|Ron Rivera must find ways to put together a defense better than No. 28 overall. (Getty Images)|
If the toughest task confronting Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in their second season with the club is where to align linebackers Jon Beason and Luke Kuechly, the 2012 campaign will be a walk in the park after what the two experienced last year.
Two games into the 2011 campaign, the two had lost a pair of starting linebackers for the season -- Beason to a ruptured left Achilles tendon and Thomas Davis to a torn right anterior cruciate ligament -- and the rest of the year disintegrated into an exercise in juggling the few remaining ambulatory bodies.
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This season, the Panthers used the ninth overall pick in the draft two months ago to select Kuechly, the first front-seven defender to go off the board. Continuing their respective rehabilitations, Beason took part in the "team" segment of the minicamp drills two weeks ago and Davis, while limited to walkthrough work in minicamp and OTAs, is projected to be ready for training camp. And that doesn't count James Anderson, who last year established a franchise record for tackles while starting in all 16 games.
"With everyone on the field," acknowledged Davis, who tore his right ACL for the third straight year, "we could be pretty strong."
That would be quite a turnaround after a season in which McDermott and linebackers assistant Warren Belin were pretty stressed every week just trying to figure out if they had enough healthy players with which to line up. The Panthers used eight-different starters in 2011 and employed eight different combinations of threesomes in the 13 contests in which they didn't open in nickel lineups, and both of those numbers were league highs for the position.
Only at strong linebacker, the position to which Anderson switched following the injury to Davis, and after beginning the season on the weakside, did Carolina have as few as two starters. The Panthers used four starters at the weak linebacker spot and an amazing five different starters in the middle.
For a defense already thin at tackle -- a deficiency that must still be addressed -- the revolving door at linebacker only exacerbated an already shaky situation in the front seven. The Panthers finished the season ranked No. 28 in total defense and 25th versus the run.
"We've got to get better across the board," Rivera understated.
The strength of the NFC South notwithstanding, Carolina has been a chic offseason pick by some pundits to perhaps contend for a playoff spot in 2012. Much of the expectation, of course, is because of quarterback Cam Newton, the NFL's reigning offensive rookie of the year, and a player publicly confident his sophomore season will be just as good. But for the Panthers to improve, certainly to post the team's first winning season since 2008, the defense must be considerably stouter.
And while the linebacker position has been somewhat devalued in the league over the past several seasons, it could be where Carolina makes a quantum leap.
"There's a lot of talent (in the group)," said Beason, a three-time Pro Bowl player. "A lot of smart players, guys who can run, people who know how to play the game, good leaders. It's got the potential to be a good (unit). It's a good mix."
Part of the offseason will be spent determining how to mesh Beason and Keuchly, the latter of whom established an NCAA career mark for average tackles per game. Each can play the middle and weak spots, and the men spent time at both positions in the offseason. There is some inkling that Beason will end up on the weak side, a spot he has played in the past, particularly when Davis was injured, but the staff still is mulling that decision. Anderson almost certainly will start at the strong spot, where he started the final 14 games in 2011.
A six-year veteran, Anderson is a relatively anonymous defender to most fans, but he is well regarded in the league and in the Carolina locker room. And the former third-round choice (2006) has started all but one game the past two years and has totaled 275 tackles.
The odd-man out in the starting lineup, but not in the Carolina plans for a revamped linebacker corps, could be Davis. A first-rounder in 2005, Davis was chosen as kind of a hybrid defender, a guy with linebacker hitting ability but safety cover skills, and who had played both positions at the University of Georgia. Davis finally settled in at linebacker and was playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2009, with 61 tackles and a pair of interceptions in seven games, when he suffered his first ACL injury.
He's had subsequent similar tears in 2010 and 2011, has started only nine games the past three seasons, after starting 46 from 2006-2008, and is trying to become the first player in NFL history to return after tearing up the same knee three times. But it will accentuate the potential strength of the Carolina linebacker group if Davis can come back, even as a nickel defender.
"All signs are 'go,'" Davis said.
At least at this point, the indications are fairly positive as well for the Carolina linebackers. The Panthers may not deliver on Davis' recent vow that the team will win the Super Bowl, and the linebacker group might not yet represent an embarrassment of riches. But if all the linebackers are healthy, neither will they be an embarrassment, period, in 2012.