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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Secondary An X-factor

You'd hope that Carolina's defense will sustain success - and with all
respect due to Jon Beason, it's been near stellar in most games since
Luke Kuechly was thrown at MLB.

So, then, you'd hope that Carolina can focus on its offense, and
re-finding the identity there. The defense won't need much work, right?

Well, no. Nothing's ever that easy.

Set aside Greg Hardy's contract situation (to a point). Carolina
returns only one potential starter in the secondary, Charles Godfrey,
who's cuttable this offseason* and popped his Achilles, and has five
free agents there. Essentially everyone who was involved in Carolina's
success back there is gone except for two undrafted rookies. Those two
could play a part, but both looked overmatched at times.

*Godfrey costs $5 million this year in salary. His 2014 bonuses
already count against the cap no matter what; he's a $2.1 million
savings if cut early, $3.1 million if you designate him a June cut,
i.e., the other part of the proration goes to next year's cap, in this
case $1 million.

So, where to start?

First off, absolutely, I think you have to cut Godfrey. There's no
real guarantee that he'll give you what he did, and what he did give you
didn't seem to be enough. Is it fair that most of his career he labored
without the protection of this year's rush? Absolutely. If he showed
to be full strength, and was willing to re-structure to a 'prove-it'
type deal, then maybe, but the end result is that Achilles injuries are
rarely not a problem for guys who have to play that position. It's
probably best to move on.

Now for those rookies, and what's left.
We'll throw Josh Norman in there, a 5th round guy going into his third
year. Two years straight it's been tough getting Norman to play within
the system, which is problematic. He's big, and physical. He's
somewhat what Carolina needs, but I think anything he gives is extra.
His Buffalo game is a tough one, a very limited slice of context. But
it's when he most contributed, and he gave up the game winning TD by not
hearing or heeding the call to switch men on coverage.

Robert Lester is what you'd want at SS. He can thump, he's had his
days in coverage. He ends on a sour note, finishing the SF game when
Quintin Mikell got hurt. He missed a tackle on a long gain, and he gave
up the long play to Anquan Boldin that more or less sealed it. But
prior, and with his growing pains along the way, Lester wasn't bad. I
don't know that you intend to start him immediately, but my feeling is,
he could start if needed.

Melvin White, however, was a better surprise. Did he get picked on?
Absolutely, at times he did. Pats game on he was a guy who started
creeping back a bit more, and therefore became a guy who'd give up an
easier play in front of him. Some of that's just being a guy in zone.
White could grow to become a younger Drayton Florence, and the team
somewhat needs that type of guy. White should improve going into year
2, as a small-school guy doing the pro workout process. Only problem
is, outside of the team programs during workouts, with all of the free
agents he won't have anyone to train with, show him the ropes.

Now the FAs:
Captain Munnerlyn, of the group, is the most valuable. I think you
lock him into a 3 year deal (the team did try last year, but I think now
you have to punch in more value). An expert nickel, an overall very
good cover corner, and a good tackler, Munnerlyn fits exactly what you
want in a corner. His only real problem is height. You resolve that
elsewhere. Munnerlyn's a guy that, within reason, you have to bring
back. He's their heart and soul back there. It's a good problem to
have that this guy's your best corner, but to go with him, the team must
improve on that other guy.

Drayton Florence is more interesting. He's a one year deal guy, not
expensive by any means. Started the year as first string, cut in camp,
brought back after the Buffalo debacle. He was "the vet" of the
corners, the most experienced by far with only Munnerlyn being in that
race. You know what you're getting with him, and you know what you're
not. He's not going to be that quick if he's beaten. You know he's
going to give you a good chuck at the line if you want that. Ideally,
he'd be in a cover 2 scheme.

Josh Thomas was the defacto starter when Florence was cut, and his good
Buffalo tackle (and subsequent concussion) kicked off the various
injuries that game, including Godfrey's. I don't see him returning, he
was a good base football player but at best he's duplicative of what
Florence brings. He's not as good in coverage.

SS Quintin Mikell brought what you figured he could. I felt like his
position on the team was to usurp Mike Mitchell and bring a more steady,
less stupid play at SS, a more rangy guy who would make fewer mistakes.
We never completely saw that, since Godfrey got hurt early enough that
we never really saw those results. Mikell's not what he used to be in
coverage overall, but he's definitely a good player in the box who
defends that space well. He's a guy who, assuming he'd be at a similar
price, is worth returning for another year.

Mitchell was the full-on surprise of the year. A meathead at SS
racking up a stupid penalty a week, Mitchell was another guy who made it
out of camp less solid than he'd started. Godfrey going down and
Mitchell at FS sounded like an outright disaster. He made it work,
co-leading with 4 picks and generally not being a liability while
seemingly calling a fine game every week.

So was that an abberation? Mitchell's surprise of last year can go
either way. Was it an outlier? Does Carolina get good value in
expecting it again, and paying to it? That's where negotiation gets
tricky. At a low price, obviously you'd love to have him. But do you
pay him a starting, $3-4 million longer term contract? I don't think
so. I think you have to hit lower than that, and that might not work
for him.


So that's what it is. Your progressions go - Munnerlyn, Mitchell, deal
with Godfrey, and then the rest, in importance. I believe, if you get
both of those in, the others are less important. If you don't spend on
either, you're starting totally from scratch.

Ideally, at corner, you pick Munnerlyn up, you maybe bring back
Florence or similar, and you draft a tall kid earlier in the draft than
the last two years (5th, and UDFA). Give Steve Wilks (I'll save the
gushing about his coaching job) something of quality to work with, a
lanky and instinctive cover guy who can surpass Munnerlyn in overall
quality while letting Munnerlyn continue his current role.
Florence/similar vet plus White can factor into nickel/dime, when
Munnerlyn moves inside.

To that end, so far Rivera has seemed to lean toward the taller,
lankier corners and guys who'll support the run. Those guys have played
a lot more (Josh Thomas the first few games, White and Florence later),
so that kicks out the potential pickup of guys like Asante Samuel, a 33
year old that could probably prop you up for a year and play good
corner, but who just doesn't play the run well. You have to find guys
who can do both well, to play exceptional defense (especially against
the spread).


At safety, I don't see ways that Godfrey would stay. With that, if you
can get Mitchell in for the money you save cutting him (a $2.1 million
first year hit), do it. Past that, I think you'd have to structure a
deal that has so much on the back end it might not be advantageous to
either party. In my opinion, an ideal situation might be to throw
Mikell on the pile one more year, where he does add a stabilizing force
to what's going on back there, and team that up with Lester (and,
potentially, a later round backup FS type).

With that process, the team can start avoiding the year-to-year nature
of the secondary, while hopefully upgrading a bit. They have to be able
to hold some consistency, at a low cap charge, while not taking up more
money than necessary to do their business with Hardy or Cam Newton, or
dealing with improvements at WR/OL.

I'll cover WR and OL soon, as able.
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