Playbook: DT position should be Panthers’ top priority

As any defensive-minded coach will tell you, a team that can run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense has a good chance to win a football game.

Ron Rivera’s Panthers won six games last year, primarily because of a resurgent ground attack led by rookie quarterback Cam Newton and the rushing duo of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Carolina also lost 10 games, however, largely because its defense was a sieve against the run, allowing nearly 131 yards per game to opposing backs.

The Panthers won’t really be able to improve this situation through free agency — according to NFL.com research, they are projected, as of early February, to be over the salary cap — but they are in luck when it comes to the draft. Up the gut, from the defensive-tackle position to the middle-linebacker position, is where Carolina’s defense is the weakest. With a top-10 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, they’ll have plenty of options when it comes to strengthening those spots on their roster.

Michael Brockers, a defensive tackle from LSU, is rising up draft boards because of his stature (6-foot-6, 306 pounds). His size alone gives offensive lines something to worry about as a run defender, and Brockers is explosive enough to draw attention away from Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy as pass rushers on the edge. The only thing the Panthers would have to be concerned about is a small sample-size when it comes to tape; Brockers, a redshirt sophomore, has played just one (albeit great) season (47 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss).

The Panthers’ other option, Fletcher Cox from Mississippi State, meanwhile, has just one more year of playing time under his belt as a true junior.

The Panthers also have to upgrade the second level of their defense, and must bolster a linebacker group that had a tough time reading its keys and playing behind its line. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly is widely considered the top inside linebacker prospect in the draft; he possesses great instincts and can diagnose plays better than most 20-year-olds. Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict, on the other hand, is facing questions about his undisciplined play, issues that might land him in the second round — where his potential as a violent striker could make him worth the risk.

Later in the draft, the Panthers would also do well to add depth to a defensive-end group that didn’t hold the edge well versus the run. Relentless edge players could be available in the second round, from Marshall’s Vinny Curry to Clemson’s Andre Branch.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — aired Thursday and Friday on NFL Network during the season. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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