Panthers building defense behind versatile pass-rushers in free agency

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers began the offseason looking to upgrade their quarterbacks, but began free agency on Wednesday securing ways to pressure quarterbacks.

Pressure as in reaching a one-year, $8 million deal with former Arizona edge rusher Haason Reddick, who had 12.5 sacks last season, and reaching a two-year, $8.1 million deal with former Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Morgan Fox, who had six sacks last season.

Their combined 18.5 sacks in 2020 are 10.5 fewer than the entire Panthers defense had. Only eight teams had fewer than Carolina’s 29 sacks, and only Tennessee among playoff teams.

This isn’t to suggest defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s cup runneth over with playmakers, but it’s a lot closer to full than it was.

The Panthers last season ranked 27th in quarterback pressures with 155 and 23rd in pressure percentage (26%). And as Snow noted last season, pressures correlate to winning in the NFL.

Seven of the top 11 teams in pressure percentage made the playoffs in 2020, including the top three (Pittsburgh 36.7, Kansas City 35.0 and New Orleans 34.4). Conversely, the four teams with the lowest pressure percentage (Detroit 21.0, Cincinnati 22.6, Jacksonville 22.7 and Houston 23.2) all had double-digit losses, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Adding Reddick, Fox and free-agent pickup Denzel Perryman at middle linebacker to a lineup that already includes 2020 sack leader Brian Burns, 2020 NFL rookie of the year candidate Jeremy Chinn, 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown and 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos should give Snow the talent and position flexibility to throw almost any scheme he wants at opponents.

Reddick can play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, end or outside linebacker in a 4-3 just like Burns, who accounted for 32 percent of Carolina’s pressures last season with 49. That ranked third most in the NFL behind Aaron Donald (54) and Shaquil Barrett (53).

Morgan can pressure from end or tackle. Chinn can play outside linebacker or safety in any scheme, although he was forced to play more linebacker last season out of necessity. The goal this year is for Chinn to play more safety with the ability to move up.

“Jeremy and Brian Burns give us flexibility to play a lot of different packages with the same people on the field,’’ Snow said.

The free agent additions enhances that flexibility, particularly Reddick who has reunited with Snow and head coach Matt Rhule from their days at Temple (2013-16). With a one-year, prove-it deal, he has a chance to make a name for himself here as he did in college.

“I love Haason,” Rhule told an Arizona radio station in 2017 after Reddick was selected by the Cardinals with the 13th pick. “He’s everything that’s right with college football. He’s tough, he’s hard-nosed. ... He’s relentless.

“In a day and age where guys on defense don’t run to the football anymore because of all the tempo, and guys don’t play hard all the time, Haason set the standard for our defense.’’

And remember it was that flexibility that got Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers off his game last season.

Rodgers frustratingly referred to Carolina’s 3-5-3 scheme and “college principals’’ behind it after being sacked a season-high five times and held to a season-low 143 yards passing in a 24-16 win.

Snow did this with a unit that was thin on pass-rushers and playmakers due to injury and inexperience.

After a slow start, Snow found ways to better utilize what he had. A defense that averaged 8.8 pressures and 1.1 sacks per game in the first 10 games averaged 11.2 pressures and 3.0 sacks in the final six.

That didn’t translate into more wins, in part because starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was pressured more and became inconsistent in terms of mistakes and decision-making.

That’s why before free agency the Panthers offered Bridgewater, the No. 8 pick and a fifth-round pick in an attempt to get Matthew Stafford from Detroit. Stafford went to the Rams, but trading for a quarterback or drafting one remains a viable option.

Where else areas could the Panthers shore up next? Cornerback to play opposite Donte Jackson remains a big need defensively due to a lack of experience. Carolina let journeyman Rasul Douglas test the market and the two players -- Troy Pride Jr. and Stantley Thomas-Oliver III -- drafted last year as projects remain projects.

The Panthers, after showing interest in more high-profile corners such as Seattle’s Shaquill Griffin, added 10-year veteran Rashaan Melvin Thursday to a one-year deal. He’s a stopgap at best.

Ideally, finding a corner in his mid-20s with some starting experience would be the solution, but the market has thinned to the point there aren’t many of those left. Former Tennessee cornerback Adoree' Jackson, the 18th pick of the 2017 draft, fits the bill the best. He’s started 41 games and is 26, but knee issues limited him to three games and two starts in 2020.

So look for the Panthers to keep looking there just as they will at quarterback.