What does Jaycee Horn’s absence mean for Panthers defense?

The great exhilaration of Saturday’s upset win over the Detroit Lions was met with a great loss for the Carolina Panthers. And now, that loss could linger.

On Monday, we learned that cornerback Jaycee Horn was to undergo surgery on his broken left wrist—an injury he sustained in the fourth quarter of the Week 16 triumph. The budding star exited the game after a tackle of Lions wideout Josh Reynolds and was seen wearing a cast and sling in the locker room afterwards.

Luckily, that procedure was a successful one—as interim head coach Steve Wilks told reporters on Wednesday that the first step of Horn’s recovery “went well.” Now, the team will reevaluate the 23-year-old’s health in 10 to 12 days, leaving the door open for a Week 18 return and/or a potential playoff appearance.

But, what if he’s not back?

Horn has been a huge part of the Panthers’ defensive success this year—grading out as one of, if not the very best cornerback in the entire league. Entering that Christmas Eve matchup, the second-year defender had allowed the fewest receptions (23), the fewest receiving yards (216) and the lowest passer rating (39.4) amongst all starting corners.

Unfortunately, guys like this don’t grow on trees . . . or out in the open market. So, even in the wake of the Josh Norman signing, there will undoubtedly be a dip in production against the pass and the run given how effective Horn was at both.

With a very real shot at an NFC South title, the Panthers must not allow this injury to cause an unraveling of the entire unit. Sunday’s showdown with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will mark a big step-up moment for both CJ Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr.—who have had their respective struggles this year.

Norman will also likely see snaps immediately given his history with Wilks and understanding of this style of defense. Expectations, however, must be kept in check—because we’re not going to see the 2015 First-team All-Pro version of The Dark Knight on that field. The team can only hope to get a fraction of that, in the form of a solid veteran who can get his legs under himself early and help younger players adapt.

If the cornerback depth behind Horn can refrain from playing out and trust in the scheme they are in, this defense still has enough talent to ride into the playoffs. While the challenge ahead for the squad as a whole certainly seems cumbersome, there is little doubt coach Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb will develop a way to keep this train on the tracks.

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Story originally appeared on Panthers Wire