After losing seven of their last eight games in 2018, the Carolina Panthers obviously have their work cut out for them in terms of roster-building. Although there are a number of holes to fill, this team isn’t so far off from a position to contend in the NFC again. Here are some resolutions that will help Carolina have a happy and healthy 2019.
Carolina Panthers New Year’s Resolutions: Bolstering the Roster in the Off-Season
Sign Eric Reid
Eric Reid was stout for the back end of the Panthers defense this year, especially in run support. Reid provided some attitude and toughness to a group that lacked either early on this season. Although Reid has expressed his interest in returning to Carolina, he’s also made it clear he will test the market and follow the money. Who knows, maybe lying about drug tests lowers your value in an already low-demand safety market.
It’s no secret that the safety position is (and always has been) a weak point in Charlotte. With a 38-year-old Mike Adams likely not to return, the Panthers will be left with Da’Norris Searcy and Colin Jones/Rashaan Gaulden as their starting safeties. While the potential for Gaulden to step up is still there, it would be quite the gamble to go into this season depending on this group to hold it down.
That being said, I think it’ll be difficult for the Panthers to bring Reid back on anything close to a team-friendly deal. Regardless, it needs to be done. Reid is the key to this Panthers offseason. If they are able to shore up their in-house signings, it will provide them with much-needed flexibility to focus on other areas in the draft and free agency.
Bolster Both Lines
The Panthers biggest question marks this off-season will come in regards to both of their front lines. The Panthers lack of a pass rush and inept ability to pass protect ultimately led them to a downward spiral that kept them out of the playoffs. If they want to be competitive, consistent, and durable next season it will all start up front on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, the Panthers are extremely thin (and old) at pass rusher. With defensive end Julius Peppers coming off one of his worst seasons statistically, it’s all but a sure thing that he will be hanging it up after 17 years. Opposite Peppers is Mario Addison who, while still productive, is turning 32 years old this off-season. Wes Horton, who has been rotational depth for years in Carolina, will be a free agent along with Kyle Love. After a career year, I’d expect Carolina to bring Love back into the rotation while Horton walks. The Panthers need to overhaul this unit with an injection of youth. A team cannot be considered a competitor in today’s NFL without a viable pass rush. The front four will absolutely be addressed with one or both of the Panthers first two picks in the 2019 draft.
On the offensive side of the trenches, the Panthers have struggled to develop any consistency or identity ever since their 2015 Super Bowl run. With numerous injuries and aging veterans, Cam Newton may as well have been protected by a revolving door over these past few seasons. The deficiencies of this group were really exposed when Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen were thrust in behind them. Both suffered season-ending injuries almost immediately.
It’s not particularly sexy to focus on your offensive line in the draft, but if you look at what the Indianapolis Colts did drafting guard Quenton Nelson in 2018, there shouldn’t be any question that this can be a pick that changes a whole team’s dynamic.
The Panthers need to create consistency up front. With the retirement of center Ryan Kalil and the impending free agency departure of tackle Daryl Williams, the Panthers will have many holes to fill. Taylor Moton and Trai Turner are Pro Bowl caliber players, but Matt Kalil and Greg Van Roten are both replaceable. Maybe undrafted free agent Brendan Mahon will step up a la former Panthers guard Andrew Norwell and really give this unit a boost, but the offensive line will assuredly need to be fixed this offseason.
Christian McCaffrey had a phenomenal, record-breaking sophomore season. Some records, however, are better left alone. McCaffrey led the NFL in percentage of snaps played by a running back this season, being on the field for nearly 98 percent of offensive plays. As much as this speaks to his durability and stamina, it’s never ideal to lean on a player quite to the extent that the Panthers leaned on the former Stanford standout.
Backup running back Cameron Artis-Payne will be a free agent this offseason. While flashing at times, he’s never really gotten consistent carries as a legitimate RB2. I’d expect the Panthers to let him walk and turn to free agency in pursuit of a back to help lessen the workload on McCaffrey in 2019. The return of Fozzy Whittaker from injured reserve is intriguing, but an aging player who has been oft-injured is not ideal at such a position.
There are a few long-shot options to consider here. While unlikely, they sure are interesting to dance around with. Running back Leonard Fournette seems to be on the outs in Jacksonville after a tumultuous season loaded with injury issues and inner turmoil. If this is true, it would be in the Panthers best interest to give the Jaguars a call. Fournette remains on a rookie deal, which wouldn’t put too much stress on the Panthers cap situation.
Additionally, some free agents this off-season include Kareem Hunt (pending suspension), Jay Ajayi, Latavius Murray, and T.J. Yeldon. Even Corey Grant could be a viable option with a similar skillset to McCaffrey. Expect Carolina to find someone capable of filling snaps for their all-pro starter, without showing their hand by rotating them in.
It’s a pretty scary thought for Panthers fans, but there is no time table for when Cam Newton will return to the field, especially at full strength. It took Colts quarterback Andrew Luck over two years to fully recover from labrum surgery similar to Newton’s, but the positive point here is that he was able to eventually return to his old form.
The Panthers need to create a contingency plan at quarterback. This doesn’t mean going out and finding a good enough backup, though. The Panthers need to find a veteran quarterback who is able to bridge the gap and keep the team competitive while Newton recovers. As admirably as Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen filled in at the end of the season, neither is the answer to start long-term in Cam’s absence.
The Panthers could benefit largely from signing the likes of Joe Flacco, Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, or Ryan Tannehill to short-term team-friendly deals. Tyrod Taylor and Ryan Fitzpatrick should also be in that mix. This offense should have enough talent to get by with a game manager at quarterback until Newton returns, especially if the defense is bolstered this off-season.
There are going to be a number of viable quarterbacks on the market at a reasonable price. While a sad development, the Panthers organization cannot deny the truth. That truth is the fact that they may have to face 2019 without Cam Newton if they intend for him to ever get back to the player he was before shoulder surgery.