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2014’s Other Starting DE Wants to Make a Bigger Impression

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[/vc_raw_html][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/6″][gap][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner]He may be an answer to a good trivia question one day.

Q: Who started 15 games for the Panthers in place of Greg Hardy a season after Hardy’s 15-sack season?

A: Wes Horton.

It’s tough replacing a Pro Bowl pass rusher. It’s even tougher when you’re a run-stopping defensive end. Horton wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t as noticeable.

Of Carolina’s full-time ends, Horton’s three sacks were the fewest. But he was the only one in the group who was given a positive rating against the run by Pro Football Focus. For comparison sake, while Horton paced the ends with a 0.9, rookie Kony Ealy finished with a score of -9.7.

“I feel like my run-stopping ability is there. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job for the most part in training camp,” Horton said Monday. “The biggest part of my game that I’m working on is being a more consistent as a pass rusher.”

The Panthers sure could use the help. With Charles Johnson nursing a sore calf and a torn Achilles’ taking Frank Alexander out of the equation, the pass rush has gone from a strength to a big question mark.

If he hadn’t missed 14 games with a suspension last year, Alexander might have been the guy who replaced Hardy. And despite a nondescript camp and preseason opener, coaches still hoped Alexander would emerge as a second starter. Now his season-ending injury is a chance for Horton. It just stinks the door had to open the way it did.

“Even though [Alexander] made some decisions he probably shouldn’t have made last year, he still stuck with it and worked his tail off. All last year and this offseason he put in the work,” Horton said. “He earned himself a starting spot, and to see him go down is terrible.”

A quarter after Alexander was carted off, Horton finally made himself noticed. He beat fellow USC product Aundrey Walker around the right side en route to a strip sack of Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore.

Up in the stands, fans celebrated. Some by themselves, even:[vc_row_inner no_margin=”true”][vc_column_inner width=”1/6″][gap][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”2/3″][vc_raw_html]

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[/vc_raw_html][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/6″][gap][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner]When asked about Horton’s push to become a more well-rounded player, coach Ron Rivera said of his third-year end:

“That’s what we’re looking for. We don’t expect him to get [a strip-sack] every week. But to have that on occasion would be outstanding. He’s improved every year he’s been here for us.

“He’s just got to continue to grow and continue to be effective, and when he gets those opportunities, he has to take advantage.’’

In the NFL, even when doors are open, obstacles tend to pop in the way. Horton jammed a knuckle Saturday night, an injury that likely feels as painful as it sounds. While it flared up during Monday’s practice, he stayed in to take all his reps at the No. 1 spot on the left side.

It’s only a temporary hold until Johnson comes back, but it’s also another opportunity to be more than just the guy who started the year Greg Hardy was suspended.

“There were a ton of rushes against Miami in the first quarter where I was getting stalled, and I could have rushed a little bit better,” Horton said. “But that definitely gave me a little confidence getting that sack.

“I don’t want to be labeled as a first- and second-down guy.”[line][vc_raw_html]

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