NFL: New leaders emerge for Panthers defense
By Mike Cranston
SPARTANBURG, S.C. ó When the Carolina Panthers opened training camp last year, rookie Jon Beason skipped workouts in a contract dispute, safety Chris Harris played for the Chicago Bears and Damione Lewis was a backup defensive tackle.
When the team took the field for Tuesday’s workout, the three players were clearly the leaders at their position, barking instructions, encouraging teammates and leading drills.
After the retirement of veterans Mike Minter, Mike Rucker and Dan Morgan in the past 12 months, Beason, Harris and Lewis have become the face of Carolina’s new-look, young defense.
“We’re the most vocal guys, but the defense is really new,” Beason said Tuesday. “There are a lot of new faces. I think we enjoy each other, we trust each other and we know we could be as good as we want to. I think everyone has taken that challenge.”
The 23-year-old Beason overcame missing the first eight days of camp last year to set a team-record 160 tackles. Moving to middle linebacker after Morgan’s season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury, he quickly earned the respect of his teammates. His leadership role was cemented late in the season when coach John Fox asked him to give the pregame speech before a game against Dallas.
Beason responded with a stirring talk about his love for the game and the significance of facing the storied Cowboys.
“Since I have been in the league, and that’s seven years, he gave a speech from a player or a coach I have never heard before,” cornerback Ken Lucas said. “It’s one of those Martin Luther King Jr. type of speeches when he got done. It had that feel. Everybody looked at each other like man, that was a powerful speech. He gives that type of energy. He’s a natural leader.”
The 25-year-old Harris, acquired for a fifth-round draft pick midway through training camp last year, led the NFL with eight forced fumbles while directing Carolina’s secondary. The safety was rewarded with a five-year, $13.3 million deal in the offseason. He came to camp intent on a larger role.
“I’ve been a leader on every team I’ve been a part of,” Harris said. “You need a leader back there in the secondary. Every position group, you need a leader. I’m trying to take on that role.”
The 30-year-old Lewis, a former first-round pick of St. Louis, became a starter when the Panthers traded three-time Pro Bowl pick Kris Jenkins in February. Lewis, whose three sacks topped the dismal 2007 team, has clearly been the most vocal on the defensive line.
“You hear a lot more enthusiasm and guys being a lot more energetic on the field,” Lewis said. “Guys are talking more. I think guys are relaxing.”
The transformation of the defense comes after the Panthers lost a combined 26 years of experience with the departures of Minter, Rucker and Morgan. Beason said it was clear they left a leadership void.
“This year I want to do my job, do it well and lead by example,” Beason said. “Hopefully, the defense follows me.”
With a much younger lineup, Fox has simplified the defense, allowing players to act more on instinct.
“You’ve got to have guys step in,” Fox said. “That’s the landscape in this league now. There is just more turnover. Back a long time ago, you had guys for their whole careers, and it’s a little bit more of a junior college-college rotation now as far as people coming through with all of the changes in free agency.
“So it makes it a little bit more difficult. But you need to find those guys, identify them as part of your evaluation and develop them.”
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