they've got: Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, Morgan Fox, Darryl Johnson, Azur Kamara, Austin Larkin , Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
It's not a bad place to start. Burns finished the year with 9.0 sacks again, failing to push into the double-digit territory many expected him to. Part of that was due to the way teams played him (relying on quick passes and a lot of chips from backs and tight ends). If you're in that top class of pass-rushers, or want to be, that's the treatment you're going to get. He also benefitted from having Haason Reddick and his 11.0 sacks on the other side. Burns has the potential to be elite. He's going to the Pro Bowl, but there's still work to be done for him to become a complete defensive end.
Gross-Matos presents a compelling case, as he played well later in the year in a larger role. The 2020 second-rounder is similar to Fox in that he can play as base end on first down, and then slide inside on passing downs. Both have value in that regard.
What they don't: Marquis Haynes Sr. is among the unrestricted free agents, and there are a lot of guys here in line for backup roles if he leaves.
Offseason outlook: If the Panthers had a big ol' 285-pound end who could set the edge in the run game and have some pass-rush ability, it would help in a number of ways. As much as Burns and Reddick provide a threat, opponents saw in the Dallas and Minnesota games that when your two edge-rushers don't get to 500 pounds between them, that you can be vulnerable against the run. That was the case often enough this year that it needs some attention. It's not the first priority, but having another guy here in addition to developmental players such as Johnson and Kamara would certainly help. Johnson's a player who can contribute on special teams, and with an offseason to work, has shown enough pass-rush potential from his days in Buffalo to be a positive addition.
What they've got: Derrick Brown, Bravvion Roy, Daviyon Nixon, Phil Hoskins, Frank Herron
There's some talent here, but some of these guys still need a little more time.
Brown has the ability to be dominant. He's not quite dominant yet, but played well after his midseason benching, so it's reasonable to think he gets it. He has rare power, but he's probably never going to put up big sack numbers, so expecting him to may not be wise. If he had a dependable three-technique rusher next to him (think someone like Kawann Short before the injuries set in), Brown could be a force.
Nixon was emerging as an interesting inside rusher before a knee injury in practice midway through the season, and Hoskins had some flashes during his late-season cameos. Neither of them are the kinds of guys at the moment that you pencil into the starting lineup and feel great about, though they could get there eventually.
What they don't: Veteran DaQuan Jones leads the list of free agents, and they could always run it back. He was here to lead as much as play, and he's probably best described as steady. Depending on your perspective, that's either a fair assessment or a backhanded compliment.
Offseason outlook: Again, either Jones or someone like him. In a perfect world, there's an inside rusher who needs a job at mid-price free agent rates.
What they've got: Shaq Thompson, Kamal Martin
That's it. That's the list. While it's not going command as much attention as the offensive line, they at least have linemen they could roll out there and create something resembling a starting lineup. They have two linebackers on the roster, and that's not enough linebackers.
Thompson played some of his best football this year, and was the kind of sideline-to-sideline player they needed. When he was out with a foot injury, his absence was apparent, as the Panthers were without a playmaker as well as a leader.
Martin's a bigger body inside, as they've tried find larger human beings to fill the backup roles in particular. They like the direction he's heading, but it's too soon to project a role for him on defense.
What they don't: Anything else. With Jermaine Carter Jr., Reddick, Frankie Luvu, and Julian Stanford filling up that free agent list, the Panthers could have a completely different look at linebacker.
Carter was a favorite of the coaching staff for his unselfish play and daily work, and he was an upgrade in the middle over the guy he replaced last year (Tahir Whitehead). It will be interesting to see what his market looks like.
Reddick also played well last season, following up his breakout year in Arizona with another productive one as a pass-rusher. The question for him, as with a few others, will be what the market bears. Because he's an undersized rusher, not every team has a place for him. But he's very good at the particular thing he does. He also said on his way out this week that he wanted to get bigger, and play in the 250 range next year. Now we'll see what that's worth on the open market.
Offseason outlook: For a franchise that has always enjoyed having a stud middle linebacker (Sam Mills, Micheal Barrow, Dan Morgan, Jon Beason, Luke Kuechly), the absence of that level of player makes a difference. Perhaps fans here are spoiled, as Carter is an absolutely competent player, just not a Pro Bowler. But players like past linebackers here are rare for a reason. They designed a defense in 2021 that was built around getting pressure and playing man coverage in the back, and after the way teams ran on them, they'd probably prefer to be more balanced.
While it's not offensive line or quarterback, it's a position they have to address.
What they've got: Jaycee Horn, CJ Henderson, A.J. Bouye, Keith Taylor Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Troy Pride Jr., Madre Harper
Even if all the free agents leave, and no one comes in, this is a better group of corners than they had at any point in 2020. Horn was on his way to being a dominant cornerback before his broken foot in Week 3 (a calamitous game which also cost them Christian McCaffrey). Football coaches have taken to referring to players as "true alphas" in recent years, and that cliche describes Horn well. He's big. He's physical. He can run with anyone. And he's more than a willing tackler in the run game, he seems eager. He also likes working, which is why they made sure to keep a conservative timeline on his rehab.
Henderson battled some injuries but had his moments, and even if all he ever turns into is a third cornerback, that's still value for the third-round pick they gave Jacksonville for the ninth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Bouye's a smart veteran who adds flexibility and leadership to the room, and Taylor made a few plays, and is worth developing. It's not a finished secondary, but as long as Horn returns to the field, it's a better start than many teams have.
What they don't: There aren't many teams in the league which could face the prospect of losing two players the caliber of Donte Jackson and Stephon Gilmore and think it's anything short of a disaster.
Jackson was also playing his best football this year, and is going to get paid as such this offseason. The Panthers haven't ruled out retaining him, but free agents get choices in this deal also, and he's going to have the opportunity for generational wealth.
Offseason outlook: There's a great case to be made for keeping Gilmore. He's from here, he likes being able to sleep in his own house, and he's still very good at playing football (as we saw in the Atlanta and New England games). He's also just 31, so it's not as if he's over the hill. And while he can still play, he also has tremendous value as it pertains to teaching Horn and Henderson. They have the ability to be the kind of player Gilmore has already been, so making sure they're well-instructed is a key.
Keeping at least one of the free agents would be a reasonable expectation, and if they do, that position will be a strength moving into 2022.
They can try to keep both, and have considered it, that just might be difficult to pull off with so many other pressing issues.
What they've got: Jeremy Chinn, Kenny Robinson, Myles Hartsfield, Sam Franklin Jr.
Chinn's still a safety, and it probably makes sense to leave him there, no matter how thin they are at linebacker. After spending a year re-learning how to direct traffic in the back of the defense, he was getting more comfortable in the role. He's a leader around here either way, but playing in the secondary is likely the best fit.
Robinson got some late looks and impressed, as he has range and ball skills. But expecting him to make the leap into the starting lineup is a lot to ask. Hartsfield's always hard to characterize, as he plays a variety of roles including nickel.
What they don't: Veteran starter Juston Burris and special teamer Sean Chandler are free agents, and this position could turn over a bit.
Offseason outlook: Burris was replaced by Robinson late in the year, which you can interpret as you see fit. The Panthers could use someone with experience at the position though, in case Robinson isn't ready. Even if he is, having a safety who has played in the league would give them the flexibility to move Chinn around, which is how he benefits a defense the most.