As we make our way towards training camp, we’ll be investigating the Panthers camp battles that will be happening in the trenches during the dog days of summer in Spartanburg – while some, like the battles we’ll talk about today, are easy to find, some aren’t quite so obvious and almost certainly injuries will force others into the spotlight, perhaps some that we didn’t even think about this early in the process.
Previous Camp Battle Studies:
We’ve arrived at the biggest question mark – outside of Cam Newton’s shoulder – facing Carolina this offseason. Who will be starting next to James Bradberry, Donte Jackson and Eric Reid in the secondary?
There are realistically two positions that need to be filled in the defensive backfield as the Panthers played more than 60% of their snaps last season with a nickel cornerback in the formation – and in an unusual twist of fate, the best answer at both positions may be the same person. Have a question about what that means?
Let’s try to get some answers.
The Big, Looming, Huge Question: Where Does Rashaan Gaulden Fit In?
The Panthers seemingly have gone into every draft in the Ron Rivera Era with safety high on their needs list – Colin Hoggard has said on One Day Contract that the Panthers have needed a safety for as long as the Hornets have needed a shooting guard – but in 2019, one of the reasons the Panthers felt comfortable bypassing plug-and-play safeties like Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on Day 2 of the draft was because of their 2018 third-round selection.
Rashaan Gaulden, who played multiple positions at Tennessee, will be given every chance to win the safety job – the Panthers drafted him with the mindset that he could eventually replace Mike Adams and that’s exactly what he aims to do. While the team groomed him with only 14% of the snaps in his rookie season, Gaulden was given the opportunity to learn the position and how to be a safety in the NFL – a position like that as the last line of defense is less about the physical attributes and more about being in the right place at the right time – every time.
So while fellow rookie Donte Jackson was able to step in and start immediately last season – injuries forced the coaches hands whether Jackson was ready or not – Gaulden was asked to bide his time behind Adams, who played the second most defensive snaps in 2018, while he learned how to play safety at the NFL level. Gaulden played multiple spots at Tennessee, which is what makes him so valuable – particularly when the Panthers have a hole at both the safety position and at slot corner.
Especially since Gaulden appears to be the best option for both positions.
“He’s very unique with his ability to play nickel and safety,” said new secondary coach Perry Fewell about Gaulden. “That’s the way you would like to build ‘em. The nickel is a hybrid safety/corner position that can cover and play the run. That’s a luxury to have.”
During OTAs and minicamp, the Panthers weren’t simply using Gaulden at safety – they were giving him a lot of reps at nickel.
Could Gaulden actually rotate between a nickelback tasked with covering a slot receiver or a single-high safety depending on the look the offense gives? Does the competition for Gaulden extend not only to beating out other players at safety, but showing where he can be the most efficient on the field?
Rashaan Gaulden, and where he fits into this defense, will be the most fascinating non-Cam question of Panthers training camp.
No Question: The Big Three
Ron Rivera spoke during the spring about the relative consistency in the secondary – much of that consistency is derived from the starters on the outside in James Bradberry and Donte Jackson. Bradberry, who is due for a contract extension after starting 45 of a possible 48 games in his first three seasons, was charged with locking down the #1 receivers in the NFC South – Julio Jones, Mike Evans and Michael Thomas – during 2018. Jackson, after an inconsistent rookie season, is locked in opposite Bradberry and will need to show the ball skills and aggression that made him so impressive in the first half of the season; after four interceptions and seven PBUs the first eight weeks of the season, the rookie had only two PBUs and zero picks the rest of the way.
It’s reasonable to expect Reid to take a step forward after joining the team after their early bye and trying to play catch up in terms of scheme before suffering a shoulder injury that affected his play for most of the season – even under those circumstances, Reid racked up his most tackles since he was a rookie….his only Pro Bowl season.
The Panthers will also expect Reid to guide Rashaan Gaulden – if he ends up starting opposite him at safety – as well as continue to mold Jackson.
No Question: The Captain
Colin Jones has earned his job as both a special teams ace and proved a capable, if not exciting, backup at multiple positions – the Panthers used him in both a safety and a ‘big nickel’ role in Week 3 when Da’Norris Searcy went out. But where Jones makes his money on a yearly basis is on special teams, where he was voted captain for the first time in his career in 2018.
He’s certainly not going anywhere – and the Panthers know exactly what they have in him.
Up Next: The Nickel Question