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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Stephen Hill is Stupid

Former Jets WR and current Panthers bubble player was caught with marijuana paraphernalia - but not the drug itself and wasn't under the influence.

Still, what a bonehead move - for a player whose best accomplishment was at combine four years ago, he didn't need this type setback.   The eve of camp seems like poor timing, too.

Will be interesting to see what the team's response is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Positional Breakdown: DB

The defensive backfield grew from its humble 2014 in many ways - free agent pickups, growth mid-year '14.   One I was particularly excited about?  Watching DBs coach Steve Wilks get named Assistant Head Coach.

It was a tumultuous 2014.  Carolina snapped up three inexpensive free agents with names, and plugged them in where the outgoing free agents (guaranteed money and all) had left off.   It seemed like a fine plan, but each one failed - Thomas Decoud and Antoine Cason both got benched.   Roman Harper eventually redeemed, despite oddly poor open field tackling at times, he also somehow turned into an allright deep safety (a surprise, since he was always a box safety).

Harper led the team in picks, and the youth showed up to replace the rest mid-season.   4th rounder Tre Boston, finally healthy, became the FS.  Bene Benwikere, the 5th rounder, went from being the nickel early in the year to an outside corner; Josh Norman matured and took over the other spot for 2nd year Melvin White.   And while some of those seemed improbable, backup FS Colin Jones playing nickel at a high level was really out of sorts.

Now, the hard part - a repeat performance.  There haven't been two consecutive years of good play out of a DB in Carolina in a while... you could argue Captain Munnerlyn, I might have to go back to Chris Gamble.  Luckily, most of what's there is young.  There's some hope for what's ahead for the above players.

But, Carolina didn't want to rest on that.   They gambled a bit, even.

Charles Tillman is a legend, but a legend who hasn't played that many games the last two years.  The gamble there?  Can he stay healthy, of course.   It's not a matter of whether he has gas in the tank.  But, with some injury guarantee there, he's still also very likely to help out as a mentor.

More recently, they added Chris Houston, a solid outside corner who missed last year with injury concerns as well.  The concept is to push what's there, and let the best man win.  For now, they hope to have Benwikere inside whole Tillman and Norman play outside, but it's hard to say how things will go in the long term.

With that quartet, and White, they've also added blazing special teamer Teddy Williams, who fits at CB but isn't expected to play much there.  He's there, essentially, to be what Jones had been, and will likely return to being - a ridiculously fast player for special teams.

At S, they do return Harper and Boston, Jones will likely be solid depth there, but they also added Kurt Coleman, a vet.  A lot of people like undrafteds Dean Marlowe and Brian Blechen.  I'm not terribly enthused anymore about Robert Lester, but he's still here.

A top 9 or 10?  That depends on health.  Houston seems a longshot because he's a vet who might be the 4th best CB here. I'll say, via talent, you have Tillman, Norman, Benwikere, Houston; after that, you probably see Williams instead of White; but White is a less expensive and still able player for a #4.   They like Garry Peters there, and might have him on the PS.

Then you keep Boston, Harper, Coleman, Jones.  Marlowe or Blechen might be good practice squadders.

I'm definitely hoping on improvement.  I don't know what to think about Tillman, but that could be a bargain if it works out right.

Positional Breakdown: LB

What a wonderland this LB corps has become - a unit with four starters that really needs two.

We know Luke Kuechly - top MLB, potentially defensive player of the year candidate for the rest of his life.   We know Thomas Davis, top 1-2 OLB from a 4-3.  They need no introduction.  They're superheroes on the field.

Carolina had AJ Klein last year, a 2nd year riser who had been taking time from vet Chase Blackburn.  You'd know him best as that guy you called "Luuuuuuuuuuuke" on the field because he shares playing style and aesthetics with our favorite MLB.

Not to rest on that, Carolina took the player they stated was the best player available, S/LB/RB Shaq Thompson.  Expecting him to play opposite Davis, the concept is that he'd play base, and extend nickel at times for explosive backs in the passing game and/or split-out tight ends.

We'll have to see how that works, honestly.  Thompson at WLB pushes Davis back to SLB, and that's fine by me.

That makes Klein the top backup, a top special teamer.  With him, from last year, comes UDFA Adarius Glanton, another undersized WLB who would likely play special teams, and free agent pickup Jason Trusnik,  They spent a 5th rounder on yet another LB, David Mayo - yet another rangy tackling machine.

That's the seven I believe will make the squad - but, Ben Jacobs (a vet MLB) and Kevin Reddick both have ability.  I see them wanting to throw Reddick on practice squad.

There's a ton of talent, versatility, and compatibility here.  The second squad could conceivably start for the bottom third of the league and succeed.  But, let's hope that's all the draft picks spent on LB for a bit.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jonathan Martin: Retired?

Carolina had tenuous depth at left tackle, which changed this morning to "no depth at all".

2012 2nd round pick and offseason pickup Jonathan Martin has retired, citing a back injury that would've forced him to miss the season anyway.  So, there are no silver linings in that one.

But - and I guess this is 100% personal, having done an OL breakdown just today - this changes things for the depth on the OL, with LT being woefully underequipped.   2014 competitor Nate Chandler could be depth, but he wasn't able to win the LT job and wasn't a good RT.  Mike Remmers, a current starter at RT, could be OK depth there, but he doesn't have much time there.

There's the outside shot that reserve guard Amini Silatolu, a college LT, could work there as well, but he's the only real depth at G.

So, take that experienced G/C Carolina needed in camp, and add a tackle to that.

Positional Breakdown: DL

Next up?  Defensive line.  A team strength, but with one of the team's most intriguing camp battles.  DE provides a lot of competition in what might end up a four way battle for the starting right end spot.

But, first up, defensive tackle - fairly easy, with essentially all parts returning in the spots they'd expect to return.  Star Lotulelei is healthy again, Kawann Short returns from being the team's best interior lineman last year; backup pass rusher Dwan Edwards and stalwart NT Colin Cole continue to provide stability.   While both Cole and Edwards have started for Carolina in the past, they could both be reserves.   Kyle Love is on deck if they keep 5.

The key to this situation at DT - where Carolina was weakest, statisticially, between the guards, though possibly because of a few long runs early, is the health of Lotulelei.  Short and Edwards will always be a bit better rushers, but Lotulelei's ability to control the A gaps and still provide pass rush is the crucial piece.  He struggled at both compared to 2013, and while he can't help injury, he essentially remains the difference between competence and dominance.

Now, for the ends - put Charles Johnson at left end in pen, despite reports he was working at right end.   The rest?  Pencil, because it's the field.

Last year's post-Greg Hardy right end situation had Carolina using Wes Horton as a run stopper, and Mario Addison rushing.  It was an able sub package, and Addison chipped in 6.5 sacks.   2nd rounder Kony Ealy added four sacks, three of them late in the season.

Hardy wasn't the only player that lost essentially all of the season to suspension - Frank Alexander also missed all but one game, after substance issues.  Alexander showed promise in camp, but squandered a year where the team needed him.   It's now or never for him at this point.

The team clearly wants a starting player that's good in both phases, and will spend the year hoping to identify one so they won't have to buy one when the year's over.  Horton isn't necessarily a run-only end, but he's not a great rusher.  Addison has ability rushing, but is a poor fit playing the run.   Both Alexander and Ealy have pedigree, run bulk, and pass rushing talent, so it's most likely to be one of those two.

Scheming out a number for DL is tough - there are ten good ones here.  For now I'd say that the ends get the extra man - especially since Addison is a stalwart special teamer.

Positional Breakdown: OL

Rolling along here on my views of the Panthers' current roster, the biggest group - offensive line. 

Carolina had an under-stated amount of turnover in 2014.    Four different retirements - while some weren't going to impact as much (Jeff Byers, Geoff Hangartner) and one could've but wasn't that wanted (Travelle Wharton), the big loss was Jordan Gross. 

That left Carolina riddled with inconsistency as they tried to patch things at tackle, while focusing on guard.  The aftermath of that left 2015's offseason in turmoil as well. 

Starting at center, the stable spot, you have Ryan Kalil.  The lone constant.  I have no concerns here, he's good in all phases.   Backing him is Bryan Folkerts, who seems able and competent.  2014's starter at RT, Mike Remmers, is getting snaps here, too.   More on him in a bit. 

Guard had its ups and downs, but finished possibly the strongest.   Amini Silatolu got hurt, which is his strength at this point; 3rd round RG Trai Turner was intended to be an early fixture but ended up in a bizarre rotation with veteran camp pickup Fernando Velasco (who has returned to Tennessee).  Velasco bounced between LG and RG with Turner hurt, eventually giving way to Andrew Norwell.  That's where things finally got solid. 

By mid-November, Norwell and Turner were constants.  Norwell's pulling was a strength, and Turner's inline blocking was, as well.   Now, the team needs to fold in Silatolu and see what happens.  Chris Scott, traditionally out of shape, is option 4. 

Then there's tackle.  Last year saw three poor options - Byron Bell, Nate Chandler, and Garry Williams.  Williams predictably got hurt yet again, leaving the winner from the other two to be LT, and the loser to be RT.  It didn't work out so hot, and Carolina far too often left extra men to help block pass rushers who weren't necessarily all that good. 

Bell is gone, replaced by Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin, both best known for the wrong reasons.  Chandler remains, but when he got hurt and the team inserted Remmers, things got a lot better.  Remmers eventually regressed, but he graded out exceptionally early on.  Did he wear down, did he get figured out?  

The team doesn't really know what they have in Remmers, and my first guess would be that he's a solid pass blocker who doesn't have much push.   I think it's safe to say that Chandler, who was a converted DL and played admirably at RG in 2013, is a known by now, but he could be valuable depth.   The RT that should matter most?   4th rounder Daryl Williams.  

Williams is a tough, widebody RT who I did some pre-draft work on, linked here. He's a guy who can really kill you in the run game, and he has enough assets to make things work in the passing game.  At least he has a strength, and it's a massive one.  If the team is going to play around with Byron Bell types, the least they can get is a hell of a run blocker.   Where he'll show up in the passing game might be harder to say, but those long arms, wide stance, and good reaction time mean that hopefully he's not going to need much help on the edge.  Post-draft, all of a sudden everyone thinks he's a guard.  I don't buy that. 

But, he's not a LT. Oher is intriguing as a low cost option, but he's a patch. Martin is similarly talented.  I do like that the team's got competition, with five guys who could conceivably start, but the team really needs to invest more longterm into the other tackle spot.   

So that's where we are - comparatively, stronger and deeper than last year, but still concerned about LT.  

Projecting, you might expect Oher, Martin, Williams, and Remmers at OT; Norwell, Turner, Silatolu, at guard, and Kalil/Folkerts at C.   They like David Foucault as well, but the lanky Canadian will have had to really grow to make more than the practice squad.  Which is a bit of a problem - they do have enough to compete for the starting jobs. but in the end this isn't a strong enough unit to cut anyone that could be good.   Last year, the team picked up two OL during camp, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar G/C pickup this year.   No third center, excepting Remmers, and three starting quality guards, one of which almost always has a season ending injury. 

Positional Breakdown: TE

The rag-tag group of under-rateds.  Tight end.

It's amazing you can have an under-rated, Pro Bowl TE.  That's what Carolina has in Greg Olsen, able blocker, exceptional receiver, the ballast to Cam Newton's young, fledgling leadership.  But I feel he is.  He was a 1000 yard TE on a team that hadn't had one in its 20 years (including that great 1999 Wesley Walls year - and yes, it's great to have a team that both wants to run the ball and throw to the TE again, it was John Fox's biggest flaw).  And that was on a team that needed him pass blocking more than normal, a team that used him greatly but targeted him 22 less times than rook Kelvin Benjamin.  For all real purposes, he's a wide receiver half the time and yet fans don't know him.

But why are the rest under-rated?

Ed Dickson probably hasn't shown what he can do here - playing 50% of snaps despite Olsen's 95%, Dickson started ten games, played all 16.  And he had 17 targets for 10 catches, a score.  Dickson spent a massive amount of time blocking, playing some fullback.   There were times late in 2014 where I saw both Dickson and Olsen blocking the team's best rusher while LT Byron Bell was blocking down on the DT.   On a team where Benjamin had probably 4 garbage-time TDs, Dickson (who I'm not comparing at all in talent) didn't catch ten balls all season. Under-rated.

Then you have Richie Brockel, a part time FB, part time TE, but core special teamer.  He's a guy without a position, whose best attribute is pass blocking, and who's integral on fourth down.   It's tough to care there.  But know this.  He's glue.  He's critical.

Finally you have the most intriguing - Brandon Williams.  Williams is 250 lbs of granite, occasionally being seen as the guy who catches seam TDs from Derek Anderson.   Now and again you'll see him mauling a defender in blocking duty.   He really captures your imagination.  Set aside the hype, the possibility, and you still wonder what he could do with more time, but he's 4th string.

I see them all making the roster, and all contributing - the last 3 on special teams in different forms.  It's impossible to complain about what's here, honestly.  You have essentially two starters because of how Carolina uses TEs,  You have a pair of guys behind them who could team up to be good enough to be a situational pair on a team without a TE.   All four stay.