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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Keeping Johnson the priority

Free agency seems somewhat inevitable at this point, and while the Panthers chose to tag Ryan Kalil as their franchise player, no situation is more urgent than keeping Charles Johnson at defensive end. Johnson's a rare commodity - a left end that can rush the passer without a compliment on the other side; a 280 lb player who can drop into coverage. An end that's exceptional at both run stopping and pass

After losing Julius Peppers in free agency prior to 2010, the team's biggest question mark was pass rushing, specifically replacing Peppers. It turned out to be the least of the team's worries, with Johnson getting arguably more pressure than any other end in the NFL per; he had 81 QB disruptions, second only in preseason 2010, it looked like there were various players to step up. Tyler Brayton had 2 sacks in the first quarter of preseason play; Johnson, Greg Hardy, and Everette Brown all pitched in at least one two-sack game. Johnson, a part-time player who spent a lot of 2009 rushing from DT situationally, seemed the least likely to step into a dominant role, but owned it and earned it.

Johnson also provides flexibility. His 2009 stats do show that, despite playing at over 290, he was getting pressure while inside. Leaned out in 2010, he was able to create pressure outside as an edge rusher, or with inside moves (James Anderson blitzed strongside more than any other Panther player in any gap, necessitating Johnson to take inside moves at times). If you consider Ron Rivera's potential for running a hybrid 3-4 or 4-3 to go with the basic Jim Johnson 4-3 zone blitz, Johnson has the ability to create pressure outside at DE, move inside to a 3-4 type
alignment as a 5-technique 34 DE, or if necessary move inside to the 3-technique. The ability to rush the outside (the body lean - the quick step - the radial movement when contacting the OT) is a huge crutch to most 3-4 left ends if the OLB doesn't crash (you have to keep contain, and get upfield, so your moves are limited).

So Johnson, assuming he can take care of his production as he has in the past, is essentially an ideal player for the needs of the Ron Rivera defense. Outside rush? Check. Inside? Had it for years. Drops? Able, at the least (Johnson dropped into coverage occasionally with both Mike Trgovac and Ron Meeks). Run stopping? Absolutely, elite.

A lack of talent outside Johnson on the DL is another concern. While the defense has some cornerstones (Jon Beason; Thomas Davis if healthy; you could make an argument for Chris Gamble or Charles Godfrey on a good day), the defensive line is, at best, young without any veterans at DT; and with Tyler Brayton and Johnson as the veterans, Brayton seems to be a situational player only. Everyone else is young, and suddenly instead of platooning/competing Greg Hardy and Everette Brown, you're stretching
both of them into potential starting roles.

Brayton was sackless last year in 332 attempts, with 19 disruptions last year and 93 over 3 years/1200+ rush attempts (9.5 sacks, but none last year). Brayton does rush inside, and does lose some of the obvious rush snaps to others; still, he seems to have become an over-30 player that seems to have been missed in the purge last year. He may not have much to give anymore. Losing Johnson, and cutting Brayton, leaves two young ends without much past production.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No Assistant Head Coach

I've run on about coaching for years now - since starting this blog, every coaching position has changed at least once, and most twice - and there's not a ton to say, but it struck me recently that there's no Assistant Head Coach.

There's been one for at least every year since 1999. I can't remember Dom having one, and team documents back that up. After, you had John Marshall, who was DC and AHC; you had Richard Williamson as another, in 2000-01 in an attempt to mentor the immature Bill Musgrave (and eventually replace him - FYI, I never felt that Williamson should've continued as OC, and I'd come to understand that George Seifert wasn't given much choice).

Marshall's title was to get him (which at the time seemed great - he'd had the #1 defense; he came from the same system Seifert did), which is how you did that back then; it ended up leaving a bizarre hierarchy, with eventually two AHCs on one team.

John Fox tagged Scott O'Brien with the AHC title upon entering, and trusted Jim Skipper with it after O'Brien left. Skipper seemed like a natural choice to become head coach here at times if it were needed (and at times last year, it felt needed). I'm not a fan of firing head coaches mid-season, but if you do it, you have to identify a candidate that's not already in charge of one unit. It's an imbalance of power, and leaves that coach with the worries of both a failing unit and a failing team.

Which brings us to now - no assistant head coach. It's a young team, and the feeling seems to be that should the Panthers name one down the line, it'll be earned.

And there are no concerns of firing Rivera, by any means. I think, administratively, it makes sense given the attention he's stated he wants to put into defense, to have someone doing some day to day tasks however, and they don't have that.

Past that, there's no real succession plan. The young coaches coordinating the offense and defense are a combined unit younger than anyone else in the NFL (and yet each has experience at coordinating); at times both Rob Chudzinski and Sean McDermott have had mentions as head coaching candidates in the NFL. If either, or both, have the level of success that fans hope, they could get interviews. Then what?

It might seem far-fetched, but look at the last two head coaches - each had a coordinator change going into year two. Both promoted from within, changing the balance of the staff they'd carefully crafted (Fox had it again a few months later, with Sam Mills' cancer issues). Succession plans are necessary.

So who would succeed Rivera if needed?

Without an Assistant Head Coach, who knows. That's the owner's call in the end, but most often comes with an experience taking on those tasks with the existing team. I'm not a fan of coordinators moving - too much change. The only coach with real head coaching experience is Mike Shula. That seems to be a natural move.

What about coordinators?

Shula or Pete Hoener (TEs) could move up to OC as necessary; the others, excepting Fred Graves and John Matsko, lack the experience, and that pair doesn't have the coordinating experience of Shula or Hoener.

On defense, Ron Meeks makes natural sense, as the only defensive assistant with a lot of experience; however there's no assistant DBs coach right now, and no one to move up from the third-tier assistant pool.

Let's hope it never comes to this, unless it's a coordinator leaving after, say, a second consecutive Super Bowl. That I could handle.

Panthers Open to Media, Closed Soon After

Media day closed Panther workouts, and lighted the shadows of what
happened over the last few days at Charlotte Christian.

Attendance was certainly something covered, but the biggest thing
unknown was the structure of the camp. Jordan Gross and Travelle
Wharton, the camp leaders, hired Velocity Sports Performance to cover
the conditioning portion, and installed portions of the offense and
defense during the 4 hour sessions.

They also had a lot of help from players who have experience with the
team and offense. In attendance from the past? Some of the former team
leaders, some considered the best the team has fielded at those
positions - Muhsin Muhammad, Wesley Walls, Steve Beuerlein, Jeff
Donnalley, Jeff Mitchell were there.

Media reports don't pinpoint defensive players, like Mike Minter or Mike
Rucker (actually, to back off Rucker, he's possibly considered a team
employee), both who would've been natural to show up. Unlike the
offense, which is a nearly universal Coryell system run by a number of
college teams and about a third of the NFL, the Jim Johnson system is
run by only a couple teams (Philadelphia, of course; St. Louis;
Carolina; and possibly New York depending on whether or not they
continued with the scheme after Steve Spagnuolo left for the Rams).

Carolina has hired numerous former players (Ricky Proehl, Ray Brown,
John Settle) among the younger level of coaches, in part to help handle
this situation as well - young coaches to help out the young players.
But it's great to finally see the level of history involved to allow
players who haven't been here in a decade to remain relevant.

Say what you want about Cam Newton, but he's doing the right things.
He's gotten more personal work in, you'd assume, than any other Panther.
Media exposure after the players-only workouts show two very good signs
- knowing (and therefore hopefully understanding) the offense fairly
well, and working out hard.

Newton flipped tires with the linemen, consistent with his actions at
Auburn and Blinn. They're the same actions that helped make him
successful there, championships at both, without a second year to build
on. That's not the actions of a guy trying to be an icon or
entertainer. That's the actions of a guy winning his teammates over -
not trying, doing. Working out and lifting with linemen is a
team-building activity you couldn't pay an analyst six figure salaries
to recreate.

The situation with the offense was inevitably overblown by Jon Gruden -
who grilled Newton, and rightly so, when Gruden asked about lengthy
playcalls and the response was "36". Add that with the Chudzinski "900
page playbook" comments by media and it became a crisis situation in the
media for a bit. But with good tutoring, he's learned it - with no
reason to suggest he otherwise wouldn't have within the structure of
minicamp. Which brings it back to the concern - that he "hadn't",
instead of he "couldn't". Newton's intelligence wasn't ever really
questioned, but his experience was (and it's still a concern - the world
he'll see from under center is a lot different from the one he saw in
the spread option SEC). But some of the things that were concerns -
character, work ethic - for now seem to be at bay.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Rivera Talks: Free Agents

Ron Rivera recently talked about free agency and where the team felt like they had holes after the draft:

“Well, I think there are a couple of positions we most certainly need to make sure there are some good veteran depth there. We’re going to look at some of the defensive positions. We made a couple of moves here in the draft, but we’d still like to see if we can find a veteran defensive line guy who could help us. You look at our linebackers and we’ve got a couple of guys who are coming back after injuries, so we’ve got to see if there’s potentially if there’s a veteran guy we could bring in. The same thing with the defensive back position. Offensively, we feel pretty comfortable with our offensive line and our running back situation. We’ve got to resolve the wide receiver position and see how all that unfolds once this is done. Our quarterback position is what it is right now. We’ve got to talk about where we want to head as far as the veteran back up is concerned."

So, summary needs:
QB - veteran with system experience, short term starter
WR - dependent on Smith (and it would be - otherwise we have 'enough')
DT - veteran. Likely run stopper, due to cost
DE - situational on Charles Johnson's intentions
LB - likely OLB, with emphasis on blitz ability