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Ask Bryan: Special teams surging


Checking out our offseason acquisitions, it looks like we are building our special teams with standouts. Can we be the best in the league? – Dave in Ladson, S.C.

It's way too early to predict that, but it's not too early to say that the Panthers appear well on their way to improved special teams play in 2015.

Injuries to key contributors impacted the struggles on special teams last season, when the Panthers ranked last in the NFL in opponent punt return average and next to last versus kickoff returns. Still, head coach Ron Rivera recognized a need for a new approach, and he promoted veteran Bruce DeHaven to special teams coordinator and said the team would look to add some "special teams aces."

The return of wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., one of the most prolific return men in league history, was a huge step forward. The Panthers ranked 18th in punt return average last season but struggled to find consistency there and no doubt would have finished lower without Corey Brown's heads-up return for a touchdown.

That's not all. Linebacker Jason Trusnik and safety Kurt Coleman have 109 career special teams tackles between them, and cornerback Teddy Williams, running back Jordan Todman and wide receiver Jarrett Boykin have notable special teams experience. Williams and Todman have elite speed, and Boykin forced two fumbles on special teams for the Green Bay Packers last season.

The group already is shaping up nicely, and expect the Panthers to add some rookies with special teams acumen.

There is such a fine line between draft prospects - even those considered can't miss players can be busts. Given this risk factor it seems having a volume of picks is a safer approach than trading up for a high rated prospect. Where do you think Dave Gettleman's philosophy lies? – Craig in Omaha, Neb.

You make a valid point about the unpredictable nature of draft prospects, but obviously general managers don't initially draft specific players with the idea that they won't pan out. Gettleman will gladly pick nine players in the upcoming NFL Draft with the belief that each one can contribute, but he also won't hesitate to choose quality over quantity if he thinks the appropriate value presents itself.

Just last year, some believed Gettleman should consider packaging picks to move up from No. 28 overall and secure what on paper appeared to be a superior wide receiver like Sammy Watkins or Brandin Cooks. But Gettleman believed in his board – or specifically Kelvin Benjamin – and he was rewarded with a 1,000-yard season from his first round selection. Come the fifth round, Gettleman saw value again in cornerback Bene Benwikere but couldn't see him lasting until the Panthers picked, so he sent Carolina's seventh-round pick to the Vikings to move up 20 spots. Benwikere didn't disappoint, and minus their seventh-round choice the Panthers ended up signing a couple of impact players as undrafted rookies.

It's questionable whether there will be room for nine drafted rookies on the 53-man roster, a good problem to have that could well take care of itself as every pick doesn't always pan out. That being said, Gettleman has an eye for talent that should allow him to hit on most picks, but don't be surprised if he gives up a pick at some point to move up for someone he covets.


Do you think Benwikere has the tools do play corner alongside Josh Norman, or do you think we will draft a cornerback and move him back to his spot at nickel? – Matthew in Charlotte

Moving Benwikere from nickel to the outside after he missed six games with an ankle injury was one of several moves that re-energized the defense over its late-season run in 2014. But it was more about having Benwikere back period than having him paired outside with Norman. At either spot, he would have made a positive impact.

The Panthers will spend the offseason figuring out which secondary combination serves them best, and with the draft still to come, the addition of veteran corner Charles Tillman only adds to their options. Safety Colin Jones played well enough at nickel to allow Benwikere to move outside upon his return, but Norman and a healthy Tillaman on the outside with Benwikere and his impressive ball skills at nickel seems like a good starting point.

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