Last season was a rough one for the secondary, making the offseason an interesting one. Just five teams recorded fewer than the 10 interceptions the Panthers claimed as a team in 2018, and just 10 teams allowed more than the 25 touchdown passes Carolina surrendered.
The team moved on from starting cornerback Daryl Worley and starting cornerback Kurt Coleman before the new league year began, leaving James Bradberry at corner and Mike Adams at safety as the lone returning starters.
1) Who will start alongside Bradberry and Adams?
Shortly after the plan to sign free agent cornerback Bashaud Breeland fell apart due to a failed physical, the Panthers signed free agent Ross Cockrell. The same day, they added veteran safety Da'Norris Searcy to the mix. They're both candidates to start but aren't assured of anything.
Searcy seems better positioned to be on the field for the first snap Week 1 against the Cowboys. Carolina has almost always favored experience at safety. Rookie Rashaan Gaulden wasn't even a full-time safety in college and could be behind Colin Jones in the pecking order early on at least. Cockrell has veteran competition at corner in the form of Kevon Seymour, who took more starting snaps opposite Bradberry in the latter stages of his first season with the Panthers. Seymour might have a leg up in the competition, with rookie Donte Jackson lurking.
View photos of the defensive backs in action during the 2017 season.
2) How involved will the rookies be?
The Panthers invested heavily in the secondary come draft time, grabbing Jackson in the second round and Gaulden in the third. Jackson brings elite speed to the outside, so it's just a question of how fast he can get up to speed on the NFL game – mostly. He's on the small side, so he's going to be a good match in man-to-man coverage across from speed receivers.
Gaulden is a safety with more pass coverage ability than some at his position. He didn't post elite numbers like Jackson in terms of athleticism during the pre-draft process, but his game film shows that it's there. Both rookies have skills that point to pro success, and time will tell if the Panthers can afford to bring them along slowly. As far as starting roles are concerned, Jackson might be on a faster track than Gaulden.
3) What's the plan at nickel corner?
This is perhaps the most intriguing piece of the interchangeable parts the Panthers now possess. Jackson and Gaulden both have nickel ability, and if Cockrell were to win the outside job, Seymour is a nickel option as well. And that's before we even get into the players who are primarily identified as nickels.
Captain Munnerlyn returned to Carolina in 2017 to take over the nickel role he previously excelled in but struggled to find his footing. The Panthers drafted Corn Elder last year with the nickel niche in mind, but his season never got off the ground because of a knee injury. Cole Luke had a good first offseason with the Panthers in 2017 before an ankle injury took him out of the mix. And Jones has always been an adequate fill-in at the spot and as well as other spots.
The bottom line is that it's really hard to say how Carolina will line up in the secondary, but the Panthers' hope is that the wealth of options is a good problem to have that causes problems for the prolific passing games of the NFC South.