Panthers will look to shore up defense ... eventually

The HeraldFebruary 26, 2009 

CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers aren't expected to make an early foray into free agency now that the market's open. But when they do shop, it's going to be with a specific plan in mind.

Several players have said they've been informed about changes coming to the Panthers defense -- changes which will dictate the style of players they go after in free agency and the draft.

With new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks (a Tony Dungy disciple) taking over, the Panthers are expected to lean more heavily toward the "Tampa 2" style that Meeks is most familiar with.

That leaves them lacking pass rush from the front four, and that will dictate their next set of actions.

Panthers officials have told a number of agents they will not be active in the first wave of free agency, which began with gusto at 12:01 a.m. this morning. However, they have sent out feelers to a number of specific players -- players who fit what they're hoping to do defensively.

Foremost among that group, according to two sources, is former No. 4 overall pick Dewayne Robertson, recently cut by Denver. The Panthers have told his representatives they're interested (they're allowed to since Robertson was cut), but not for the first few days.

Coming in close to the spending limit by the midnight deadline, the Panthers need to catch their breath before figuring out how to proceed.

The 6-1, 305-pound Robertson was drafted by the New York Jets in 2003. Their thinking was that he'd become the next Warren Sapp, a cat-quick interior pass-rusher who was the perfect fit to play the "under" tackle spot in the Tampa 2 system. But when Herm Edwards yielded the Jets head coaching job to Eric Mangini, Robertson quickly proved to be a poor fit in the 3-4 defense. He was shipped to Denver last year in trade, but had a hard time making a mark on a horrible defense.

There are other such players available, namely former Colts defensive tackle Darrell Reid and one-time Panthers draft pick Jovan Haye. The Panthers are expected to monitor both those players closely as well.

But the 27-year-old Robertson's the most talented of that group, and the closest thing to a turn-key starter they could find.

They need one, since Damione Lewis (a similarly skilled player) will be out until the start of training camp after shoulder surgery, and there are few other options on the roster with a realistic chance to fill the role.

At its core, the Tampa 2 system is football stripped down to its basics -- and not unlike the system coach John Fox has been overseeing.

There will be fewer blitzes to generate pressure on the quarterback, as the four down linemen are solely responsible for that.

If they can talk franchised end Julius Peppers into staying, perhaps Meeks could get Dwight Freeney-like production from the right side. It could also mean Charles Johnson stepping up on the left, in order to get more rushers on the field.

But the key is going to be getting something up the middle, from whoever's there. Lewis should be able to contribute once he's well, but his contract restructuring opens the door to the possibility that he could slide back into a reserve role -- where he performed so well for the Panthers before getting a promotion last offseason.

Again, the Peppers situation complicates things, as his camp has said nothing since the pre-tag volley which indicated there are only four teams to which he'd accept a trade. And if he goes, there will be a screaming need for a rush end, though Meeks' system allows for some wiggle room there. They wouldn't have to have a physical specimen like Peppers (though they'd take it), since the scheme is built on speed.

While the Colts defenses under Meeks were defined by Freeney's ability, they also coaxed 50.0 sacks the last five years from Robert Mathis, an undersized fifth-round pick from Alabama A&M.

The scheme changes will also affect some of the other players they're looking at.

As they look for cornerbacks, there will be less of a premium on shut-down cover players, since the emphasis is on having solid tacklers. Those come cheaper, and that dovetails perfectly with what the Panthers are looking to spend.

And while it sounds revolutionary, several former Panthers say the Tampa 2 was the basis of their early defenses under Fox and coordinator Jack Del Rio. That year (2002), the Panthers had a tremendous front four, and made do with acceptable talents Reggie Howard and Terry Cousin in the back.

It worked, as the Panthers ranked second in the league in total defense and fifth in scoring.

They did so because the line combined for 39.0 sacks. Last year, the Panthers defensive line had 29.5, with Peppers accounting for 14.5 of those.

So when they do move into the market, they're looking for a rush, from the inside out.

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