Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott says he thinks of building a team like a big bucket of rocks.
There are pebbles, the undrafted free agents and journeymen. The intermediate-sized rocks represent your veterans and solid draft picks. Finally, there are the boulders, which represent Pro Bowl-level players.
There are no pebbles in the Panthers’ starting front seven. One of the most dominant in the NFL last season, the group remains intact for a second-straight year, much to the pleasure of McDermott.
“It is nice, and you don’t find that every day in the modern day NFL with the salary cap,” McDermott said. “Part of coaching is knowing your personnel, and I know those guys. I know what they bring to the table, I know what roles they need to play, and that’s part of building a team. Not that I can ignore that position, but I know those guys and their personalities.”
The projected starting front seven is comprised of defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, tackles Star Lotulelei and Colin Cole and linebackers Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn.
A season ago, the Panthers had the second-best defense in the league behind Super Bowl champion Seattle. The Panthers allowed 301.3 yards per game and 15.1 points per contest. Their 86.9 rushing yards allowed was also second in the league, behind Arizona.
Carolina’s 60 sacks were the most in the NFL in 2006, and some among the group have proclaimed they can be the top defense in the league and break the NFL sack record of 72.
But in the first three exhibitions, they’ve hardly looked like they did last season. The Panthers had four sacks in the first half of the three exhibitions, and allowed 32 points.
“A lot of things I talk about is consistency,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s to play consistent, to shut the run down consistently, to put pressure on the quarterback consistently, and we haven’t done that. As we get better and better and improve on those things, we’ll get that taken care of.
“As they go along as a group, the longer they stay and play together, the better they’ll be.”
The biggest boulder is middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, he stymied the Patriots on Aug. 22 during the third exhibition. The Patriots produced just 39 yards and three points when Kuechly led the defense. But on a tight snap count of 15, Kuechly came out of the game, and the defense seemingly went with him.
Tom Brady went 17-of-21 for 204 yards and two touchdowns as he turned a 3-0 lead when Kuechly exited into a 20-0 gap by midway through the third quarter.
Kuechly said that’s no indication of what the front seven is like without him, though.
“I think we’re obviously way better than that,” Kuechly said. “I think Tom Brady got into a little bit of a groove there at the end of the first half and that’s kind of what makes him so good is his ability to make corrections on the sideline or see what we’re in.
“It isn’t what they did to us, it’s what we did to ourselves. If we were out of position or not communicating well, it wasn’t so much what they did to us. Yes, they have good players and good schemes, but we have to do a better job at our individual job.”
Said McDermott: “That’s a testament to Luke that he makes people around him better. That’s what leaders and great players do. He pulls everyone up to his level compared to him playing down to some others. But nonetheless, it’s concerning any time people can do what they did, and we’ve got to continue to get better.”
Carolina’s front seven didn’t happen overnight. Of the Panthers’ projected starters along the front seven, five (Kuechly, Johnson, Hardy, Lotulelei and Davis) were drafted and two (Cole and Blackburn) were veteran free agents.
Of the five drafted players, Davis is the oldest at 31. He’s the first player to come back from three ACL reconstructive surgeries to the same knee, and last year he was one of the most consistent players on the team.
His 123 tackles, seven passes defensed, four sacks and two interceptions were all career highs.
And while Davis has grown used to Pro Bowl snubs, he’s not undervalued by McDermott.
“That guy’s a hidden gem,” said McDermott, who joined the Panthers in 2011 after a two-year run as Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator. “He’s one of the reasons why I decided to come here. How do you not know Thomas Davis? I was a secondary coach when he was a safety coming out (of Georgia).
“When you turn the film on when (the Eagles) watched Carolina over the years, he was flying around like he had in college. He was one of the reasons I decided to come here, among others.”
Davis and Kuechly are both wear a captain’s patch. Though he’s not nearly as vocal as those two, Charles Johnson is considered by his coaches and teammates as the leader of the defensive line.
Johnson, an eight-year veteran, is the team’s highest-paid player after signing a six-year, $76 million deal in 2011. He’s never been very vocal, and the money didn’t change that.
“When I signed the contract I wasn’t thinking about anything like that,” Johnson said. “I was thinking about coming out and earning my worth. I just like playing at a high level, and you play at a high level, you get paid at a high level. I like doing both so I just keep grinding and keep going.
“Like anything, you get more comfortable with a group and guys look up to you. When you go around and don’t say anything, guys think something is wrong with you. But it’s just me. I’d rather show by example, show it on the field by making plays. If I have to be vocal I will.”
McDermott doesn’t care. He has one of the best front sevens in the league, they’re together again while Carolina’s other position groups have gone through overhauls big and small.
He doesn’t take this bucket of rocks for granted.
“I’ve seen it the other way too,” McDermott said. “I know it’s a combination, to me, of personnel and our personnel department, it’s a combination of our coaches developing these players and I just try to do my best to put them in position to be successful at the same time. It’s a team effort in putting that thing together.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9