With free agency and the draft a ways behind us and the majority of the Panthers training camp roster now set, now seems like a good time to go back and take a look at exactly what the Panthers might have found in some of their lesser-known free agent acquisitions. While the Panthers’ two biggest free agency signings (at least in terms of cap space) as well as their one major trade addition came on the offensive side of the ball, they complimented these signings with a number of free agent signings of slightly lesser-known players on defense, one of whom was edge rusher Stephen Weatherly, who has spent his career to this point with the Vikings behind players like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter.
While Weatherly played less than 40% of the defensive snaps in 2019, he had three sacks, five TFLs, 24 tackles and nine QB hits.
From what has been said so far this offseason, it seems as though the expectation is that Weatherly will be the starter opposite Burns in the short term, at least until Yetur Gross-Matos is ready – this marks a step up in responsibility for him after mostly being a rotation piece in Minnesota. Having only recently turned 26, he still has a real chance of continuing to improve and it is worth noting not just what he does well, but what he doesn’t – and also the areas where he has a realistic chance of improving, and what he needs to take these steps.
So what does the tape show?
Having moved back to a (mostly) 4-3 defense after experimenting with a 3-4 last season, one of the things that the Panthers are going to need to re-prioritize are players who are able to defend the run on the edge. A major part of this, especially if the Panthers are going to experiment with a three-safety formation at times, is the ability to retain gap discipline and play within the structure of the defense. This is something that Weatherly did well on tape, keeping outside contain and compacting the edge when necessary (Weatherly wears #91):
And showing the footwork to stay in his gap with leverage while working laterally on outside runs:
This is aided by his good arm extension – with his 34.5″ arms, when he is able to locate his arms inside the frame of the blocker, he is then able to keep his own frame free allowing him to maintain the necessary leverage and to release from the block as necessary:
And is also able to build upon this with the hand coordination to work through blocks to get to the ball carrier with good strong hands:
However, there were a couple of times when his arms got too wide off the snap, which then made it hard for him to locate his hands and made it easier for the blocker to get to his frame. Every defensive lineman is going to have some of these plays, but focusing on getting his arms set more quickly post-snap is a way that he could improve and something Mike Phair will likely look to work on:
However, by far the biggest improvement he could stand to make is his pad level; while this isn’t awful, he has a tendency to rise up as plays go on, and this makes is hard for him to use the power he generates and makes it easier for blockers to move him.
This is another thing that he shows the ability to do well most of the time, and this isn’t a question of what he is physically capable of, but rather something that he needs to do with more consistency. Weatherly is overall a good run defender, and while he could continue to improve the consistency of some of his technique, he has a real chance to be a plus player for the Panthers in this regard from day one.
However, edge defenders need to do more than just defend the run, so how does he get on in the passing game?
(Top Photo Via Tony Avelar/AP)