Panthers defensive roster outlook: Seeking D-line depth, next Luke Kuechly

Brian Burns is part of a promising young defensive core for the Panthers to build around. Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Phil Snow was as creative as any NFL defensive coordinator in 2020 because of injuries and youth on a Carolina Panthers unit that invested all seven draft picks on his side of the ball.

He succeeded in helping the team stay in a lot of games few expected, including a 24-16 loss to Green Bay in Week 15, in which eventual NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times and held to 143 yards passing.

Rodgers frustratingly referred to Snow’s defense afterward as a 3-5-3 scheme that had a lot of “college principals."

“I thought we’d be able to play a little more four-man rush," Snow said. “So we had to run a variety of different packages. ...

“We had to experiment with a lot of different things because of injuries.’’

But even before Tampa Bay smothered quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV with basically a four-man pass rush, Snow was looking ahead to what he needed to do to take his defense to a championship-caliber level.

“If you look at all the great defenses, they’re able to rush four and cover with seven," he said. “At some point we have to get to that level. That’s the ultimate goal."

As much as Snow has to be proud, he wasn’t happy the Panthers ranked 18th in total defense, 23rd in sacks, 30th in interceptions and 31st on third downs.

He likely won’t get much help in the draft this year since offense will likely be the focus.

With that, here’s a complete breakdown of the defensive roster as the Panthers begin their second offseason under Snow:

Note: Some players are listed at multiple positions below, since they are utilized that way.

Defensive end

Returning players: Stephen Weatherly, Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, Austin Larkin

Free agents: Efe Obada (restricted)

In Burns and Gross-Matos, the Panthers have a pair of dynamic edge rushers. Burns made steady progress in his second season, leading the team with nine sacks and 21 quarterback hits. Injuries limited Gross-Matos to 12 games and only 2.5 sacks as a rookie, but he showed promise. What the Panthers need here is depth and perhaps an end who is more stout than Burns (6-5, 250), one who can be more effective against the run in a four-man front. Signing Obada to an offer sheet seems like a no-brainer, particularly since he emerged as an inside threat in addition to edge rusher. His 5.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits were second to Burns. Releasing Weatherly seems likely, in order to clear almost $6 million in cap space.

Defensive tackle

Returning players: Derrick Brown, Zach Kerr, Bravvion Roy, Mike Panasiuk

Free agents: Efe Obada (restricted)

On Tuesday, the Panthers released Kawann Short, the former Pro Bowl performer who had played only five games the past two seasons due to shoulder injuries. By releasing Short, the Panthers create $8.6 million in cap space, giving the team a projected $20.7 million to work with this offseason. That means the team must find another pass-rushing tackle to play beside 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown, either through the draft or free agency. Brown is known more as a run-stopper, so Carolina needs another body that can push the middle of the pocket.


Returning players: Shaq Thompson, Jeremy Chinn, Marquis Haynes, Jermaine Carter, Sam Franklin, Jordan Mack, Christian Miller, Daniel Bituli, Clay Johnston

Free agents: Tahir Whitehead, Julian Stanford, Adarius Taylor

Life without Luke Kuechly was tough after the middle linebacker retired. Whitehead didn’t come close to filling that role. Taylor, who is also a free agent, showed promise there late in the season. Regardless, somebody in the middle who can cover sideline to sideline is the biggest hole in this group. Ideally, Snow would like to use Chinn as a safety who can play inside, instead of as a linebacker who can play safety, as he did during his outstanding rookie season.


Returning players: Donte Jackson, Juston Burris, Troy Pride Jr., Stantley Thomas-Oliver III, Myles Hartsfield

Free agents: Corn Elder

A toe injury greatly impacted Jackson’s season and rookie Pride never stepped up to the level needed. Burris was a pleasant surprise. Finding a true shutdown corner would allow Snow to play more four-man fronts.


Returning players: Tre Boston, Jeremy Chinn, Kenny Robinson, Sean Chandler

Free agents: Rasul Douglas

Coach Matt Rhule loved what Douglas brought to the secondary, but whether there is cap room to re-sign him remains to be seen. If the Panthers plan to use Chinn more in a safety role, re-signing Douglas could become less of a priority so depth is the primary concern here.