Plenty of Carolina picks have come out saying that the team wants to keep them, but I haven't heard from James Anderson.
Jon Beason isn’t Dan Morgan by any stretch, and Anderson doesn’t have the productive longterm history that Will Witherspoon did in four years here. But the Panthers do face that type decision again. In this case, there seems no conceivable way the Panthers don’t extend Beason. Anderson, however, seems likely to be allowed to walk.
I’ve long dismissed the idea of James Anderson staying. With a year as good as he had, he’d get paid. But I don’t want to dismiss things too quickly. Thomas Davis is a wildcard, giving the team a second near-elite level player to continue to work with Beason, if you’re assuming he’s healthy. You can’t always assume that, so you run the risk of swinging wide in both situations – don’t pay Anderson, and you could end up with Beason, rookie Lawrence Wilson, and hefty amounts of nothing else. Pay him and you have three highly paid linebackers and not enough elsewhere.
Anderson did almost nothing in his first four years – wasn’t good enough in coverage to steal any time, and was unable to do much with his time when he did play (he was a starter with the preseason squad in 2008 or 09, I believe, and looked OK there, then failed to make impact on the starting spot on the other side when available. Still, limited time in 2009 made Anderson a player that deserved more time, and he did his best with it (the struggle between John Fox and owner Jerry Richardson over playing young players helped cause 2010’s disaster and Fox’s downfall). Despite being small for strongside linebacker, Anderson made plays last year. He did it against the run and pass alike – making numerous stops behind the line of scrimmage, making 2nd on the Panthers’ sack list last year with 3.5 and having 19 total pressures on 127 attempts (which means Anderson probably blitzed around 1 out of every 6 base plays).
To give some background on that, Beason (mostly playing OLB, I’d imagine, for these blitzes) had 90 blitzes and had 6 total pressures. Beason’s numbers are low – it’s his least effective ability – but Anderson’s numbers are high, especially for a 4-3 OLB. It’s not as if able blitzing will somehow be wasted with Ron Rivera.
At any rate, Anderson made plays. He led the team in tackles as well, less likely for a SLB in this offense, with 130 tackles. There were plenty of mis-steps, however, and while this is where the hard info stops, it did seem like there were a lot of missed tackles, a lot of quick knifes through blocking that missed the runner.
The end result is money – Anderson can probably earn a fairly decent salary. Is he a special player? No, so if another team (St. Louis, as a logical suggestion) wants him more you have to let him go. Is he your third best LB still? Has he passed the playmaking Davis while hurt? Do you keep him to make sure you have at least one starting WLB (assuming Anderson is, in fact, a good fit)?
I’ll take him if he’s here. I’ll wince if it’s for too much money. If he walks and we find a random, cheap but experienced linebacker, we’re probably not in bad shape.
So what if we don't keep him?
Right or wrong, let's say Anderson is gone. Now what?
You need a player that can do it all - rush, hit the TE, cover, take on blockers, and think on his feet. Here are some options.
*Dan Connor - existing backup MLB did have 15 tackles from SLB in 2009, and played outrageously well inside (see also: http://www.profootballfocus.com/blog/2010/11/04/stories-of-the-season-dan-connor/). He has the bulk to chuck the TE. He doesn't get enough credit for athleticism, with his 4.60 40. I just don't know if he can rush - he did have 5 and 6 sacks respectively, in his final two years, but one of those two was at MLB.
*Matt Roth, Browns - big 3-4 OLB who regularly plays on the line of scrimmage, is used to having contain and doing linebacker duties despite rush abilities. He's not elite, but he does everything well and gives you scheme flexibility.
*Antwan Barnes, Chargers - the 5th year, 6'1, 250 lb journeyman happened to have his best year last year, a one year stop with the defense that Ron Rivera made best in the land. He's a rush guy, and played mostly in nickel, but he can get at the passer.
*Manny Lawson, 49ers - local guy, 3-4 OLB. Maybe he hasn't turned out quite as well as you might hope, but raw talent is there.