OFFSEASON REVIEW: CAROLINA PANTHERS

By Thomas Willoughby

As one season ends and another one begins, 32 NFL franchises put 2020 firmly in the rear view mirror and gear up for another tilt at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The hard work starts here, and for many has already begun; general managers and head coaches are finalising their staff and looking ahead to turning their rosters into potential challengers.

In this series we identify the key components that go into building a winning team, and what each franchise needs to do to be in the mix come the playoffs next January. We continue our team by team offseason review with a look at the Carolina Panthers.

2020 Recap

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Considering they finished the season 5-11, it feels strange to suggest the 2020 Carolina Panthers were a far better outfit than we could have expected. They went into 2020 having moved on from a head coach/quarterback pairing that had been in place for nearly a decade, opting for a complete shift under Matt Rhule. It was a year that was widely considered to be one of rebuild. What we got was a glimpse into the future.

The Panthers made waves in the 2020 draft when they spent all seven of their picks on defensive players. You’d be hard pressed to argue that the defense didn’t need that help. In 2019, only the Miami Dolphins conceded more points than they. In 2020, under the watchful eye of Rhule and company, they elevated themselves to 18th overall. That’s quite the jump.

The real winner in 2020, however, was Joe Brady. Having overseen the best offense in college football history as LSU’s 2019 offensive coordinator, Brady made the switch to the professional game with ease. A series of injuries to key contributors didn’t stop Brady’s offense scoring more than 20 points in all but 5 games. Yes, they only ranked 21st in overall offense, but that was achieved without Christian McCaffrey for long stretches, and PJ Walker for more than a few snaps. There’s a reason Joe Brady interviewed for head coaching gigs in January.

2020 was a year of transition for an organisation trying to reinvent itself. There were more positive than negatives, ultimately, and that should put them in good stead heading into 2021 and beyond.

Staff Changes

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Panthers owner, David Tepper, understands that it will take time to get back to the top. The Carolina Panthers coaching set up heads into 2021 largely in the same situation they were in heading out of 2020. There is one major casualty, however, and that can be found in the general manager position.

Marty Hurney, who held the position of general manager from 2002 and 2012, AND 2017 to 2020, has been relieved of his duties once again. Stepping in is long time Seattle Seahawks executive Scott Fitterer. Fitterer joined the Seahawks in 2011 as the director of college scouting, working his way up to vice president of football operations in 2020.

The hiring of Fitterer is, presumably, a further attempt to reinvent the culture in Carolina. Only a handful of teams have been as successful as the Seattle Seahawks over the past decade, so theirs is a blueprint worth following. Whether Fitterer is capable of successfully implementing that remains to be seen, of course.

State Of The Roster

The Carolina Panthers are very much a work in progress. Yes, they have some “best in class” talents in certain positions (mainly Christian McCaffrey), but that doesn’t mean they’re a one-man team. D.J. Moore posted his best season in 2020, and another season with Brady should only see his production continue to increase.¬† With Robby Anderson on the other side, the Panthers have a genuinely good pair of receivers, more than capable of putting up points.

The defense, as previously mentioned, underwent something of an overhaul in 2020, and is better for it. Derrick Brown and Brian Burns are as solid as you’re likely to find across a defensive line, and you can only imagine what another season what another season of growth can do to the young pieces across the defense as a whole.

That isn’t to say the Panthers aren’t in need of a talent injection, however. There remains serious question marks regarding the quarterback position, and there needs to be a proper look at the offensive line as well. There are some building blocks already in Carolina, but the job is far from done in terms of roster construction.

Salary Cap & Cut Candidates

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As you tend to find with teams in transition, the Panthers are in a healthy way, financially. They’re projected to be $27.5m in the positive, with a good number of their stars locked down for the foreseeable future. It’s fair to say they are likely to be very active in the early blows of free agency.

Should they wish to open up a little more room under the cap, there would be a case to be made for Teddy Bridgewater’s release. Bridgewater has been an incredible story since his unlikely recovery from a serious knee injury in 2016. He certainly showed himself capable of running Brady’s offense effectively. There remains question marks over his durability, however, having missed game time in 2020. And then there’s the question of his general ability. 2020 wasn’t horrible, but it certainly wasn’t spectacular.

The Panthers stand to save $2.9m should they opt to trade or release Bridgewater. He is the most likely to be moved on, should the Panthers find a significant upgrade at the position.

Free Agents

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The Panthers have seventeen names hitting free agency, though it’s difficult to imagine a lot of those names being allowed to test the market. The likes of Michael Schofield, Russell Okong, and Taylor Morton can all expect to be offered an extension, as the Panthers look to keep their offensive line in tact heading into 2021.

Arguably the Panthers biggest name hitting free agency is Curtis Samuel. Samuel, like his colleagues in the Panthers receivers room, had his best season in 2020. That said, he (potentially) leaves Carolina without a 1000 yard season to his name. Samuel is someone versatile enough that you can line him up in 3 or 4 different positions, and he’d make an impact. But that versatility means he’s not really great at one thing. I’m sure Carolina would love to keep him around, but it’s difficult to imagine they’d be willing to extend an offer that would match what he wants. Expect him to be suiting up elsewhere in 2021.

A word on Efe Obada, who goes in 2021 as a restricted free agent. Britain’s finest ended 2020 with a career-high 5.5 sacks, cementing himself as a fantastic contributor in Carolina. Expect the Panthers to look to keep him around in 2021, either tendering him or offering him a one/two year deal outright.

Team Needs

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The Panthers are heading in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean they’re there, yet. As has been mentioned on a number of occasions, they could stand to upgrade at quarterback. They’ve already attempted to fill that position, having made an offer to Detroit for Matthew Stafford before his move to LA. With some circles suggesting the Panthers will heavily pursue¬†wantaway Texan DeShaun Watson, expect there to be a new face under center in Carolina come September.

Away from the quarterback, the Panthers still need bolstering at cornerback, if for no other reason than to keep up with their divisional rivals. There’s talent there already, with Donte Jackson proving to be something of a ballhawk in his short career so far. You need more than just him to stop Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Michael Thomas, Mike Evans, Chris Goodwin, and Antonio Brown, however. They would be wise to further strengthen there.

Thomas Willoughby

NFL ANALYST & SOCIAL MEDIA

THOMAS IS A WRITER AND THE SOCIAL MEDIA CONTENT PROVIDER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. YOU CAN FIND HIM @WILLO290592 ON TWITTER

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