My hometown of Spartanburg, S.C., isn’t usually a beacon of NFL activity, but each August it becomes the summer home of the Carolina Panthers. This year, one of the big questions begging to be answered was whether the Panthers will be able to replace DE Julius Peppers, who left for the Chicago Bears via free agency this offseason.
This is a daunting challenge for the Panthers. Peppers led the team with 10.5 sacks last year; no other Panther had more than 5. Peppers has 81 career sacks; the Panthers’ other holdover defensive ends have a total of 31. But training camp this year showed that perhaps the Panthers do have the salt to replace Peppers.
One of the starting defensive end spots will go to Tyler Brayton (No. 96), a seven-year veteran who holds up against the run and can occasionally get to the passer. Brayton had two sacks in the preseason opener, and he’s at least a legitimate starter. But for the Panthers to excel, they need one or more of their young players to emerge as consistent pass-rushing threats. While that’s no given, at least the Panthers have their share of candidates to do so.
Charles Johnson, a former third-round pick, has 10 sacks over the last two seasons, and he’s currently positioned to start opposite Brayton. Johnson has developed into a pretty good player, but he may not have the potential to be great. Still, he’s a legitimate part of a NFL-quality rotation.
The bigger hopes for pass-rushing excitement are even younger than three-year vet Johnson. Second-year man Everette Brown (No. 91), whom the Panthers traded their 2010 first-round pick to draft in the second round in ’09, had just 2.5 sacks as a rookie, but he is still a promising prospect. And the Panthers have two rookies – sixth-rounder Greg Hardy, a physical specimen who starred at Ole Miss, and fourth-rounder Eric Norwood, an OLB-DE hybrid from South Carolina. Both were productive college players, and both showed quite a bit of talent during training camp.
The Panthers will be sunk if Johnson, Brown, Hardy, and Norwood all struggle at the same time. But if these players can show their talent, and if one or two of them can do that consistently, the Panthers may not be as destitute in the pass-rushing category as it appeared they would be when Peppers left. Training camp in my hometown showed that Panthers fans can still have hope that the roster does in fact have the salt to at least begin replacing Peppers.