|Carolina Panthers' draft focus on acquiring defensive reinforcement|
|Needs include secondary and linebacker|
|Published Wednesday, April 8, 2020 7:00 pm|
|FILE PHOTO | PAUL WILLIAMS III|
|Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule is looking for defensive reinforcements in the NFL Draft April 23-25.|
If football rosters are a puzzle, the Carolina Panthers are closer to completing their offense than defense.
With major offensive moves in free agency wrapped up, the organization’s attention turns toward the virtual NFL Draft April 23-25. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just delayed team activities, it’s forcing coaches and general managers to make franchise-altering decisions from their homes. The Panthers have the seventh, 38th, 69th, 113th, 152nd, 184th and 221st picks.
“We got a lot of guys in free agency on offense, but that doesn’t mean, in my mind at least, that we won’t draft a guy on offense,” coach Matt Rhule said on a conference call today with local media. “We wanted to make sure we put in a lot of depth at a lot of positions [through free agency]. I think it is a deep draft defensively. It’s probably going to shape up to be one of the bigger receiver drafts as well.”
Rhule, who arrived from Baylor in January, replaced Ron Rivera, who was fired on Dec. 3. He hired the NFL’s youngest offensive coordinator in Joe Brady, who won the 2019 college national championship at LSU as the Tigers’ passing game coordinator/receivers coach and the Broyles Award for top collegiate assistant. Brady is already connected to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who replaced Cam Newton, who was cut on March 24.
“Cam Newton is a great quarterback, and could play in any system,” Rhule said. “In a year like this, especially where we’re all kind of in our homes, I think Teddy is a guy who has been in this offense, knows this offense—has great familiarity with Joe. It just makes sense to us. It’s not a comparison to me as much as this was an opportunity for us, and we took it.”
Bridgewater, who signed a three-year contract, is heading into his seventh NFL season. He has played 44 career games (22-12 as a starter) with 38 touchdown passes and 7,652 yards. Brady, who spent two seasons in New Orleans as an offensive assistant, was “the guy who worked with me after practice, end of pre-games,” Bridgewater said. “He was the guy who took me through drills. We went over the call sheet together. He just stayed active with me.”
Rhule, previously of Temple, signed three former Owls through free agency: linebacker Tahir Whitehead, receiver Robby Anderson and quarterback P.J. Walker.
There’s work to do on defense, particularly in the secondary, where cornerback James Bradberry signed with the Giants in free agency and strong safety Eric Reid was cut. They signed free agent Juston Burris to a two-year contract as Reid’s replacement. Donte Jackson, who struggled in coverage opposite Bradberry late last season, returns at corner.
“I was really happy to get Juston Burris,” Rhule said. “He was a guy we earmarked early—almost the first day. He’s the guy who has been a nickel, who has been a corner, who has been a safety and the ability to re-sign [free safety] Tre Boston, I thought those were pivotal, pivotal things on defense because we knew we needed that stability at safety.
“Depth at the corner position, at the defensive line and at linebacker, those will be our biggest challenges. We like the players we have at a lot of those positions, but the season is a hard one. Who are the young players who can come in on the secondary and on the defensive line and give us quality snaps, especially at the second half the year.”
With the retirement of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the question remains who will play that position. While Rhule prefers position-less football, the job belongs to either Shaq Thompson or Whitehead.
“Tahir played Will [weakside] at Oakland,” Rhule said. “I think the Mike [middle linebacker] and the Will when you get into nickel defense is the same thing. They’re just standing 2 feet from each other. I try to think of everything as position-less football in my mind…Tahir’s a guy who can play Mike even though he’s played Will most of his career, and Shaq Thompson is a guy who can play Mike. Jermaine Carter is a guy that we’re high on.”
Until the draft, all the Panthers can do is study, study, and study a bit more.
“There’s nothing more to really do than evaluate film,” said Rhule, adding he’s also spending more time at home with his family.
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