I'm still scattered as I attempt to get back into the swing of posting regularly. My hope is to go into a little detail on what we have, and what we need, so that what we should do will become more clear as all of the information is out there.
Anyone who hasn't successfully blocked the last Saints game from their mind remembers how much we need defensive backs. The problems with the DBs were maddening - that unit was the only one without a lapse in continuity in coaching or injury, where other units had both. Ron Meeks made an able secondary as coordinator in 09-10, but as DBs coach it didn't work out.
Chris Gamble was, by far, the star of this group. Rated 18th by ProFootballFocus, his QB rating was in the 40s until the Saints game, and finished at 54.8 (6th overall). He barely got targeted, didn't give up a lot of completions when doing so, but his base numbers don't look as great with 3 INT/7 defended passes. Gamble can excel doing anything - he was drafted for the deep cover 3 of John Fox, was excellent last year in the cover 2 despite his benching for off the field concerns, and now is doing well in the various man and zone fronts of this scheme. Gamble's crutch was missed tackles, where his 13 were 4th worst for the team.
Captain Munnerlyn had a good 2010 - showed to play the ball more, had a low completion percentage - but failed at coverage this year (126 QB rating, 4th worst, and allows completions at a 73% rate). He's a football player moreso than starting corner, not because of his height specifically, but just that he's a 7th rounder who's playing up to a 5th round level. Munnerlyn's a free agent after 2012, and hasn't earned more than to be a nickel at this point.
Brandon Hogan was the lone injury exception, but having drafted him with an ACL injury, Carolina had to know that Hogan wasn't going to be ready. So, he wasn't, and Carolina didn't get a good look at him outside of a handful of plays.
Darius Butler was an OK outside cover guy at times, but gives up a lot - there was a reason he was available - and at a 117 QB rating, he isn't that great. RJ Stanford is notable for coming into a few games and being prepared, but that's about all.
So - in retrospect, at one point Richard Marshall was available cheaply (though he probably never looked back, ignoring that no one else would pay him bigtime and just focusing on that we wouldn't), and he had a good year. The coked-up version of the same hindsight says Carlos Rogers had one of the better corner years, and he wasn't expensive either (he is now, however).
At safety, Carolina had three young safeties, Charles Godfrey going into year 4, Sherrod Martin into his second full starting year, and Jordan Pugh was very good in relief. Both had OK moments, but neither put together good seasons. Martin was our third worst run defender, and the pair of starters combined to make up 1/3 of our missed tackles. The unit is not physical, and it's not a big enough playmaking unit to
Godfrey's QB rating was a mediocre 92, Martin's an OK 82. Pugh struggled, topping 110.
The problem with Godfrey being the bigger problem in coverage is this - he's signed for five more years, and due an option bonus that won't make it any easier to get rid of him. He's here to stay for the long term.
So, now what?
On paper, cornerback seems as likely a place to go with the 1st round pick as any. There are up to two guys there that could help (Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, LSU's Morris Claiborne), both cover guys who have the physical size and athleticism you expect, to go along with what seems to be a lack of mistakes and good playmaking ability. Either, to go with Gamble, could create a lot better defensive matchup versus big, physical attacks like New Orleans, Atlanta that they face twice a year. That would leave Munnerlyn at nickel, and Hogan has a year to play special teams to help out.
But that leaves a lot less room at safety, where there needs to be a push to get better. With the above plan, the best you can hope for is landing a SS like Sean Richardson at the top of 4, having him play special teams for a year, and hoping that the team sees enough out of him to improve on what's there (Richardson, a 6'2, 220 lb prospect, will have to show he can be athletic enough to be out there, but will be a killer special teamer).
The somewhat cerebral Pugh, or the athletic Martin, or both, need to find their way down to corner if legitimate upgrading is to be done at S. That would leave legitimate room for
But, would Martin and Hogan be enough to turn 2012 into a positive coverage year? If not, is it worth it to still have to put a higher pick into cornerback?
There's always the wildcard idea - Carolina goes and gets a CB in FA, for instance. Asante Samuel is a good fit (though Samuel had a great year in coverage, similar to Gamble in QBRating, completion percentage, and so on, he was a minor run liability, and Carolina has enough of those), if he'll play for a year on a decent contract to earn more. That would allow Carolina to look at safety in the second, for instance, and pull a guy who can contribute.