Making Sense of a Lost Carolina Panthers Season

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OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 27: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders during their NFL game on November 27, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

So it’s technically not over. Technically. But at 4-7, three games out and in the division and 13th in the NFC, it’s time for Carolina Panthers fans to move on. It’s hard. It’s kind of inexplicable, but it’s actually rather logical. The Panthers came into the season with such high expectations. The reigning NFC champions were coming off of a 15-1 regular season were getting their young star wide receiver back. It all lined up for another big year.

However, the thing everyone overlooked were the serious flaws that this team had. The offensive line looked atrocious in the Super Bowl, but they were playing Von Miller, so that explains it, right? Well partially, but it overlooks just how bad the line was. So many starters were cast offs from other teams or just fill-ins to plug holes. They held together because there was continuity on the line. Only two starters on the o-line missed time in 2015, for a combined lost time of four games. Through 11 weeks of this season, a full 11 games have been missed by Carolina offensive lineman.

Josh Norman‘s departure, while likely to turn out to be the correct long-term decision, left the Panthers secondary extremely vulnerable. While looking better as of late, the secondary was forced to start two rookies at times, and growing pains there were inevitable. Rookie James Bradberry has shown flashes and certainty has potential, but the defense can’t expect him to be anything except what he is: a rookie corner.

Making Sense of a Lost Carolina Panthers Season

Where Do We Go From Here?

The biggest positive is the cap space. This allows flexibility for the front office to make aggressive moves to improve areas of weakness. David Gettleman has built the roster since day one to be in the position they’re in today. He has continuously purged the roster of anything he considered bad money (i.e. DeAngelo Williams, Josh Norman) to put himself in a position to be a serious player in free agency, if necessary. The year before Gettleman took over as the Panthers general manager, Carolina was more than $7 million over the cap. Today, the Panthers will have the 8th most cap space in the league entering 2017 with over $50 million available. Now is that time to spend.

Offensive Line

Far and away, the number one question David Gettleman will be faced with this offseason is how to upgrade the offensive line. It’s not going to be an easy fix. Rookie lineman can occasionally step in and play day one, but it’s far from a guarantee. Teams that have well established lines rarely let them walk in free agency or look to trade them. That being said, Matt Kalil or Marcus Cannon would be great free agent options to throw money at if Carolina is willing to spend.

Secondary

As for the secondary, it’s all relative. It seems unlikely that a team that just invested so much in defensive backs in the 2016 draft will do the same the year after. Bradberry has already shown glimpses. The only real move may be to wait and hope some of these other young guys mature and develop. The best available free agents to help out the corner position would be Trumaine Johnson or Stephon Gilmore. Yet again, it seems unlikely the Rams and Bills, respectively, would let them hit the open market.

Edge Defenders

Outside of the offensive line and the secondary, the one position group the Panthers could be looking to upgrade is the pass rush. Charles Johnson is 30 years old and playing on a one year deal. However, Johnson is currently ranked as the 18th best edge defender in the league according to Pro Football Focus and is still playing two thirds of the snaps. After his spectacular showing in the Super Bowl last season, where he had three sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception on only 23 snaps, Kony Ealy has been pedestrian at best this year. He ranks as the 70th overall edge defender in the league, and has only two sacks through 11 games played. Additionally, Mario Addison is a pending free agent – and is playing only 39 percent of snaps this season. Look for the Panthers to find some help on the exterior of the line.

Positives for the Future

The Panthers still have Cam Newton, and he is still very good at playing football. His stats for the season aren’t jaw-dropping. There are times in games this year where he hasn’t looked great by the eye test. But nearly all advanced metrics that factor in offensive line play still have Newton as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. PFF’s quarterback grades, which adjust for strength of the line play, has Newton as the seventh best quarterback in the league. Football Outsiders‘ DVOA rankings, which count sacks and hits on a quarterback AGAINST the value of the quarterback, has Newton as the 17th best quarterback in the NFL. See a trend there?

Carolina still boasts a young team at many areas on the ball, but a skilled and smart team. This is not a team that has completely fallen apart. Tweaks and fixes need to be made at core areas, but this is still a football team that can compete for a Super Bowl next season. This will certainly be contingent on Luke Kuechly‘s healthy return, as the defense clearly needs him to control the middle of the field. The spectacular linebacking core with Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and the developing Shaq Thompson should be a force for years to come. Cam and Kelvin Benjamin should develop even better chemistry after their second full year together. Improvements in the secondary and along the offensive line should make this team favorites for the NFC South moving forwards.

It’s in your hands, Gettleman.

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