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Countdown to training camp: Defensive line


As the Panthers prepare for training camp, we're going to take a position-by-position look at what to expect when they get to Spartanburg. Today we're taking a look at the defensive line.

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers are well-stocked with young defensive linemen.

The hope is that a few veteran additions this offseason can help make it the kind of line they can build a contending defense upon.

The core of draft picks provides the hope of long-term stability they're looking for, but the line was stretched to its limit last year after some roster turnover and injuries hit. Now, they're deeper and a year more experienced, with hopes of building something better.

They have some ascending players at the top of the depth chart, with defensive end Brian Burns on the verge of becoming a cornerstone pass-rusher.

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown hasn't put up big stats yet, but he also showed in a promising rookie season that he has the ability to impact a game from inside.

They needed to restock this offseason after releasing Kawann Short after two injury-filled seasons which saw the former Pro Bowler play in just five games. They also parted ways with backups Efe Obada and Zach Kerr, making the need for reinforcements acute.

So they bought in bulk, signing former Titans defensive tackle DaQuan Jones in free agency, to bolster two more draft picks.

It's an interesting mix of players, and camp will provide a glimpse of how they'll fit together.

What's new: Morgan Fox was among their first wave of free agent signings, and the former Rams lineman adds some of the versatility Obada displayed in the past. Fox can play inside on passing downs, and had 6.0 sacks for the Rams last year playing next to some guy named Aaron Donald. If he can replicate that pop next to Brown on passing downs, he could be an upgrade.

The addition of Jones later in free agency didn't get as much attention, but could have even more impact. He's the kind of steady and reliable veteran the young group needed, and his recent playoff experience makes him even more valuable to players who haven't been there. He's also the kind of big-body who can chew up blocks, and could allow Brown more room to work.

The Panthers used fifth- and seventh-round picks on defensive tackles Daviyon Nixon and Phil Hoskins, hoping to add to their interior depth. It's too soon to know what kind of role they can create for themselves, but Nixon in particular has the kind of athleticism to make him intriguing to watch in camp.

Brian Burns

What's old: Old is a relative term, but around here, it can almost be anyone with more than two years of service.

That's where the 23-year-old Burns comes in (he's actually younger than some of last year's draft picks). He had 9.0 sacks last year, and had enough near-misses to give him the appearance of a consistent double-digit sack guy. His ability to bend and accelerate makes up for his lack of prototypical size, and makes him a dangerous rusher.

When the Panthers used their first two picks in an all-defense draft on Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos last year, it underscored how imperative it was to rebuild the line. Brown played solidly, if perhaps too many snaps last year. Gross-Matos was hampered by some injuries, but gained some experience and showed signs of competence.

What we know: They got some quality snaps from backups Marquis Haynes Sr. and Bravvion Roy last year.

Haynes, a 2018 fourth-rounder, finished last year with 4.0 sacks, which was third-most on the team.

Roy was a steady player against the run as a rookie, with the seventh-round pick from Baylor filling in well out of need. But he's stout and he works hard (he's generally one of the first players onto the practice field every day), which will make him hard to displace.

What we don't: Christian Miller goes to camp as an unknown commodity to this staff.

The 2019 fourth-rounder opted out of last season over concerns about COVID-19, so these coaches hadn't worked with him until this spring.

He showed some pop as a pass-rusher at Alabama, and anyone who can get to the passer at all is going to have a chance to hang around. Seeing where he fits into the defense, if at all, will be worth watching over the next month.

What to expect: The Panthers' line had nowhere to go but up last season, and was often stretched to ridiculous extremes over the course of 2020.

But with another offseason of building on defense, they're actually in position to be a relative strength of a new-look defense, if the young players continue on their current trajectories.

Carolina returns to training camp at Wofford in 2021 after practicing in Charlotte in 2020. View photos of several current Panthers veterans from the 2019 training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.

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