There hasn't been a recent black sheep position on this team like
cornerback. It's been this decade's equivalent of the 2000's TE - a
necessary evil that will survive on Native American principles, not
imperial ones. It's indicative that its cornerstone player the last
few years has been a 5'8 7th round pick, and now this unit has to live
without that player.
Now, its incumbent starter is an undrafted - Melvin White, a starter for
a majority of 2013 - and pushed by a 3rd year 5th rounder (Josh Norman).
Bargain buy Antoine Cason is the real hope as the other starter, but on
an inexpensive one year deal. It's been cheap at safety, covered below
in more detail, but corner has really been the low-rent position -
consider its most expensive player, capwise, is converted S Charles
Godfrey, fresh off Achilles rehab. Rookie 5th rounder Bene Benwikere
seems to round things out.
Sounds pretty dire, right?
And yet, maybe not. This is a unit that limped through with arguably
less last year, including Captain Munnerlyn. Last year's opening day
starter, Josh Thomas, is still on squad but isn't really projected to
make the team. The reason he initially started is the type of reason a
lot of these players are here - the ability to execute, play the run, be
physical and make as few mistakes as possible. The players that finish
up in Spartanburg with the best ability to do that? They stay. And
then they can reap the rewards of being behind one of the best front
sevens in football.
To that end, the long White can only improve this year, and you could
tell he was improving over time. It will be hard for the freelancing
Norman, who has the skill set but tends to be rougher on the execution
and the tackling, to overtake him. Cason, a former first, is really
exciting to have picked up, but he didn't start in AZ last year. That
does leave a little doubt. But the skill set is there, and for an
outside player, he's what you need.
Nickel, so far, is between Godfrey and Benwikere. I didn't have a lot
of issue coming into the draft with the outside players, where the
quality could still improve, as much as replacing the mastery of the
slot that Munnerlyn had. More and more teams throw a starting player in
the slot, and even if not, the remaining teams often have a
slot-specific player for the role; and that's without dealing with the
Tavon Austin type player that's a whole other animal in the slot. It's
hard to project where Godfrey, who hasn't played corner since college,
will be in development at CB or what mobility he has in the injured leg,
but Benwikere is at least the first amount of substance they've thrown
into corner since they added Norman two years ago.
So far, there's risk, but it's measured. Doing without Munnerlyn wasn't
by design, but it was a matter of time that cap-strapped Carolina would
see that situation emerge with the attempts at one-year dealing with him
Safety tried starting '13 with Godfrey moving over, and adding raw
material in Mike Mitchell. Mitchell aggressively gave the job back away
by committing penalty after penalty in preseason; the turning point for
the entire secondary was the eventual catalyst for Mitchell's success as
well as the entire secondary's. Buffalo saw Carolina lose on a last
second TD where Norman failed his team in coverage, after Godfrey was
lost to the Achilles and Thomas had sustained a concussion. It was a
game where Carolina toyed with throwing Thomas Davis and his war-ravaged
knee back to safety for the first time since Week one, 2005.
The aftermath had sorted away Thomas and Norman at CB, and notably
landed the team Mitchell at FS, improbably working out. Mitchell, like
Munnerlyn, is a footnote to the '14 team, a reminder of what they need
to replace. And with Godfrey at CB, and Quintin Mikell back on the
unemployment line, Carolina has worked to rebuild the back end just as
they did with CB, and this time with more traditional parts.
Thomas Decoud is a standard FS - has to work on his tackling - compared
to Mitchell last year, and Roman Harper is an experienced, grizzled
soldier for SS that approximates Mitchell's skill set, though with less
speed in exchange for experience. Harper excels at a lot of things
asked of Mitchell - the blitz game, hitting - and does a solid enough
job at tackling that he's not a liability (as with Mitchell). It's
hard to say how he'll do in coverage, which has been pretty hit or miss,
but in this scheme he's either a short-field Robber or just another guy
in short zone. Decoud? He was a Pro Bowl free safety only two years
ago. The hope is, he can cover the deep zone effectively still, and
there's no reason he can't.
So, it's a rag-tag bunch of stereotypical misfits again, but this time a
little more suited to various roles and with more experience at
defending the NFC South. Success hinges on the nickel game and making
sure the vet safeties are at least as good as advertised. The rest,
behind this rush, you can live with.