Carolina Panthers

Analysis: More stability with Panthers DBs, but two starters to be decided in camp

In years past, and especially heading into last season, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera has lamented the team’s lack of stability in the secondary. Since Rivera arrived in Charlotte in 2011, the team has never returned the same group of starting defensive backs from one year to the next.

And while that’s still the case heading into training camp in July, the Panthers have made real strides toward establishing consistency.

The team re-signed Eric Reid to a three-year contract extension in February, and starting cornerbacks Donte Jackson and James Bradberry both return. Bradberry is up for a new deal of his own, and locking him up long-term would further eliminate the turnover at that position.

Of course, not everything in the Panthers’ secondary is so neat and tidy. The team released veteran nickel Captain Munnerlyn this offseason, as well as safeties Da’Norris Searcy and Mike Adams. Those departures left holes both at nickel corner and the free safety position opposite Reid.

Given the caliber of receivers in the NFC South — Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley in Atlanta, Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr. in New Orleans, and Mike Evans in Tampa Bay — figuring out the Panthers’ defensive backfield during camp is pertinent. Carolina gave up 32 passing touchdowns last season, tied for fifth-most in the NFL.

Improvements to the team’s pass rush should make life easier for the secondary in theory, but that group will have to keep improving if the Panthers have any aspirations of returning to the playoffs this season — and that work continues in earnest at training camp.

Breakout candidate

Donte Jackson’s flashy speed (4.31 40-yard dash at the 2018 draft combine) and personality endeared him to Panthers fans as a rookie last season, but he also had his share of growing pains. Technical refinement will be key to making the next leap in the NFL’s cornerback hierarchy.

To be decided in camp

Rivera said throughout the spring that 2018 third-round pick Rashaan Gaulden would be given every opportunity to win the starting free safety job. Gaulden looked fluid and comfortable in the team’s shifting defensive scheme during minicamp, but how he transitions at camp in Spartanburg will determine if he’s ready for a starting role. If not, look for the team to add some help via free agency. Former Panther Tre Boston remains unsigned.

Underdog to watch

The competition to replace Munnerlyn at nickel cornerback should be fierce. Corn Elder and former Charlotte Latin star Ross Cockrell should both see opportunities, but recently signed Javien Elliott could surprise at camp. He had an interception during minicamp and has familiarity with the division from his time with Tampa Bay.

Also keep an eye on...

Speaking of Cockrell, how will his leg — and mental fortitude — hold up over the summer? Cockrell’s broken tibia and fibula last training camp was one of the summer’s darker moments, and he’s already made huge strides coming back from such a debilitating injury.

Three bold predictions

Bradberry records at least three interceptions this season for the first time in his career — and earns himself a new contract, to boot.

Reid excels in his return to San Francisco, who Carolina plays in Week 8 after the bye, by getting an interception and a sack in the same game.

Jackson builds on his reputation as a ball hawk and scores the first touchdown of his NFL career. Also, watch for him as a situational return man.

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Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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