- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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There are trees and there are limbs. As I write this, I’m standing on the smallest twig I can find.
You are about to read something you probably aren’t going to read anywhere else this offseason: The Carolina Panthers will have the best defense in the NFC South in 2012.
That’s right, I’m saying that a defense that ranked No. 28 in the league in yards per game (377.6) and allowed 406 points last season will be the best in the division.
My logic is two-pronged. I’m not completely sold on any other defense in the division. The Atlanta Falcons have a shot to be very good with Mike Nolan taking over as coordinator, but the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still have personnel work to do on defense.
More importantly, I’m going with Carolina because I believe the Panthers have the personnel and coaching to make things work. Sean McDermott may have taken his lumps in Philadelphia, and he’s not the most popular guy in Charlotte these days. But McDermott suddenly is the dean of NFC South defensive coordinators (Nolan, New Orleans’ Steve Spagnoulo and Tampa Bay’s Bill Sheridan each are in their first season with new teams).
That means Carolina is the only NFC South team that’s not implementing a new defense. The Panthers simply are plugging new (and old) players into a system that has been in place for a year. At this time a year ago, the common assumption was that Carolina’s defense would be decent because new coach Ron Rivera came from a defensive background and he had some talent on the team. But, suddenly, that talent started disappearing.
Defensive tackle Ron Edwards went down with an injury early in training camp. Linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis went down with injuries early in the regular season and the defense fell into chaos.
But, as the Panthers get ready for training camp, Edwards and Beason are healthy. So is Davis, although the Panthers are keeping their fingers crossed because he’s coming back from his third torn ACL. The Panthers protected themselves against another injury to Davis by investing a first-round pick in Boston College’s Luke Kuechly.
Factor Beason, Edwards and Kuechly into the equation and it’s not hard to see why Rivera feels a lot better about his defense than he has at any point since last September.
“I love Dan Connor (who filled in for Beason at middle linebacker last season and left for Dallas as a free agent), but Dan Connor’s not a communicator,’’ Rivera recently told The Charlotte Observer. “He’s a hard-nosed, grindstone-type guy. And that was tough on our safeties. But now you’ve got Jon Beason, who communicates like you can’t believe. You’ve got Luke Kuechly, who shows he knows how to communicate. So right through the middle of our defense we’ve gotten better.’’
Rivera believes you build a defense the same way you build a baseball team -- straight up the middle. The Panthers haven’t officially said if Beason or Kuechly will play the middle. Whichever one doesn’t will play the outside opposite either Davis or James Anderson, who was one of Carolina’s few defensive bright spots last season. That’s a good thing because Rivera also believes that once you’re set in the middle, the rest of the defense will take care of itself.
That’s why I see bright things for Carolina’s defense. There’s some talent on the outer fringes that can really blossom with a solid middle. There is defensive end Charles Johnson, who had 20.5 sacks the past two seasons while getting very little help. There’s hope that this will be the season defensive end Greg Hardy finally plays to his potential. As Rivera said, safeties Sherrod Martin and Charles Godfrey should be better just because they’ll have Beason and Kuechly telling them where to go. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble remains solid, and that really leaves only one hole.
Starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is undersized and was picked on at times last season. In an ideal world, the Panthers would like rookie Josh Norman or second-year pro Brandon Hogan to claim the starting job and let Munnerlyn work exclusively as the nickel back. In a less-than-perfect world, Munnerlyn could still start but move inside to match up with slot receivers on passing downs and let one of the bigger corners play the outside.
“I want to see somebody take the bull by the horns and become the No. 2,’’ Rivera said. “If it’s Captain, awesome. If it’s somebody else, awesome. If it’s one of the younger guys, awesome. Somebody needs to step up and become that guy.’’
Somebody also needs to step up to be “that’’ defense in the NFC South.
I think Carolina has the wherewithal to be that defense. It doesn’t hurt that the Panthers have Cam Newton and an offense that can score points and stay on the field for extended periods. If the defense turns out to be the best in the NFC South, the Panthers suddenly could be a playoff contender.