SPARTANBURG — Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is the first to admit the front seven appear to be the strength of Carolina’s defense.
At least on paper.
The Panthers bolstered their defensive tackle position by adding Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short with their first two draft picks, signed veteran linebacker Chase Blackburn to give them more depth at linebacker and hope to get three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jon Beason back to full strength this season after missing 12 games last year.
The hope is that the rookie defensive tackles help take up more double teams and free up defensive end Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy, who combined for 23½ sacks last season, to get more pressure on the quarterback. That, in turn, would then limit the amount of time their unheralded group of defensive backs will have to cover receivers.
“Every defense has an identity, and coming out of the shoot the front seven is certainly what we think on paper will be our strength,” said McDermott, now in his third season with the Panthers.
The secondary still has question marks, with only one of the positions settled. Charles Godfrey will start at free safety, but coach Ron Rivera said the rest of the positions remain up for grabs.
Carolina released cornerback Chris Gamble and outside linebacker James Anderson this offseason, but the heart and soul of last year’s 10th-ranked defense remains intact, led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the AP defensive rookie of the year.
“I like the continuity in the defense,” McDermott said. “I am excited about this year, but we have a lot of work to do, like any team.
“Like I said to the players the other night, every team right now is sitting in a room thinking they have answered all of the questions in the offseason. We’re no different. But what we do from this meeting going forward will separate us.”
Johnson and Hardy are perhaps the NFL’s most underrated pass rushing tandem.
Johnson had 12½ sacks and Hardy had 11 last year for the 7-9 Panthers, career highs for both players. Carolina also got veteran defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who contributed six sacks last year, to re-sign for fairly cheap and feel the addition of 310-pounders Lotulelei and Short give them some much-needed beef up front.
“Those guys are a threat to push the pocket inside and that helps our outside pressure,” McDermott said. “It all works hand in hand.”
Carolina’s defense will continue to revolve around ultra-talented Kuechly, who became the first rookie to lead the NFL in tackles since San Francisco’s Patrick Willis.
“The greatest thing about Luke is he understands that he’s only one part of the defense, and so he has to do his job within the defense and everything else will work out,” McDermott said.
As for what’s viewed as a patchwork secondary, McDermott believes the Panthers have plenty of players with ability, including free agent additions Drayton Florence and D.J. Moore at cornerback. Carolina will also rely on former South Carolina standout Captain Munnerlyn, who has started 34 games, and youngsters Josh Norman and Josh Thomas at corner.
A host of players are competing for the vacant strong safety spot, including D.J. Campbell, Mike Mitchell and rookie Robert Lester from Alabama.
“We’ve got players back there that have ability, and we’re just going to let them fight it out,” McDermott said.
Godfrey said an improved pass rush should lead to more turnover opportunities for the secondary. He had two interceptions last season and said he’d be disappointed if he doesn’t get eight this season.
“Our front seven is great, and that’s not a bad thing that people are talking about them,” Godfrey said. “That’s true. They are really good. (But) you’ll see. We’ll make plays on the ball. It’s not like we want to be better than them. We’re all one unit, and that’s the way we’re going to approach it.”
NOTES: Rivera said he was pleased with the tempo of the team’s first full padded practice Sunday morning. ... Rivera said he expects Ted Ginn Jr., who caught two passes last year in San Francisco, will be a factor in the offense, saying he believes Ginn can “blow the top” off the defense. ... Rivera said rookie guard Edmund Kugbila will have an MRI on his injured right hamstring.