Panthers seek continuity at linebacker

Panthers seek continuity at linebacker

Published Jan. 20, 2012 1:12 p.m. ET

This is the second of a seven-part series focusing on the position groups of the Carolina Panthers:

The Carolina Panthers lost 89 games by starters out with injuries this past season, most of which came from the defensive side of the ball. More specifically, most of those missed games were by linebackers, notably stars Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.

Had the team gone through the season with just an average number of injuries, it could have finished better than 6-10. But as it was, much of Ron Rivera's first year at the helm involved the staff making numerous changes at linebacker, starting seven different players at the Sam, Mike and Will positions. As a result, Carolina finished ranked between Nos. 22 and 28 in every important defensive statistical category.

“Continuity was an issue with the defense throughout the year,” Rivera said. “However, I thought we showed progress in the second half of the season and were able to get experience for a lot of players, which should be a benefit in the future.”

The Panthers lost Beason, owner of the four highest single-season tackle totals in franchise history until this past season, and Davis in the first two weeks of the season. For Davis, who usually plays the weak side, it marked another in a series of disappointments.

He missed the final nine games of the 2009 season, the entire 2010 campaign, and then this year's setback.

Beason and Davis are successfully recovering from their surgeries and are expected back next season. If healthy, and given the play of James Anderson this season and the emergence of Jordan Senn as a reliable contributor, the franchise might get significantly better at linebacker without having to draft anyone or many any offseason moves.

Anderson has played all five of his seasons with the Panthers, including starting every game the last two years. He racked up team-record 174 tackles with a pair of interceptions and three fumble recoveries this past fall. The strong side linebacker was responsible for five of the team's 24 takeaways.

Filling in for Beason in the middle was Dan Connor, who started 11 of the 15 games he was available. Connor was in on 75 tackles and helped provide some needed stability. He likely will be back to give the team depth at the position.

After five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Omar Gaither spent this past fall with the Panthers, playing in 10 games and starting four. He was in on 31 tackles. Jason Phillips was claimed off waivers from Baltimore and played four games with Carolina.

Maybe the biggest find on defense Senn, a 5-foot-11, 224-pounder, who is a terrific special-teams player. Pressed into full-time linebacking duties, starting seven games, he was in on 71 tackles and grabbed an interception. Despite his frame, Senn's attitude and play reflected how the team didn't give up and kept fighting.

Even with so many starters at the end of camp down with injuries, the Panthers' defense showed significant improvement over most of the final month of the season. Attitudes like Senn's were somewhat infectious.

He was an example for younger players, such as Jason Williams, who started two games at Will, and even players at other positions.

The Panthers have a lot of needs, and given the health history of Davis, and concerns regarding Beason's injury, acquiring another linebacker might be an option general manager Marty Hurney and Rivera seriously consider. But, if a crystal ball guaranteed them full health, the odds are the Panthers might go to camp with the aforementioned crew.