From the first days of training camp, Panthers defensive end Wes Horton was convinced he was watching the early stages of what could become a great defense.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was back from a concussion that sidelined him for the final six games in 2016, and took his customary spot alongside veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, another Pro Bowler.
The newly minted Kawann Short was again anchoring the interior of the defensive line after signing a five-year, $80.5 million contract. Edge rusher Mario Addison also was rewarded with a contract extension after putting up a career year in '16.
And of course there was the man they call Pepp -- the agile and ageless defensive end Julius Peppers, whose return to his original team on a one-year deal was celebrated in sports bars across the Carolinas, as well as in the Panthers' locker room.
More than three months later, Carolina (6-3) enters Monday night's game against Miami (4-4) with the NFL's No. 1 defense, allowing 274.1 yards a game.
The Panthers are second in sacks (29), second against the run (78.4 yards allowed per game) and fourth in scoring defense (17.6 points per game).
Carolina has never finished No. 1 in total defense. The closest the Panthers came was in 2013 and 2002, when they were second in the league defensively.
But this group has the look of a championship-caliber defense.
"I saw it in training camp, to be honest with you," Horton said. "The way guys were flying around the ball. The veterans that we brought in in free agency. The camaraderie that we've had. The leadership from those free agents."
Dolphins head coach Adam Gase said the Panthers' defense lives up to its billing.
"Their ranking pretty much tells a lot of the story. It's probably the best defense that we've played this year so far," Gase said. "The talent level up front is as good as you can get. I think the linebackers -- I don't think in our two years here we've ever played a group like this before."
(c)2017 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)
Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.