There's more turmoil on the DL than you might anticipate from the casual
observer. Put plainly, Carolina's thrown so much at the position, and
honestly they had done so well before 2013; they just spent that much
more, and got it right. After years of failure providing something in
absence of Kris Jenkins, the 2013 double-down of Star Lotulelei and
Kawann Short was just what they needed. The pair of rookies placed the
defense in the stratosphere, and created the best DL in football.
Of course, it's not quite that stable, and it's not sustainable. The
DL's genesis came from the massive re-signing of Charles Johnson, still
the biggest contract in team history. And that contract's not getting
smaller. Greg Hardy's the team's franchise player (its first since
Julius Peppers' fiasco in 2009, in a way a genesis of the current
strength). That leaves 1/6th of the cap in two ends.
For 2014, that group remains together. The future, of course, is harder
to say. For now, let's leave that to the accountants.
There's no doubting the strength. Johnson, a powerful edge rusher with
great inside moves and ability against the run, has been a consistent
force since 2010, earning the massive contract in 2011 and somehow
meeting its expectations. Hardy became a starter in '11, but didn't
start to show his full self until a year later. His 15 sacks in '13
were the most by a Panther in a decade, and his size and strength can't
be under-estimated either. Together it's a nearly unstoppable set of
ends that, given the strength at DT, only makes them more powerful as a
Lotulelei is a starter; Short, an early-2013 reserve, played more as
time went along, but still gave way to starter Colin Cole. Cole, who
is primarily a NT, would play outside at the 3-technique at times, but
was ill-suited to the task as he's not a penetrator. That left
Lotulelei outside more, which is more than fine; he's explosive at both.
Coming into the year, the intent was for 2012 pickup Dwan Edwards to
be the other starter; after injury, he came back as a reserve and didn't
play as much as Short over time. That Edwards' $1.2 million salary
remains as a backup shows the effort Carolina throws into the DL; in a
way, Edwards went from the team's best DT in '12 to its fourth best in
'13. The anomaly to a point, nonetheless, is Cole. The worst graded of
the four, he still started, probably as an effort to ensure the
run-stopping he provides.
The team also has somewhat high hopes for Canadian Linden Gaydosh, the
#1 overall pick with the CFL in '13. Gaydosh remains a raw prospect,
but the team seems invested. Unlikely to break the top 4 this year,
Gaydosh's role as extraneous depth probably makes him a minimal
contributor destined for the practice squad again.
Nonetheless, there's a correlation between teams that control between
the tackles and success. While Carolina's continued to have good edge
rushing, this is the first year in a decade that it's had significant
control of the middle and that doesn't appear to be changing anytime
Behind the ends, of course, Carolina threw a 2nd round pick into
projected first-rounder Kony Ealy. With the long-term costs of having
two very highly paid ends, it's a nice luxury to have a year or two for
Ealy to learn. Since Hardy would often play inside out of necessity,
they find Ealy to be the piece that can relieve that role instead.
Ealy, in true Carolina fashion, is a big end who should be a good
two-phase defender, not just an edge rusher or one-move guy feeding off
the rest of the defense.
The heavy lifter in the backups historically has been Mario Addison.
He takes on the next most snaps, and he's the special teamer. Former
4th Frank Alexander is a former Big 12 Player of the Year but hasn't
shown much, and has been suspended to start the year; that seems to put
his job in peril. '13 UDFA Wes Horton is a better rusher, and the pair
played a similar number of snaps. It seems that puts Horton as more
likely to be the 4th guy, and the only thing that would keep 5 ends
longterm would include Ealy's ability to rush inside from keeping a 5th
DT instead. That could save Alexander, who'll start the season on the
Carolina saw a big dropoff with Johnson injured mid-season, so depth has
to continue to step up. Ealy, Addison, and Horton have to be ready to
play to keep this a defensive cornerstone.
Longterm, the concern is whether the team will keep the more consistent
Johnson or the higher ceiling of Hardy. They have an eye on returning
Loeulelei and possibly Short as well, though those decisions are still
two years off at minimum. At the very worst, the pair of young DTs
along with Ealy's expected development means this should still be a team
strength for a long time.
For now, this remains a strength. Possibly its zenith given more
experience for the youth along with the addition of Ealy boosting the
ends. What it will look like next year, of course, is to be seen, but
for now this is as good as you can possibly expect out of a defensive
front. Pairing with the team's LBs, sustained success seems the only
outcome for the front seven.