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Carolina Panthers

Adding Jadeveon Clowney fleshes out defense, and helps bring roster into balance

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CHARLOTTE — Dave Canales keeps saying, "We've got to get the football right."

Dan Morgan keeps saying, "We've got to go prove it on the field now."

And the first-year coach and first-year GM are right. All the important stuff is still very much in front of the Carolina Panthers.

But they're getting closer to start working on those items, after their latest big signing helped fill out the defense and bring the roster into something resembling balance.

Wednesday's addition of three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was the key to it all, though there was plenty to do. They added ballast up front in A'Shawn Robinson and known commodities and ascending young players across the next two levels of the defense in Josey Jewell, D.J. Wonnum, Jordan Fuller, Dane Jackson, and Nick Scott. Throw in a flier on a former first-round pass-rusher (K'Lavon Chaisson) and hanging onto key parts like Troy Hill and Sam Franklin Jr., and it's a lot of work in a little time.

They needed it all, but specifically Clowney.

Without that pass-rusher on the edge (and hope that a second reliable one emerges), the Panthers are in the midst of rebuilding a defense that was forced into bad situations a year ago and was then depleted by defections. After trading Brian Burns and watching Frankie Luvu, Yetur Gross-Matos, Jeremy Chinn, CJ Henderson, and Shaquill Griffin leave in free agency, they needed to restock in a hurry.

Jadeveon Clowney

"It's about the core of our defense getting our football right," Canales said in Orlando earlier this week. "I think as far as the nature of how we ended up just not being able to retain some of our players or the trade we had; I don't really want to go into that too much. But as far as what we're trying to build, I had a chance to really spend time with the defensive staff to learn the system I've been going against for years.

"I just really feel like as a whole we got better in the last couple of weeks. And especially when you add in the offensive side of adding those two guards to give us that ability to run the ball. Now, we're talking about building the type of team that I really dream about having that toughness and balance that we can play deep in the game."

There's an argument to be had about the net talent gain. But as Canales keeps talking about building a "balanced" team, you realize it's more complicated than Burns and Luvu signing bigger contracts than Clowney and Wonnum. Last year's defense had talented players, but they were never in situations to make it matter. As good at rushing the passer as Burns is, he didn't have many chances for sacks late in games last year since the Panthers never led for a second of any fourth quarter, and their opponents didn't need to pass.

So in that regard, adding guards Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis could help the defense, because stabilizing the offense reduces the demands on a defense to play perfectly.

But there's also an argument to be made that the defense could be better in some areas.

The Panthers were 23rd in the league in run defense last year, which isn't great when teams don't have to pass because they're never behind. They were adapting 4-3 personnel to a 3-4 system on the fly, and that became even more complicated when Shaq Thompson suffered a broken leg in Week 2, taking their signal-caller off the field.

Adding a linebacker like Jewell (who played for Evero on Denver), who can also call signals on the mic with coaches, was a significant step (as was Robinson, to keep people from running away from Derrick Brown).

Josey Jewell

"For our defense, I can't think of a more important guy as far as being the green dot, and we've got two guys like that," Canales said. "We've got Shaq, and we've got Josey, who can both handle taking the calling from the coordinator, getting everybody lined up, and really being able to just build off of what Ejiro started last year. There's a lot that happens: the front to the backers, the backers to the DBs, and all these adjustments that we have. It's a beautiful defense, and Josey, with his familiarity with Ejiro from Denver, really allows us to build up the year one instead of kind of starting over. So I'm excited about that.

"Also excited about just what we did up front, Derrick and Shy, but then we added A'Shawn Robinson in the mix. So similar to your run game with your guards, how they kind of protect the running back to the line of scrimmage. It's the same thing for those inside 'backers when you put these big, massive men who are agile inside; it really protects the inside 'backers and allows them to play with the level of comfort and hit tackles on angles. So I love, love what he's about."

Canales acknowledged that as he looked at the 2023 Panthers with a clinical eye, he realized most of the work needed to be done to fix the league's worst offense. But as he sat with Evero and the defensive staff (he splits his days morning and afternoon, concentrating on one side of the ball for half the day), he realized there was work to be done on defense as well.

The rookie head coach has approached this with a certain energy, and he admits the challenge appeals to his desire to learn.

A'Shawn Robinson

"I like to be involved in this, involved with that, curious about things I don't know about," he said. "So being able to sit with the defensive staff for two to four hours just allowed me to take notes, learn, grow, and then really be a part of the personnel side of it. And all those conversations, you know, free agency, really hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn't prepared for that part of it emotionally, like I didn't even coach the guys that ended up going other places. I didn't even coach them. But I felt the emotional connection after watching a full season and talking to our defensive staff, and I wasn't ready for how that was going to hit me from an emotional standpoint."

At the combine, he said that was a benefit, since he wasn't attached at a personal level to any of these players, which might cloud his judgment. It was harder than he realized after watching a year's worth of tape.

"And then once free agency started to happen, live learning how fast it comes at you," Canales said. "And then all of a sudden it's like here goes and then here's Plan B. Now, Plan B is gone. We got to go to see, and it's just trying to fit all the pieces together, which was really challenging. And I felt like I found myself really up early during the week of free agency. I was just kind of like, OK, where do we go from here now? Or up late, just trying to watch the film and watching, OK, these are the guys that are now available, and feeling myself being so emotionally invested. I did not anticipate that happening that way."

He also didn't anticipate a player like Clowney being available two weeks into the market. A three-time Pro Bowler is rarely available this time of year because the pass-rusher market went fast in the opening days of the market.

So, while Canales said Tuesday he had confidence in the outside linebackers on hand, he also acknowledged it was far from a finished product.

Make no mistake, getting Clowney in was a big part of feeling more comfortable about the work that's been done. He's capable of pass-rush numbers (9.5 sacks last year at age 31), but at 266 pounds, he gives them a solid run-stopper on the edge as well.

DJ Wonnum

But since Evero landed here last year, with senior defensive assistant Dom Capers in tow, they acknowledged that for their system to work best, they needed more than one pass-rusher. When Capers started here as head coach in 1995, they had an in-his-prime star in Lamar Lathon and journeyman Darion Conner on the other side. Those two combined for 15.0 sacks, and the Panthers had a respectable top-10 defense for the expansion team.

The following year, when they added future Hall of Famer Kevin Greene, he and Lathon combined for 28.0 sacks; they ranked second in the league in defense and went to the NFC Championship Game in their second year.

Clowney and Wonnum each had career years, and combined for 17.5 sacks in 2023, so they are not Greene and Lathon. They don't need to be. But they may offer more of a balanced attack than the Panthers had last year, when Burns, Luvu, and Gross-Matos combined for 18.0, and no one else on the roster had more than Derrick Brown's 2.0.

The work on defense isn't finished; it can't be finished. They're still thin at the corner, and the depth across the board will be a constant question. There are still too many unknowns. But getting Clowney on board was a big step toward making things more stable and being able to work on getting the football right without worrying about filling glaring needs on draft weekend. You never want to draft for need, and now they don't have to.

They have a big job ahead of them. But they've already done a lot of work, and Morgan credited the planning they did with executive vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis, Canales, and the coaching staff to pull this off in a short amount of time.

"I feel good about our execution, our alignment, and our plan in the building," Morgan said. "I thought it was really good, the communication just between myself, the defensive staff and the offensive staff. Just kind of being on the same page with what we want from a player perspective and then, having that plan and then myself along with Brandt attacking that plan and executing. So, feel really good about it. . . .

"We want to build this roster to where we have a lot of depth and a lot of competition, and that's going to be the premise of our program."

The Carolina Panthers were busy in free agency this week, signing multiple players on both sides of the ball. The first wave arrived on Thursday and Friday, getting a tour of Bank of America Stadium, meeting coaches, teammates and taking in their new home.

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