The Carolina Panthers are in the midst of a pseudo-rebuild. Despite the retirement of all-world linebacker Luke Kuechly and the release of longtime franchise quarterback Cam Newton, Carolina’s roster has not been torn down completely like the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins have done in recent years. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields may be the ultimate goal, but the Panthers will not be an atrocious team in 2020. With that said, there is still one position group that needs to be addressed moving forward, and it isn’t QB.
That position is none other than cornerback. Third-year man Donte Jackson is decent, but should not be tasked with covering the opponent’s top wide receiver. His Pro Football Focus coverage grade dropped from 67.2 as a rookie to 56.3 in 2019. He also played 140 fewer coverage snaps during his sophomore campaign, so relying on him to take a huge step forward in year three is dangerous.
James Bradberry, a second-round pick in 2016, signed with the New York Giants for $43.5 million over three years. Bradberry earned a 65.4 coverage grade last season, and while he is not an elite player, his loss will certainly be felt in the Carolina secondary.
Cole Luke was an undrafted free agent in 2017 and has been waived and re-signed multiple times while also spending time on the Panthers practice squad. Luke has eight games of NFL experience and has registered three tackles.
Former first-round pick Eli Apple was signed in free agent, and is presumably a starter. Apple spent last season with the New Orleans Saints, and has been a disappointment since he was selected 10th overall by the Giants in 2016. He earned a coverage grade of 65.0 in 25 games with the Saints and 62.9 for his 23 games with the Giants. If Jackson and Apple start on the outside as expected, there is an argument to be made that the Panthers own the league’s worst cornerback tandem.
Seventh round pick Stantley (not Stanley) Thomas-Oliver has NFL size and athleticism, but coming out of FIU, he is a developmental prospect, and could very well end up on the practice squad. He will almost certainly not be a factor on the depth chart in 2020.
Derrek Thomas is long and lean and broke into the league as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2019. He also spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was signed by the Panthers in April of this year. He does not have any regular season playing time.
Myles Hartsfield was signed as an undrafted free agent this year, and actually has a good shot at making the team. He played both cornerback and safety at Ole Miss, and was a freshman All-American back in 2016. Versatility is extremely valuable in the NFL, especially for a team that doesn’t have a lot of secondary talent past its starters at safety.
Corn Elder was fifth-rounder in 2017, and was waived by the Panthers early last season. He landed on the Giants practice squad, but was poached by the Panthers later on. He played 38 coverage snaps for Carolina in 2018.
Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr. was selected in the fourth round this year, and offers an intriguing athletic profile. He is extremely smooth and able to mirror receivers very well. The problem with him is his lack of awareness and ball skills. He did have four interceptions and 18 passes defended during his collegiate career, but too often Pride would stick close to a receiver, do everything right coverage-wise, but still allow a catch. If he can improve his ball skills, he can be a good addition to a secondary in desperate need of talent.
And that’s it; that’s the entire cornerback room for the Panthers. Luke and Hartsfield may not even be considered CBs. If we do include them in the group, that leaves the team with eight players who have a combined 3,242 coverage snaps. Five don’t have any NFL experience, and Elder has 38 career coverage snaps.
It’s a very thin group, and any injury would be disastrous. The starters are subpar to say the least, and there is essentially zero depth. If Pride gets up to speed quickly, things will look better, but not by all that much.
It has never been more important to stop the pass in the NFL, and the Panthers defense is not currently constructed to do that. With Teddy Bridgewater at QB, when Carolina loses games, it typically won’t be because they were unable to score; it will be because they were unable to stop the opponent from scoring.