While it might seem like a long time ago now, when it was clear that Jaycee Horn was going to miss extended playing time, and with the Panthers sitting 3-0, they decided to make a move for former Jaguars’ first-round CJ Henderson to bolster their cornerback group. A week later, despite falling to the Cowboys to sit at 3-1, the Panthers made another aggressive move, adding for NFL Defensive Player of The Year Stephon Gilmore in a trade with the Patriots.
Two weeks on the that second move, things are certainly a lot less rosy in Panthers-land, with consecutive losses to the Eagles and Vikings not only dampening spirits but making the thought of playoffs (yes, playoffs) a very distant memory. However, offensive woes to one side for a moment, what these trades do mean is that the Panthers not only have a very strong set of cornerbacks, but also a real challenge on their hands in order to get the most out of their array of defensive back toys.
To find out more about what the players the Panthers have added offer them in terms of skill set and role, and how they are going to all fit together as we move through the season, we spoke to Panthers’ secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator, Jason Simmons.
With Jaycee Horn out, the expectation was the AJ Bouye would move into the #2 cornerback role, with veteran Rashaan Melvin being signed to play the nickel. While this is how things have been at times, especially in the immediate aftermath of Horn’s injury against the Cowboys, but over the past two weeks rookie cornerback Keith Taylor has emerged as a clear starting option for the Panthers, as highlighted by his strong showing against the Vikings.
“We really thought a lot of Keith,” said Simmons. “Keith is one of those players that fell to us. There’re not many times that you have a guy that’s 6’2, runs the way he runs, has the quickness that he has, those guys are rare.”
However, while the late rounds of the draft are not exactly short of height-weight-speed projects at almost every position, what seems to have set Taylor apart in his ability to step into significant playing time early on is his ability to continue to learn at a fast rate in the NFL, something that Simmons was quick to highlight.
“He’s a guy that’s really humble, he’s listening to everything we’re saying – myself and Coach Cooper are talking with him – he’s just a sponge” explained Simmons. “We’re not surprised with his development at all, we think he’s really just at the tip of the iceberg with where he can be.”
Though the Panthers unquestionable have a problem in the here-and-now in terms of how to get their best eleven defenders on the field, that is both one of those good problems and something that is likely to be of long-term benefit. Though both Gilmore and current #1 Donte Jackson will be free agents after this year, the fact that the Panthers look to have two highly talented rookie corners who have shown they can match elite NFL receivers in man coverage should be hugely exciting.
While the strong play of both Taylor and former All-Pro AJ Bouye has certainly helped the Panthers bring Henderson along slowly, the fact that they have spent the best part of six months trying to line up a trade for last year’s 9th overall pick is indicative of just how highly they rate him, and who he can become. While it’s easy to expect immediate results from new players, having the benefit of not throwing a player out there who isn’t yet comfortable in the defense should pay dividends in the long run.
“What he’s doing is settling in,” acknowledged Simmons. “He’s a guy that we really thought highly of, we’re excited to get and didn’t think that we’d end up getting. He’s getting a grasp of the defense, he’s a really smart guy, he understands concepts, so the biggest thing was just putting it in terms that he was used to and that he can go and execute. We’re excited to keep using him and really adding to what he’s doing for us and increasing his reps”
With Stephon Gilmore expected to return to practice in some form this week, and with Taylor and Bouye showing no signs of vulnerability, it seems likely that Henderson’s role will continue to grow gradually rather than being a ‘starter’ switch being flipped.
“It’s not really a schedule,” admitted Simmons. “As he continues to grasp what we’re doing and he’s comfortable with what we’re doing – At that corner position you have to be comfortable to go ahead and execute what we need to get done – he’s starting to get more and more comfortable so, as that continues, his reps will increase.”
If Henderson is able to become anything like what his college tape and draft stock indicates he can be, then that will give the Panthers a third, young, versatile with at least three more years of contract ahead of them, something that would not only be a unique situation for an NFL right now but also near-unique foundation for a secondary in NFL history. That certainly seems good.
As you have probably already noticed, as exciting as it is to talk about all the new, shiny pieces that the Panthers have at corner, but it is another to actually get them to fit together into a functional NFL defense. The slightly uncomfortable answer is, while it would be nice if there was some intricate master plan, what this looks like it going to be a problem the Panthers will be looking to solve on the fly as we move through the season.
“As they come back, we’ll figure it out,” acknowledged Simmons. “It’s one of those things that you never know, we never speak on anybody’s body, we don’t know how long guys are going to take to come back. Just, as guys come back, we’ll just incorporate it.”
But, as has been the case with the Panthers’ defense throughout the Matt Rhule tenure in Carolina, there is a clear master and commander, even if not a clear master plan.
“Coach Snow, he’s the head of everything we’re doing, he gives a clear plan and as position coaches we try to go out and execute,” explained Simmons. “So, as guys come back, we’re going to make sure that we put the best eleven on the field.”
One option would be to look to use some of the players that have previously been viewed exclusively as cornerbacks at safety. This is not only a relatively logical extrapolation from having too many cornerbacks but would also help to alleviate the absence of Juston Burris. Though Burris, a converted cornerback himself, isn’t a household name, the Panthers have clearly been worse without him on the field so far this season, especially in coverage.
Though this isn’t something the Panthers are going to rule in or out at this point, Simmons highlighted how this flexible approach fits in with the approach the Panthers’ defensive coaches have taken to this point.
“Everything with us is giving us the best opportunity to win,” stressed Simmons. “So, whatever that does in terms of personnel groups we’re going to do. We changed from a 3-3-5 scheme last year to a 3-4 scheme this year all based on our talent. We have the luxury of having a head coach that wants us to do what’s best for the team, and a D-coordinator that can make that happen.”
This actually goes back to something that Matt Rhule said back last offseason, when he pointed out that the Panthers’ coaches prefer to view their corners and safeties as ‘defensive backs’ rather than pigeon-holing them into a specific position. Though the 2020 Panthers were never quite as bold in this regard as regard as Rhule’s words indicates they might be, this is certainly not something that they have abandoned all together.
While trying to use players in quite varied ways can go quite badly wrong if not coached and executed at a high level, the best case scenario is one which gives the defense multiplicity while making it hard for the defense to create match-up advantages.
“The more position-less players that you can have – not even from defensive backs, when you have guys like Haason Reddick, Brian Burns and Shaq, all of those guys, even up front, that can do multiple things,” explained Simmons, stressing that flexibility is not just about nominal positions but also roles. “This is the first year that AJ (Bouye) has played nickel. He’s been an outside corner, he’s a guy that’s been an All-Pro at corner before in this league, and he’s humble enough, he’s willing enough to do what it takes for the team and he’s playing nickel for us and really helping us out guarding slots, guarding tight ends. It’s all really about just helping everybody to be the best football player they can be.”
It is easy to get caught up in the idea of matching personnel and who can cover who, and that stuff is important, but Simmons is keen to stress that this is as much about philosophy as it is about practicality.
“Honestly, we look at it differently,” explains Simmons. “We want to dictate to the offense instead of them dictating to us. So, when you see us initially staying in certain personnels last year, being able to play a 21 personnel where they have two backs in the same way we play 11 personnel where they have one back and three receivers in, that more so helps us to dictate what we want to as opposed to them dictating every time they change a personnel group we have to do this. I think that makes you predictable. A lot of what we did last year, that was by our choice, and this year we’re changing, we’re doing a lot in terms of having three defensive linemen, four defensive linemen, five defensive linemen, that’s just part of us dictating what we want to do.”
While the Panthers have unquestionable moved towards a more rotation-heavy defensive set-up in 2021, it’s important to note why they have done this, namely because they have the talent to do a number of things well and, by rotating, they force the offense to account for all of them.
“The first thing is, you earn playing time on this team through practice, practice is everything,” stressed Simmons. “I’m not going to sit here and say ‘hey, we’re just going to ride with the hot hand’, we’re going to ride with the guy that practices the best, that earns the reps, because everything we talk about in that room, whether with the DBs or the defense, it’s all about competition. Guys will earn it in practice and then as they play well in the game they’ll stay out there. We won’t just rotate to rotate.”
How things ultimately pan out with the Panthers’ secondary is something that we are going to have to wait and see over the remaining months of the season. However, as with so many things under Phil Snow especially, Simmons is keen to stress what has allowed this defense to be as good as it has been to this point.
“The one thing I can tell you, I know it won’t be the traditional way that everybody does it, we’re going to do it the best way for us.”
(Top photo via Chanelle Smith-Walker/Carolina Panthers)