Carolina Panthers Position Preview: Safety

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 21: Tight end Zach Ertz #86 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs for a touchdown against strong safety Eric Reid #25 of the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on October 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 21: Tight end Zach Ertz #86 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs for a touchdown against strong safety Eric Reid #25 of the Carolina Panthers during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on October 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Eric Reid leads a highly inexperienced group of safeties

Following the 2018 season, the safety position was seen as one of the biggest weaknesses on the team behind edge rusher and offensive tackle. While the team addressed those two needs in the first and second rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft, the Panthers opted not to add outside talent in the safety position through the draft or even in free agency, a decision that was highly puzzling to the fan base.

While Eric Reid’s signing last season brought a lot of controversy due to his decision to kneel during the National Anthem in protest of social injustice, he ultimately saved what was a depleted position group last season. After the release of Kurt Coleman over the 2018 offseason, the group was left with the aging Mike Adams, an injured Da’Norris Searcy, recently drafted Rashaan Gaulden and special teamer Colin Jones.

Following Searcy’s injury, the team was reluctant to start Jones, who probably has no business playing anything other than special teams, or the inexperienced Gaulden, so the decision to ultimately look past the controversy and sign Reid was one that was highly beneficial. While Reid’s numbers don’t jump off the page — 71 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and five pass deflections — he was a dependable force on the field who was a sure tackler and played his role in preventing big plays while bringing leadership and a veteran presence, all of which will be needed at a weak and inexperienced position going forward.

While Reid is locking down one safety spot, the other starting safety spot is perhaps the most wide open starting vacancy on the entire team to fill it. So who will be the one to step up?

Right now, the frontrunner would be Gaulden. The 2018 third round draft pick was primarily a benchwarmer and special teams contributor last season. However, during his final season at Tennessee, Gaulden got a reputation as a hard-hitting nickel, which put him on scouts’ radars. With that in mind, Gaulden likely spent last year re-acclimating to the safety position, as well as the speed of the NFL game while getting to learn from two experienced and respected players in Reid and Adams. While Gaulden didn’t see enough action to truly make a judgement on his NFL ability, his development will ultimately make or break what he will be able to do at that spot.

Another option is Jones, who as previously mentioned, would be served best as a special teamer rather than a full-time defensive starter. While Jones has shown elite speed and reliable tackling ability, he spent time as the team’s primary nickel in 2014, where his lack of coverage skills were a constant liability to an overall stellar defense. Don’t get me wrong, Jones has tremendous value as a leader and special teams ace, but should really be a last resort as the team looks to fill a void at safety.

Outside of them are former undrafted free agents Cole Luke and Damian Parms, who have each spent one season on the practice squad and one on injured reserve with Carolina. These are two guys the Panthers like, and while they probably aren’t candidates who will step up as dark horses and nab a starting job, they will provide competition throughout camp and fight for a roster spot.

The other two safeties on the roster include Kai Nacua, who was an addition to the practice squad late in 2018, and Corrion Ballard, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Utah this May. They will also likely compete for a roster spot, with primary competition being Luke and Parms, and could end up on the practice squad depending on how they perform in camp and in preseason, as well as how many roster spots the team decides to keep at this position.

While fans are panicking over the lack of big names at this position, it is really nothing new for this team. Historically, safety has never really been a position the team has placed much of an emphasis on, with the only ones throughout the franchise’s 24 years who were even serviceable being Mike Minter, Charles Godfrey, Deon Grant, Chris Harris and Kurt Coleman, with Minter and Godfrey being the only ones among that group who even stayed with the team for longer than three seasons. Obviously, give Reid a couple more years of the way he played last year and you can add him to that list, and you could maybe make an argument for Tre Boston as well, but it’s still a position that has pretty much always seemed to lack talent on this team.

It is generally normal for this team to seem like it is lacking at the safety position, but has showcased elite defenses despite this. With that being said, Carolina really doesn’t need the player opposite Reid, or even Reid himself, to be superstar, playmaking ballhawks or anything like that. In this system, the team just needs these guys to be reliable tacklers who help minimize the big plays.

With one year and Carolina under his belt, in addition to a handful in San Francisco, Reid has proven he can be that guy, but the real test will be whether his complement will do the same. If things are looking murky or the position becomes injury ravaged, look for the Panthers to add talent either throughout the preseason or early on in the regular season, with the prime time being when other teams begin to make roster cuts.