Mason Thompson | January 14th, 2020
The Carolina Panthers were poised to make a deep playoff run in the 2019 season. Cam Newton finally seemed to be fully healthy and with a supporting cast consisting of Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and the returning Greg Olsen, the offense had a ton of potential. Luke Kuechly finally seemed to have some help on defense with the drafting of Brian Burns and the signing of Gerald McCoy.
The Panthers started 0-2, including a hard to watch loss against the Buccaneers where Newton clearly wasn’t healthy. He was replaced by Kyle Allen who would help the team win five of their next six to get to 5-3. Then, teams started keying in more on McCaffrey, forcing Allen to throw resulting in some bad decisions. On December 3rd, Head Coach Ron Rivera was fired following a loss to the Redskins. They would crumble to finish 5-11, earning a top-ten pick in April’s draft. Newton’s future with the organization is in question as a new coach, former Temple, and Baylor coach, Matt Rhule has stepped in.
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What Went Right
McCaffrey played at an MVP level the whole year. He rushed 287 times for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns while also recording 116 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. He is a complete back and would’ve been MVP had it not been for Lamar Jackson.
Moore and Samuel are providing whoever plays quarterback with two reliable targets. Moore caught 87 passes for 1,175 yards, and four touchdowns, while Samuel caught 54 passes for 627 yards and six touchdowns. The two should provide a formidable duo for years to come.
First-round pick, Burns proved to be a steal this year. The 16th overall selection finished with 7.5 sacks, fourth among rookies. The Panthers need to find leaders on defense besides Kuechly and they look to have found one in Burns.
What Went Wrong
Newton was never healthy and the team rolled him out and he got worse as the games went on. The Panthers offensive line hasn’t been great throughout his tenure as the quarterback but the offensive line was the worst it has ever been. Carolina had the most sacks allowed by any team in the league this year.
The organization might’ve waited too long to play Will Grier as the starter. They waited until week 17 against the Colts to throw Grier to the wolves where he would eventually throw three interceptions. He still has a ton of potential but with the Newton situation, it will be interesting to see what the Panthers elect to do this offseason at the quarterback position.
The Panthers ranked last in rush defense last year despite having arguably the best linebacker in football in Kuechly. Carolina is set to lose tons of talent on their defensive line this offseason but has a top ten pick in the first round to gain back some of that talent.
Outlook for the Offseason
Carolina has the tenth-least amount of cap space heading into the offseason, as they will have roughly $25 million in cap space. Newton will be a source of more money if he were to be traded in the next few months. The Panthers don’t have many needs across the board but are potentially going to lose multiple starters on the defensive line.
The Team’s Free Agents
The Panthers could potentially lose a lot on their defensive front. McCoy, Vernon Butler, Kyle Love, Wes Horton, and Stacy McGee are all free agents. McCoy is the only one I could see the team potentially wanting to re-sign for their future. Butler has been a bust since being selected in the first round.
James Bradberry should be the team’s number one priority. He has been solid ever since being a day one starter after being selected in the second round of the 2016 draft. The Panthers also don’t have much reliable depth behind him and Donte Jackson.
Mario Addison is aging but he is also the Panthers number one pass rusher until Burns reaches his full potential. He has had over nine sacks every year since 2015.
Tre Boston should also be re-signed. The safety market has deteriorated in recent years, but Boston thrives in multiple schemes as he performs well when he is in coverage and is tasked to tackle.
The Panthers, if they were to cut Newton outright, would save over $19 million in cap space. He is entering the final year of his deal. I would expect Carolina to try and have him play on the current figure of his deal, where he ranks 15th in terms of quarterback salary.
Open Market Free Agents
The quarterback spot is the main focus of this offseason. The Panthers should try to snag Teddy Bridgewater if at all possible. He will have a large market but Carolina seems like a great destination. If Newton is cut or traded, I’d expect Carolina to offer Bridgewater something he can’t deny.
The Panthers don’t have a second option outside of McCaffrey. He has played over 90 percent of the snaps the past two years so they will need someone to take any sort of load off of him. Chris Thompson, Ty Montgomery, and Matt Brieda all offer similar skillsets to McCaffrey that could easily step right in and provide a spark.
D.J. Humphries would be a solid addition to an offensive line that allowed the most sacks in the league this year. While Dante Fowler, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Kyler Fackrell are all second-tier edge rushers that would offer immense upside opposite of Burns.
Projecting the NFL Draft
The Panthers are picking in the top ten, meaning they will have the option of picking the best player available, a position of need or trading up or down. I don’t see the Panthers trading up unless they trade Newton and don’t get Bridgewater in free agency.
Round 1, Pick 8: Derrick Brown, IDL, Auburn
The Panthers desperately need help on the defensive line after being the worst-ranked run defense last year. Not only does Brown help in that regard, but he can also rush the passer. He is a top-five talent in the draft this year and would’ve been selected early last year had he come out.
Round 2, Pick 40: Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
Even if the Panthers elect to keep Newton, they have to think of the future and Newton might not be in those plans. Fromm doesn’t have the biggest arm but he is very accurate and will offer a developmental project for Rhule.
Round 3, Pick 72: Cornerback
The Panthers have no depth behind Jackson and Bradberry. This class has a lot of depth at cornerback on the second day and one should be available for the picking when Carolina wants to select one.
Carolina is in a very tough spot. They could completely overhaul the quarterback position. The offense has a ton of playmakers but the offensive line needs to step up. It will be an interesting year for sure but they are also in a tough division and the tougher conference. I don’t expect Carolina to make the playoffs next year with how much change there is expected to be but they could play spoiler late.
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