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The Panthers’ defense was nothing special in 2021, but they were good enough to win games. The run defense was mediocre and Carolina gave up the fourth-fewest yards through the air. Their 39 sacks were even respectable. The one area they fell short in was takeaways where only just four teams produced fewer than Carolina’s 16.
For a club in need of playmakers, the organization did not make much of an effort to get them. The first defender taken by the Panthers in this year’s draft was a run-stopping linebacker in the fourth round and the leading big-play threat they signed in free agency was a safety that averages fewer than three takeaways a year.
The Carolina defense racked up 53 sacks in 2019 but was otherwise a shambles. A coaching change and return to a 4-3 in 2020, along with the organization using all seven of their draft picks on defense, seems to have them heading in the right direction but there is still work to do.
The defensive line, or at least the pass rush, could take a step backward this year. Haason Reddick accounted for 11.5 of the team’s 39 sacks in 2021. He will be wearing Eagles green this year so the Panthers will count on 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos to step up. Over his first two seasons, Gross-Matos served as rotational depth, seeing action on 727 plays, which amounts to roughly what a starting defensive end would play in one season. The numbers suggest he might be ready for the job at 27-27-6 with a pair of forced fumbles on those snaps.
Gross-Mattos is bigger than both of last year’s starters, does a good job of setting the edge versus the run, is a sound tackler, and can kick inside on passing downs if asked to do so. As a pass rusher, he is tall at 6’5”, has a huge wingspan, and an extra gear to get around the corner. His numbers over the last two seasons have been good considering the role, but Gross-Matos has a rather impressive college resume. As a two-year starter at Penn State, he recorded 64 tackles, 47 assists, 18.5 sacks, and 4 turnovers.
Both Reddick and Brian Burns played at least 840 snaps in 2021. With 100 more plays and a starting role, Gross-Matos could be a pleasant surprise for both the Panthers and IDP managers in 2022. Slid him onto your draft board as a sleeper with DL2 potential.
On the heels of a strong 2020 season, many IDP managers had grand expectations for Brian Burns heading into last year. He came out on fire with a sack in each of the first three games, then the engine started to sputter a little. Burns ran hot and cold for a while before all but completely vanishing down the stretch. Following the Week 13 bye, Burns totaled 4-5-1 in five games through the end of the season, producing four or fewer points in four of them. His overall numbers were not bad at 31-19-8 with a pair of turnovers and 4 batted passes, but the vanishing act in crunch time left a bad taste for everyone that was counting on him.
So what happened with Burns and will it happen again? Some may point to the ankle injury Burns suffered when Mac Jones intentionally twisted his foot after a sack in Week 9. I have a hard time buying that though. Burns missed Week 10 but was 5-2-2 with a forced fumble over the following two games. Maybe the ankle was a factor but I think it was a combination of the ankle, lack of motivation with the team being out of contention, and an undersized player that simply wore down.
At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Burns is lanky, slight of frame, and built for speed off the edge. He was originally drafted to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. When the team moved back to a 4-3, there were similar concerns about his ability to stand up versus the run over a full season. It takes a lot of energy to fight with all those 300-pound offensive tackles on every play. Giving away 50 pounds has to take a toll. It’s hard to say if it will happen again but it has to be considered when setting up our draft boards. On the positive side, there was no such slump in 2020 when Burns recorded three sacks in his last two games.
Depth at defensive end could be an issue for the Panthers. The next three players behind the starters are, fifth-year career backup Marquis Haynes, former Atlanta backup Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and sixth-round rookie Amare Barno. Haynes is a former fourth-round selection by the Panthers. He has never been a starter but has eight career sacks, including seven over the last two seasons. Haynes is the top option as the third man on the edge. Tuioti-Mariner saw some action with the Falcons over the last three years but has just three career sacks and was let go by a team that had 17 last year. That is not a good sign. Barno is more of a developmental prospect that could see some playing time as a rush specialist this year.
At 17th overall, Derrick Brown was the first of the seven defenders Carolina drafted in 2020. On the field, he has been everything the team expected. At 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds, Brown is a big, powerful, relentless anchor who does his best work versus the run. He is not an elite inside pass rush threat but can crush the pocket with his bull rush and is a disruptive penetrator regardless of the play call. He has been a starter from day one and is a foundational player the defense can build around.
Statistically, Brown has gotten off to a somewhat slow start but he did show improvement in the box scores in year two. At 27-13-3 with 4 swatted passes, he was a serious IDP factor but did enough to land a roster spot as a third tackle in some leagues. Brown’s numbers could continue to improve in year three but there is no reason to expect an explosion. Consider him a decent option as depth in leagues starting two tackles.
The free-agent signing of Matt Ioannidis did not come with a lot of fanfare, but it might result in some IDP value. He is a forgotten man in fantasy circles but take a look at where he’s been before writing this guy off. He played sparingly as a late-round pick by Washington in 2016. In year two he earned a starting spot putting up 27 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks. Ioannidis became the third man in the rotation in 2018 but his number still improved a bit at 22-7-7.5. Then came the breakout year when he was the lead man in a rotation that included Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen. That season Ioannidis was the number five tackle with 43 solo stops, 21 assists, and 8.5 sacks. He opened 2020 as a starter, recording seven combined tackles with a sack and a half in the first two games before suffering a torn bicep that ended his season. Upon return last year, he was once again the third man in the rotation on a team that struggled. Not only will Ioannidis start for the Panthers in 2022, but he will line up as the 3-technique which is traditionally the more fantasy-friendly of the 4-3 interior positions. He is one of the better pass-rushing interior linemen in the league and is worthy of strong consideration as a sneaky DT2 with upside.
The Panthers have a trio of other young interior linemen in the development pipeline. Bravvion Roy was a sixth-round pick in 2020 and should be the third man at the position. Carolina used fifth and seventh-round selections on Daviyon Nixon and Phil Hosking respectively in 2021 with both players seeing some action as rookies. These guys are young but capable of filling in if called upon.
- DE Brian Burns – Loe end DL2 with both risk and upside
- DE Yetur Gross-Matos – Target as a DL3 but don’t be surprised if you end up starting him
- DE Marquise Haynes – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- DE Jacon Tuioti-Mariner – No impact
- DE Amare Barno – Developmental rookie
- DT Matt Ioannidis – Sneaky sleeper with DT3 floor and low DT1 ceiling
- DT Derrick Brown – Depth in leagues starting two tackles
- DT Bravvion Roy – Injury sleeper
- DT Daviyon Nixon – No impact
- DT Phil Hoskins – No impact
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