The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player (rookies don’t count) for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the Carolina Panthers, that player is defensive end Frank Alexander.
The Panthers were an especially hard team to do this for. Most potential breakout players I write about are top-3 round picks in the 2010-2012 drafts. Due to trades, the Panthers have only had 8 of those in those 3 years, including 4 in the first 2 rounds. Among those players, Terrell McClain is already off the roster, Armanti Edwards and Sione Fua could easily follow this August, and Jimmy Clausen is the 3rd string quarterback.
Only 4 are roster locks and of those 4, two (Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly) won Rookie of the Year in their first year in the league, making them not a candidate here. The other two are Amini Silatolu, who graded out as one of the worst guards in the league last year and is not guaranteed a starting job, and Brandon LaFell, a marginally talented #2 receiver who lacks the explosiveness to ever breakout as a top tier receiver.
The Panthers have found late round gems like Greg Hardy recently, but Hardy, last year’s potential breakout candidate for the Panthers, is coming off a very impressive 13 sack season and is not eligible for this. If you go back to the 2009 draft, only Captain Munnerlyn, a 5-8 cornerback who they found in the 7th round, remains a starter and I don’t think he has the physical tools to breakout as anything more than a solid cover cornerback.
That leaves me, by process of elimination, with Frank Alexander. There are plenty of reasons why Alexander isn’t an ideal fit here. As a rookie, he was very poor against the run. Despite playing very limited run snaps as a nickel rusher, 197, he graded out 57th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends against the run. Even if he were to improve his run play, he still wouldn’t be able to earn a starting job, barring injury, because he’s stuck 3rd on the depth chart behind the duo of Hardy and Charles Johnson who combined for 27 sacks last season. The most Alexander can hope to be is an incredibly efficient nickel rusher, but I have reason to believe that’s what he’ll become.
Alexander may have only had 3 sacks as a rookie, but he also had 6 hits and 26 hurries on 360 pass rush snaps, an impressive rate of 9.7%. He could conceivably double his sack total in 2013 without even playing that much better, but going into his 2nd year in the league, he has a good chance to improve. He fell to the 4th round because of a heart ailment, but I graded him out as a 2nd rounder on tape and it’s very possible that teams around the league, including the Panthers who traded up for him, did the same purely on tape.
He’s got plenty of talent and doesn’t turn 24 until December. Both Johnson and Hardy have the size to move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs, allowing the Panthers to get a 3rd defensive end like Alexander on the field frequently. He’s also got a very good chance to be part of the reason why the Panthers could improve on their 43 sacks from 2012 and emerge as one of the better pass rushing teams in the NFL, with Hardy, Johnson, Alexander, and their two rookie defensive tackles, Star Lotulelei (1st round) and Kawaan Short (2nd round).