Originally posted on Fox Sports Carolinas  |  Last updated 1/13/12
This is the first part of 7-part series focusing on the position groups of the Carolina Panthers The Carolina Panthers were nothing short of an adventure along the defensive line in 2011. Head coach Ron Rivera wasn't always sure not only who would start on the interior from week to week, he wasn't sure who would be activated to play. Carolina, which finished 6-10, began the season with rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain at tackle. As was expected, the growing pains with the newbies came with some rough Sundays. At times, the Panthers simply couldn't stop the run, and at other times the pair displayed real progress. Anchoring the line with some stability were ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. But run support isn't just about the guys up front, and that's where the team's heavily depleted linebacker corps compounded the youth issue up front, lending itself to some ugly performances. But there is hope. Fua (11 starts) and McClain (12 starts) got plenty of experience and they should perform more consistently next fall. And their injuries also allowed Carolina to look at some other players, giving the team some interesting decisions to make, and increasing the competition when camp opens next summer. Johnson, who at 25 didn't produce the same numbers he did before receiving a massive new contract, but he was solid. He was in on 40 tackles and registered 9 sacks while missing just one game. "The thing that gets me is that people get caught up in numbers, un numbers, in numbers," Rivera said when asked about Johnson, who got a 30 million signing bonus. "This guy had 15 sacks, this guy But there's another number and other numbers that count and matter. Sure, sacks are great, but when do you get them, are they impact sacks, were they plays that made a difference? "His tackles for losses I think was a good number. I think what he meant playing the six technique, the five technique, or the nine, he played three for us at times He's always on the field for you and he gives you exactly what you want." Hardy, a second-year player out of Ole Miss, started all 16 games after not starting at all in his rookie campaign. He was in on 50 tackles and picked up for sacks. The former Rebel also had 12 pass deflections. Backup ends Thomas Keiser (8 games no starts, 13 tackles, four sacks, an interception) is 22 and will be back in camp fighting for an opportunity for more playing time. Antwan Applewhite, 25, previously spent three season with the Chargers, played in 12 games, starting one, and registered 25 tackles and two sacks, and Eric Norwood (13 games, 11 tackles, 24 career games with no starts) is two years out of South Carolina, and could also be back in camp. Some banter in the Queen City has included the idea of drafting a rush end even though the team is solid on the edges. But it does need to generate more of a pass rush in the future, so that's certainly a possibility. Along the interior, however, Rivera and the brass hope and expect that Fua and McClain will make the necessary progress to keep their jobs. Fua (nine tackles) started the first 11 games and McClain (19 tackles, one sack) the first 12, but both finished the season on injured reserve, where they remain. Andre Nesbitt (12 games, four starts, 23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is only 23 and played well late in the season when the run game improved. Ogemedi Nwagbuo (four games, one start, three tackles) spent the previous two seasons with the Chargers, and at 23 will have an opportunity to come back, but may look at other options. Former N.C. State star DeMario Pressley played one game with the Panthers, registering five tackles, and may get invited back to camp.
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