As the Carolina Panthers kick off the 2020 edition of training camp, the defensive secondary is completely up for grabs.
Coming into the 2019 season, the defensive backfield appeared to be one of the most talented position groups for the Carolina Panthers. 2020 though figures to be a totally different story. Gone are James Bradberry and Eric Reid, and Donte Jackson is coming off a season to forget. The only certainty in the Panthers’ secondary heading into the new season is that Tre Boston will be the starting free safety. Other than that, the team used four of their seven draft picks on defensive backs, and signed several more in free agency. With that being said, it’s anyone’s guess who will be lined up in the secondary come September.
The Panthers used four of their draft picks to help revamp an almost entirely new secondary for 2020.
Seeing as though the Panthers lost their best corner to free agency, released their starting safety, and had a wildly inconsistent year from their other young cornerback, it makes sense that the team would place such a high priority on the secondary. Bradberry was simply too expensive to keep, Reid was a salary-cap casualty, and Jackson, although still on the team, has developed a tendency to get beat downfield.
As a result, Marty Hurney and Matt Rhule used three consecutive selections on defensive backs, with all three–Jeremy Chinn, Troy Pride Jr., and Kenny Robinson— being top-152 picks. The fourth, Stantley Thomas-Oliver, was taken late in the seventh round. Chinn and Robinson are both listed as safeties, but can both play the nickel spot if called upon. According to multiple scouting reports, Chinn, who was a small-school stud at Northern Illinois, could also make the transition to cornerback or even linebacker in the NFL. Pride and Thomas-Oliver are each corners, with the former being a potential candidate for a starting job. Thomas-Oliver is more of a “project,” but if he has a good camp could still find his way onto the roster.
Chinn and free-agent signee Juston Burris will likely compete for the starting strong safety job during training camp.
Of the four DBs the Panthers took in April’s draft, perhaps none of them has as much potential as Chinn. He has good size and is highly versatile, and could very likely find himself playing some big snaps in 2020. He was viewed as a steal by many at the 64th-overall pick, and has drawn comparisons (and praise) to players such as Tyrann Mathieu and Kam Chancellor. The only thing keeping him from being a surefire Week 1 starter is that he’s simply just a bit too raw right now. Multiple draft sources cited Chinn’s room for growth in pass coverage, and although he has all the tools to succeed, he needs to prove himself against higher-level competition. Fortunately for Carolina though, they nabbed a local kid in Juston Burris during free agency.
Burris, who grew up in Raleigh and played college football at N.C. State, is viewed by the Panthers as a player who can really blossom if given an opportunity to play. Burris had the best season of his career with the Browns in 2019, starting nine games with two interceptions, seven passes defensed, and a forced fumble. The numbers aren’t overwhelming by any means, but it’s worth noting that Burris was graded in the top 40% of safeties in 2019 by Pro Football Focus, despite not being with Cleveland for the whole season. Carolina gave him a two-year deal back in March and expects him to compete with Chinn for the strong safety job.
It will no doubt be an interesting battle between two young, hungry players, but I would expect for Burris to open the year as the starter, with Chinn potentially working his way into the lineup a little later on. The lack of a regular preseason–if there’s one at all–certainly doesn’t help Chinn’s chances, so it’s likely that Burris’ experience alone could win him the job for now. Kenny Robinson is another safety from this year’s draft class that could potentially see some snaps in the secondary in 2020. Regardless though, each player has something to prove, so hopefully that competition can push them all be better players in the long run.
The second major battle in the Carolina secondary will be for the two starting cornerback jobs.
As mentioned earlier, the Panthers will come into 2020 with major questions at cornerback as well. At this time last year Donte Jackson was expected to be on the cusp of a breakout season; however, his 2019 campaign consisted of a really good start, an injury, then poor play, a run-in with a coach, and eventually an outright benching. Now, he finds himself battling to keep his starting position going into the new season, and with so many new additions, he’s going to have to perform.
After going through the draft without signing a veteran corner to play opposite Jackson, the Panthers finally made a move and signed former first-round pick Eli Apple at the end of May. Apple was a top-10 pick back in 2016, but has already spent time with the Giants and Saints, and has had contract negotiations fall through with the Raiders. On top of that, he has also been a source of “drama” during his time in the league, and has battled consistency issues throughout his young career. Still though, with the Panthers figuring to be in rebuild mode, he’s worth taking a shot on on a cheap one-year deal. The talent is there for Apple, it’s just a matter of harnessing that talent on a regular basis and keeping himself out of trouble with his teammates.
Rookie Troy Pride Jr. is the wild card in what will be crowded cornerback room. Carolina selected Pride in the fourth round of this year’s draft, and prior to the Apple signing, all indications pointed towards him starting Week 1. He’s a bit undersized (like Jackson), but according to experts has supreme speed and athleticism that help make up for his lack of size (also like Jackson). Pride was actually the 61st-ranked draft prospect according to PFF, so the fact that the Panthers got him with the 113th pick appears to be an early steal.
Pride is a fun player to watch, and he plays with high energy, but if he’s going to earn any significant playing time, he’s going to have to get better at making plays on the ball. In 37 games at Notre Dame, he intercepted just four passes and had only 18 passes defensed. Seeing as though training camp and the preseason will both be severely limited, I would expect Jackson and Apple to be the starters with Pride being either a rotational corner or the primary nickel man. It will be interesting to see what role Pride plays this season; however, if he impresses this year, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see him as a full-time starter in 2021.