Carolina Panthers Julius Peppers says it was a great season

Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers says he thought it was a great decision to come back home for the 2017 season.
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Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers says he thought it was a great decision to come back home for the 2017 season.
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Carolina Panthers

Defensive line has talented core, but why must the Panthers draft an edge-rusher?

By Jourdan Rodrigue

jrodrigue@charlotteobserver.com

February 09, 2018 03:49 PM

Analyzing the Carolina Panthers, position by position, ahead of free agency and the NFL draft. Up next: Defensive line.

Three things to know

▪  Hoke takes over: After promoting Eric Washington to defensive coordinator, Carolina hired Brady Hoke to coach the defensive line. Hoke spent 34 years at the collegiate level, and has large shoes to fill. He’s also inheriting some impressive players.

▪  Peppers back? The Panthers hope to re-sign veteran defensive end Julius Peppers, who at age 37 tied for the team lead in sacks last season. Peppers had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder on Thursday.

▪  Star’s time? Carolina must decide whether to sign free agent defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to a lucrative, long-term deal this spring. All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell is also due for a big deal, which complicates matters.

On the roster

▪  Kawann Short: Carolina’s big-money defensive tackle earned his dollars in 2017. Short is one of the stalwarts on a line that has been among the best in the league for the past five seasons.

▪  Mario Addison: Addison will anchor one side of the defensive line in 2018, his second year as a starter. He tied Peppers with 11 sacks last year.

▪  Lotulelei: Not many players can do what Lotulelei can on the interior. He’s a space-eater who can get pressure, and swallows double-teams to free up his teammates.

While some argue that 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler could step up to handle Lotulelei’s responsibilities, Butler’s skill set more mirrors that of Short.

▪  Also: Will veteran defensive end Charles Johnson return to the Panthers next season, after serious back surgery last spring and a four-game suspension? He has a year left on his contract, but Carolina could decide to cut him, or he could be mulling retirement for health reasons. If Johnson is gone, Carolina will need a new defensive end capable of filling a starting role.

Wes Horton and Bryan Cox Jr. are two promising situational up-and-comers on the roster. Rookie Daeshon Hall missed last season while on injured reserve, and his development in his second season is crucial.

On the interior, Carolina has solid depth in Kyle Love.

Free agent possibilities

▪  Peppers: This is a little tongue-in-cheek, but Carolina should absolutely do what it can to re-sign the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.

▪  Justin Ellis (defensive tackle): If Lotulelei goes elsewhere, Carolina will need run blocking support. Ellis is not as dynamic against the pass (only a half-sack in his career), but has been successful against the run.

▪  Ezekiel Ansah (defensive end): He struggled with injury the past two seasons, but can be one of the most talented pass-rushers in the league. He could start opposite Addison (he can play on either side of the line) and stay healthy in Carolina’s well-calculated rotation.

Draft possibilities

▪  Harold Landry, DE, Boston College: Landry plays a little like Addison – not the tallest defensive end around, but has long arms, impressive speed, good flexibility and surprising strength. Where it took Addison a few years to develop into a starter, Landry could rotate well with one of the Panthers’ veterans immediately. It’s early yet, but he’s projected as a first-rounder in this year’s draft.

▪  Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State: A productive defensive end in college, Hubbard is pro-ready and a great fit for Carolina’s 4-3. He’s also feasible at No. 24.

▪  Vita Vea, DT, Washington: A space-eater who excels as a nose tackle but can also be very dynamic, Vea’s play is reminiscient of Lotulelei’s. Could he be the heir apparent if Loutlelei walks? If this were a “Dave Gettleman draft,” a hog mollie such as Vea would all but be assured as a Panthers pick.

The bottom line

Carolina will need to draft an edge-rusher this year, and depending on the decisions regarding Lotulelei, Peppers and Johnson may need to pick up additional help in free agency. They also need depth on the interior.

Other position analyses

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue