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Carolina Panthers

Yetur Gross-Matos dives into his move to outside linebacker

Yetur Gross-Matos

CHARLOTTE – Of all the changes new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero's 3-4 base defense has brought to the Panthers' defense, Yetur Gross-Matos has had one of the more notable jumps to make.

Gross-Matos started in all 17 games last year at defensive end, putting up a career-high 54 tackles and tacking on an NFL-leading four fumble recoveries (tied with former Panther Haason Reddick, now at Philadelphia). Across three years, he has totaled 106 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in 43 games, leaving the Panthers' 2020 second-round draft pick with room to grow. 

Gross-Matos is one of the former defensive ends converting to outside linebacker in Evero's scheme, which is a change that'll have him dropping into coverage and reading formations more often than when he was tasked with primarily hovering near the line of scrimmage. It's more responsibility, he said, but it's a challenge he has gladly taken on.

There was a lot to learn during the offseason program, so Evero didn't openly dive into depth charts or personnel groupings. With so much change, it's open across the defense, though when it comes to the role opposite two-time Pro Bowler Brian Burns, there's an especially large decision to be made. 

The teaching period is imperative, and Gross-Matos, whose role in a 4-3 defense has been carved since college, came in with a lot to learn about where he'd fit in the 3-4 base.

Yetur Gross-Matos, Brian Burns

"The guys are doing a lot of different things technically and fundamentally than they've done in the past," Evero said. "We're really just focused in on that. We're not worried about depth charts or anything like that. We're just trying to get better. It really doesn't matter, even if you're a solidified guy like Brian Burns and (Jaycee Horn), or somebody that's trying to fight to make the team, the only thing that we can all control is just getting better and being the best version of ourselves. That's all we're emphasizing and working on. As we work through, those things will sort itself out." 

There's a common thread for many of the younger players on Carolina's roster (and there are many of them) – they've dealt a lot with transition early in their careers. 

Former defensive coordinator Phil Snow outlasted the more tumultuous offensive coordinator changes before last season's interim Al Holcomb came in ahead of Week 6, but Evero will be Gross-Matos' third coordinator in four seasons – and he came in with a completely new role for the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defender. 

"My initial reaction was a breath of fresh air," Gross-Matos said. "I'm excited about it; I know they're excited about it. We can talk about it all day because it's new for all of us. So (we) just try and learn as much as we can from each other's mistakes and what we do well." 

Burns said he liked what he had seen from Gross-Matos, watching during OTAs while he recovered from an ankle procedure. 

"He's doing really well with it," Burns said. "The main jumps I've seen in him is his ability to process because at that position, dealing with coverage drops and all these different terms and checks that we have to deal with, it can be difficult. So being able to compartmentalize your brain to the point where, you know, you're rushing on this play, and then you got to act like a DB on the next play, that's kind of difficult to deal with – especially coming from a guy that's used to 4-3. But he's taking big strides in it."

Ejiro Evero

Evero officially gave new titles to Burns, Marquis Haynes Sr., and Amaré Barno, all formally listed as outside linebackers on the current roster. They added rookie DJ Johnson in the third round of this year's draft and brought on former Boston College defensive coordinator Tem Lukabu to lead the group.

When it comes to the kind of player that fits the vision Lukabu sees in the role, there aren't height and weight requisites; he's looking at film and skill sets, staying flexible while working with the roster, and knowing that the teaching piece is most critical. 

"Above all, you always look for the best football player possible," Lukabu said. "You want the instincts; you want all the natural traits that come with it. There's physical tools that say that certain players will be able to do the job more consistently on a higher level, but there's so many things that go into it. 

"You have an idea of your bottom floor of what type of athlete you want – the size, I think we'd be doing ourselves a disservice if we kept ourselves to specific measurements or words on paper. At the end of the day, are they a good player on film? And can they make plays or not? That's the first and foremost thing that we look for. Then we can coach and teach everything else." 

Gross-Matos believes he has the traits to succeed in his new position and said he'd felt that same level of belief from the coaching staff as he's learned more about dropping back and moving around in open space. It's come naturally, he said.

Tem Lukabu, Yetur Gross-Matos

"Before, I was playing D-line, but I was really taking on a lot of double-teams and just in the trenches," Gross-Matos said. "Now, I'm really able to use my athleticism more, running more, covering. We outside linebackers consider ourselves the alphas of the defense because we can do it all – rush the quarterback, cover guys, look at formations. So it's a bigger responsibility. But, you know, I'm all about it. And it's been fun." 

His coaches and teammates have noticed his work throughout the offseason. Lukabu called Gross-Matos a "grinder" and complimented the work he put into the transition, noting that while it's still a process, he's moving along at a good pace. Evero agreed. 

"He's doing a heck of a job," Evero said. "Just like most of our guys, from the first day we were on the field to now, we've really seen a lot of growth. And he'll continue to work through it. But we're really happy with the progress he's making."

Gross-Matos has room to grow, but he said he also likes what he's doing now. With many of the starting jobs open going into training camp, his role could change, but he felt optimistic about what he's gotten so far. 

"It's refreshing," he said. "I feel like I've been doing stuff that (I) kind of was forcing myself to before, you know, just doing whatever I was asked by my team, my coaches. But this, I'm excited for this. It's much different. So I'm really looking forward to it, and I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do out there."

Nike 11-On Tournament held at the Carolina Panthers Practice Fields and Atrium Health Dome. The teams competing in the tournament were Providence Day (NC), West Charlotte (NC), Reidsville (NC), A.C. Flora (SC), Northwestern (SC), and South Florence (SC). The Providence Day Chargers won the Nike 11-On for the third year in a row!

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