CHARLOTTE — The guys on the Panthers' defense clearly think there's something special happening here.
Defensive end Brian Burns was the first to be effusive about their potential during OTAs, saying: "I don't feel like a lot of things can stop us this year."
And while some of that optimism is justified based on the offseason additions, it's also early enough that those who have seen it come together want to wait before making any declarations.
"Here's the deal," veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. "Talent-wise, we have some guys and some good pieces, but it depends on us now. I never really talk about the opponent much, but I think if we do what we're supposed to and come out and work every day, practice is really the most important thing we do. And if they're detailed out here and play hard and physical, then I think everything will fall into place.
"I'm glad they're excited, because they look at each other and say: 'Hey, we can be really good.' And with that belief, you have a chance to be. I'm excited, but we're still not in pads yet. This is PE to me. When we put on the pads and stuff, that will be real football."
As much as Snow wants to maintain a little perspective, even he can admit he likes the way things are pointing for their defense.
There were positive signs late last season, though they were forced to play a bunch of rookies and other young kids. That showed in a number of areas, like third-down percentage. They were next-to-last in the league in that category (49.2 percent conversions), allowing opponents to grind away at them because they couldn't get off the field.
The hope is that adding first-round rookie Jaycee Horn and veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye to Jackson will help stabilize the back of the defense, and Jeremy Chinn looking more and more like a safety should help as well.
As Jackson talked about the improvements, he specifically mentioned the improved pass-rush, and bringing Haason Reddick (of the 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles last year) in to work opposite Burns should give them a little more pop.
Snow acknowledged that those kinds of additions will help, but he's also looking at the work in the spring as a bit of a lab, where he's experimenting with new looks.
"So we've added some stuff, we've thrown some stuff out, and that's the fun part of OTAs," he said. "We're trying some things to see if we can use them in the fall. This is a fun time."
Chinn's the obvious part of that, as he's taking most of his work with the safeties this spring after playing linebacker last year. Snow said they were still going to move him around and use him multiple ways, but adding players such as Reddick and Denzel Perryman at linebacker (and both Snow and head coach Matt Rhule have mentioned Frankie Luvu lately as another versatile piece) gives them the flexibility to let Chinn play a deeper role.
"Last year, we used him from the front back, and this year I think he's going to be more from the back up," Snow said of Chinn. "But a lot of the same things he can do, based on what we're calling.
"For example, to not blitz Jeremy wouldn't be very smart, would it? I mean he's fast and big. We've still got to implement a lot of things, but do it in a different way."
By having versatile players such as Reddick and Burns and Chinn on the field, the Panthers have the opportunity to create some confusion.
"We have a couple of personnel groups we can put on the field and be in a number of styles of defense and give the offense a lot of problems," Snow said. "Because when you bring in a personnel group, they know what front and coverages you're in. But if you can play one group and do a number of different things, it gives you a huge advantage."
He acknowledged the risk in trying to install too much, but that's what June practices are for.
"It's a lot of fun, but I also have to be smart that we don't give them too much, that we don't burden them with assignments so that they can play really fast," Snow said. "That's the catch-22 to it. You're always trying to balance that."
But mostly, Snow's enjoying OTAs for a couple of reasons. One, they didn't have them last season, which left coaches changing tires on a moving car once the regular season started. And the additional personnel gives Snow some new options, so tinkering around on things he can do this year gives him reason to think things can get better.
At the same time, Snow realizes it is still June, and they're far from where they need to be.
"We're encouraged. ... but we're still not playing football, right?" he said. "We don't have pads on, but we're doing some good things moving around.
"I think there's a lot of positive energy when you talk to the players, and there should be. Hopefully we can carry that into camp."
View photos from Thursday's OTA practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.