Despite entering the season relatively healthy, the Panthers are now facing multiple injuries six weeks into the season with three offensive linemen on the COVID list along with their kicker, the loss of CMC and Samuel having depleted their skill position prowess and, most relevant to this week, a shortage in the secondary with Eli Apple, Donte Jackson and now Juston Burris at various stages of injured.
Burris’ injury looked to be the most severe and has seen him head to IR, and while the Panthers’ depth at corner has been under pressure all season and they expect Burris back at some point, they now face themselves with the task of cobbling together a new gameplan at safety. When Burris went out against the Bears on Sunday, the Panthers played undrafted rookie Sam Franklin in his place, with Franklin playing 23 snaps on the day and recording his first two tackles on defense in the NFL.
“It was kind of like a quick second where I was like ‘Wow, I’m really about to go in for an NFL snap,'” Franklin said. “They had worked me in a little bit a couple of games before that so it wasn’t my first time stepping on the field but it was a lot of emotion but we were in a tight game so I stepped to the side, took a quick breath and went right in.”
“It was an amazing feeling.”
How the Panthers have used their safeties has varied somewhat week to week, with Burris’ role largely being split between deep zone and man coverage, and while Franklin’s 6-3, 210 pound stature gives him a slightly different physical profile, he has the speed to play either of this roles. While the Panthers could come out with a completely different gameplan for the Saints, and will likely have more time to tailor what they do defensively to Franklin’s skillset than they did on Sunday, how the Panthers used Franklin also changed as the game went on against the Bears.
When he initially saw the field, they mostly used him how they had been using Burris for most of the game, in deep zone – here, he’s opposite Tre Boston:
And here, he shows a much better range than would usually be associated with anybody listed as a linebacker. While it’s hard to know whether this was much a consideration for the Panthers’ coaches – against a Bears team that doesn’t throw the ball deep a huge amount, playing him in this way does allow the Panthers to hide Franklin somewhat, instead of consistently playing him in man coverage underneath – but as the game went on, the Panthers began to play him closer to the line at times.
“I feel comfortable anywhere,” he said. “These coaches put you at great spots and teach you all the techniques and multiple positions so you can stay ready and you can be more of an asset to the team. You’ve just got to make sure you know your job and where everyone else will be on the field.”
He spent a couple of snaps playing in the box as a run defender:
And he did see a few snaps in the slot in man coverage, with mixed results:
Franklin wasn’t really challenged in coverage during the snaps he saw with the Bears – frankly, if he had seen several targets in the 23 snaps he played, it would have been a pretty strong indication that the Bears viewed him as a weakness they could exploit – so it is hard to make any hugely strong statements about his ability in this regard. He clearly has the range to play in zone, but his footwork is quite cumbersome at times, taking jumpy steps with his weight tending to get back in his stance, which could make it hard for him to break on the ball fluidly:
Moving laterally, he tends to shift with his feet, which works well when playing in the box as a run defender, but in coverage, he really needs to open his hips more – this causes him to lose momentum and makes him vulnerable to changes of direction:
This is less pronounced in deep coverage where there is more space and time to recover, but if they are going to play him in the slot on a consistent basis going forward, this is something to keep an eye on – if teams key into this as a weakness, they could be able to attack him on a consistent basis.
It is not clear at this stage whether the Panthers plan to hand Franklin the full starting role, or whether he is going to be splitting snaps with either one or multiple other defenders like rookie Kenny Robinson, Myles Hartsfield or even Jeremy Chinn moving back into a more traditional safety role. A big part of what the Panthers have looked to do defensively so far this season though is built upon the idea of giving offenses very different looks from the same personnel grouping. Besides looking to move Rasul Douglas to safety if Eli Apple or Donte Jackson are back to full health, Franklin gives them the best chance of that – Rhule said Wednesday that the team has considered playing him at corner in the past, so don’t be surprised if he lines up at multiple spots, just like Burris did when he was healthy.
This season is still about growth as much as it is wins – while Franklin is probably going to make some mistakes, as most young players do, he also has the potential to be a part of what the Panthers are building going forward; rather than bringing in a veteran on a one-year deal to help the Panthers win now, trusting in the young players on your roster is not only more convenient in the age of COVID, but is also the right long-term play, with a chance to pay dividends in 2021 and beyond.
(Top Photo Via Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)