With the Super Bowl in the rearview mirror and free agency quickly approaching, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be looking at the top three needs offseason for each NFL team. Today, the Carolina Panthers are the focus. With the 8th pick in the draft, and $53 million in cap space, there is room for the Panthers to make some significant upgrades.
Much went wrong during the 2016 Carolina Panthers campaign. One year removed from a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl appearance, the team struggled out of the gate. By their week seven bye, the Panthers were 1-5. The porous start can be chalked up to many factors. The offensive line was average at best in 2015 – but they managed to stay healthy. 2016 did not bring such luck, as only one player (RG Andrew Norwell) managed to play all 16 games at his base position. Tyler Lawson, the third-string center, made five starts with both Ryan Kalil and Geno Gradkowski missing games. In addition to, or potentially affected by, the offensive line woes, Cam Newton showed significant regression from his previous season. After Josh Norman‘s departure, two rookie cornerbacks were thrown into the fire, and the pass rush showed signs of aging.
Carolina Panthers 2017 Off-Season: Top 3 Needs
Offensive Line Upgrades
This is no surprise. Cam Newton was hit 93 times in 2016; the offensive line finished the season ranked 25th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. There’s no doubt that some of this was due to injuries along the line. However, simply returning Matt Kalil and allowing Trae Turner to move back inside to his natural RG position will not solve all of the problems. There are still holes at both tackle positions, where both Mike Remmers and Daryl Worley were underperforming even when healthy.
One interesting name to keep an eye on in free agency is Rick Wagner. While only 27 years old, Wagner is not expected to be retained in Baltimore. He has started in 62 of 64 possible regular season games for the Ravens since 2013, playing both RT and RG. Wagner could step in immediately and be a stabilizing force on the right side of the line. Another name to keep an eye on would be Cam Robinson. While this draft class is weak in offensive tackle prospects, the former Alabama LT could slip to the top of the second round.
Young Pass Rushing Talent
As a team in 2016, the Panthers will middle of the road in sacks. Looking deeper, you can tell that these are team sacks, with no player being a single disruptive force demanding double teams. Not one Panther recorded twenty or more quarterback hurries on the season – Brandon Graham led the league with forty. Charles Johnson, who led the Panthers with 19 hurries, is an unrestricted free agent. Even if the Panthers bring him back on a one year deal – as they did in 2016 – Johnson will be 31 years old.
After bringing in aging veterans in recent years such as Jared Allen, it’s time for an influx of youth at pass rusher in Carolina. Picking at eight in the draft there will likely be ample pass rushing talent available. Solomon Thomas or Derrick Barnett would be good options in the first round. If they look elsewhere at eight, expect a pass rusher in the second or third rounds of this deep draft.
James Bradberry cemented himself as a part of the future of the organization with his play down the stretch in 2016. By the end of his rookie season, Bradberry was ranked as the number twenty corner in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. His play recognition skills were tremendous for a 23 year old second round pick, as displayed in his ability to read Drew Brees on this play in week 11:
This PD from James Bradberry on TNF was ridiculous. Exceptional read & break to bail out Coleman in quarters, could watch this all day. pic.twitter.com/mQei9giysa
— Ben Stockwell (@PFF_Ben) November 20, 2016
Fellow rookie Daryl Worley played the majority of reps at corner opposite Bradberry, making eleven starts. However, this second corner position is still very much in the air for 2017. Veteran safety Kurt Coleman has been very underrated in his two years playing center field for Carolina. In two seasons starting for the Panthers, he picked off 11 balls and defended and additional 16 passes. However, the safety spot across from Coleman is also in flux.
Depth at corner in safety in this draft is tremendous. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke has a striking thirteen defensive backs in his top fifty draft prospects. The Panthers would likely be very tempted by safeties Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker if they fell to eight. Additionally, talented corner options such as Jourdan Lewis and Tre’Davious White could be available at the top of the second round.