When thinking about good teams across the NFL, it’s easy to count out the Carolina Panthers.
Over their last four seasons, they’re 22-43 and have finished as one of the bottom two teams in the NFC South each year. Not having a clear answer at quarterback since Cam Newton’s departure hasn’t helped. Running back Christian McCaffrey’s unavailability has also been an issue; he’s played just 10 games in the last two seasons combined thanks to injuries.
The Panthers have found another potential solution to their quarterback question by trading for Baker Mayfield, and they’re just going to have to keep hoping for McCaffrey’s health in 2022. But one unit that they won’t have to worry about in the coming season is their defensive secondary, which has one of the NFL’s most promising young cores.
Of their three starting corners and two starting safeties, their oldest player is 27-year-old strong safety Xavier Woods, who the Panthers signed to a three-year deal in free agency this offseason. Their other starting safety is a 24-year-old Jeremy Chinn, who is entering his third season. Starting cornerbacks Donte Jackson, C.J. Henderson and Jaycee Horn are 26, 23 and 22 respectively, and the latter two were both top-10 picks in their respective NFL Drafts. Cornerback Myles Hartsfield, who started nine games last season, is also vying for a starting spot at 25 years old.
Between the six of them, none of them have a Pro Bowl nod yet, but there is so much clear potential in the young unit.
Let’s start with Woods, the free agent acquisition who just put up one of his best seasons in his one year in Minnesota. In 2021, he set new career highs in interceptions (3), pass defenses (10) and tackles (108) while matching a career high with two forced fumbles. He also allowed just a 60 percent completion rate in coverage last year. Woods provides an upgrade in coverage and performance over the middle and downfield, which is much needed after Carolina allowed a completion rate over 50 percent on pass attempts longer than 15 yards.
Alongside him is the guy who might have the highest potential this season and beyond not only on defense but on the entirety of the Panthers’ roster: safety Jeremy Chinn. In his rookie season, Chinn tallied an interception, two forced fumbles, two fumble return touchdowns (on back-to-back plays), five pass defenses, a sack and 117 tackles. Thanks to his monster levels of production across the board, he finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting behind Chase Young.
Chinn followed up a strong rookie season with a second year that almost perfectly mirrored his production in year one: an interception, one forced fumble, five pass defenses, a sack and 107 tackles. He also improved in pass coverage and had fewer missed tackles in 2021. There are still steps Chinn can take to establish himself among the game’s elite safeties, particularly in continuing to improve his skills in coverage, but that could improve with more help on the outside.
Speaking of that outside help, the Panthers’ cornerbacks had a bit of a rough season last year. Horn, then a rookie, was off to a strong start with an interception, five tackles and just 18 yards allowed in coverage in three games. Opposing quarterbacks had a completion rate of less than 29 percent and a 39.6 passer rating when targeting Horn in coverage. But in Week 3 against the Texans, Horn fractured his foot and missed the rest of the season.
It was a small sample size, but the Carolina passing defense was at its best when Horn was on the field. He showed a lot of promise in his first three pro games, and he’ll finally get his first full year to show off what he can do at the NFL level in 2022.
If Horn can play up to the potential he had coming into the NFL and that he flashed in that small 2021 sample, it will take less pressure off of fellow corners Jackson, Henderson and Hartsfield.
Henderson, in particular, had a difficult time stepping up in the Panthers’ secondary after coming over from the Jaguars in a midseason trade last year. The route-recognition, ball skills and physicality he showed off in college likely didn’t just disappear once he became a pro though. A full preseason with the Panthers and some additional help from the secondary defenders around him could help Henderson finally come into his own in the NFL this season.
Even though Carolina won’t be real contenders in the NFC South for a couple of years, their secondary gives them plenty of reason for optimism on defense. Their pass defense is young with tons of potential, and they’re poised to take an additional step forward now that Horn is back and Woods has joined the team in 2022.
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