2013 Team Needs: Carolina Panthers
A popular pick as one of the league’s breakout teams for the 2012 season, the Carolina Panthers’ 1-6 start meant they were soon out of playoff contention. On the bright side, the team rebounded over the second half, winning five of their final six, and showing exactly why so many were excited about the team in the first place.
Can they carry that momentum into the 2013 season? To do so, they’ll need to shore up some holes this offseason — while you can see a list of their impending free agents here.
Of the seven players to see more than 100 snaps in the Panthers’ defensive tackle rotation, none ended the season with a positive overall grade, outside of Greg Hardy, who spent most of his time at end. After tallying 26 QB disruptions in 418 snaps rushing the passer, Dwan Edwards was the most productive of the regulars in that area. That’s not saying much, however, as he ranked 25th at the position with a Pash Rushing Productivity rating of 5.3. Edwards was even less effective in run defense, though he was hardly the only culprit, as each of the six regulars at DT graded at -2.5 or worse, while the defense finished as the league’s second-worst graded against the run. With players like Hardy and Charles Johnson on the outside, the team needs an interior to complement their fantastic play on the edge, which they just didn’t get consistently out of the current roster. The same goes for the talented group of linebackers on the second level. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Jon Beason need a stout line to keep them clean.
Free Agent Fix: Glenn Dorsey
The Panthers are in a pretty awful situation in terms of cap space, which severely limits their ability to bring in free agents. This takes them out of the running for players such as Henry Melton, Sammie Lee Hill, and Vance Walker, all of whom would provide a substantial upgrade on the interior. Therefore, the team will likely have to do most of their work in the draft and development of their own players.
If they could magically come up with the space, Glenn Dorsey could be an interesting target. Perhaps playing out of place in Kansas City’s 3-4 at the five-technique, Dorsey’s defended the run exceptionally well, though he was hobbled by injury and managed just 115 snaps in four games this season. He ranked in the Top 3 among 3-4 ends in both 2010 and 2011 in run defense and could benefit from a move back to what most consider his more ‘natural position’, the three-technique. Given his injury history, and fact that he hasn’t made a huge impact as a pass rusher, he could come at a bargain. Of course with those injuries, the team would be risking that he could remain healthy.
It was a huge loss when center Ryan Kalil went down after just five games even though he hadn’t played particularly well to that point. Kalil’s positive grades in terms of pass and screen blocking were offset by a grade of -4.1 as a run blocker. Nevertheless, the most important leader on the line, at least from a communication standpoint, wasn’t able to back up his preseason Super Bowl prediction. Behind Kalil, the team was forced to move Geoff Hangartner to the middle from right guard, and it didn’t go well, to say the least. He ended the season as the fifth-worst graded center, mostly for his efforts in run blocking, though that’s not the only position where he struggled as in his four games at RG, he compiled a grade of -8.0. At the other guard spot, Amini Silatolu finished the season as our fifth-worst graded player at the position. However, unlike Hangartner, it was mostly due to his inability to protect Cam Newton. For Newton’s sake, let’s hope the second-round pick can improve in his second year.
Jordan Gross is really the only player providing any stability for the Panthers (in addition to a healthy Kalil). The LT played well in all facets of the game, as we’ve come to expect from the only Panther lineman to finish the season in the green. He made up for the play of right tackle Byron Bell, who graded negatively for the second consecutive season, albeit improving from his rookie season.
Despite the uneven play up front, the Panther offense managed to play pretty well, but as the grades indicate they could definitely use some upgrades along a line that we ranked as the league’s 27th best.
Free Agent Fix: Matt Slauson
In an ideal situation, Carolina would bring back Geoff Schwartz, whom the team drafted in 2008 but let go in free agency prior to this season. The former Panther played just 182 snaps in a reserve role for the Vikings, but graded well, particularly for his efforts in run blocking. As the team saw in 2010 when he graded at +19.2, he’s capable of being one of the better offensive linemen in the league, with the ability to line up at either guard or tackle.
A more realistic option, should the team find some cap room, would be Slauson. Slauson didn’t set the world on fire in his four years with the Jets, but he would present an immediate upgrade at the left guard spot. In 2012, Slauson allowed just 14 QB pressures, less than half of what Silatolu was beaten for on the year. His run blocking could use work, but there aren’t many better options out there.
Certainly the case could be made that the team has a big need in the secondary, and there would be no argument here. However, outside of Steve Smith, the Panthers don’t have many weapons on the outside for Newton. As their top receiver heads into his 13th season, that fact will only become more apparent going forward. Beyond Smith, the top target on the team was Brandon LaFell, who caught 44 passes for 677 yards on the season, lining up on the majority of his snaps in the slot. He appears to be a good option, and with tight end Greg Olsen, provides a pair of solid options to go along with the team’s leading WR. Still, the team could use another target on the outside opposite Smith, and given the physical stature of their receiving corps, ideally someone with size. Louis Murphy just didn’t cut it in that role, grading at -5.6 on the season, and it’s hard to see the team bringing him back.
Free Agent Fix: Ramses Barden
A player such as Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, or Greg Jennings would be a great pickup, both to complement the last few Smith seasons and as a long-term No. 1, but unless they came up with a miracle, or executed some kind of sign and trade, the cap situation likely won’t allow one of these high-priced free agents.
Instead, the team should look at a receiver like Ramses Barden. The Giant was a third-round pick in 2009, but just hasn’t been able to get onto the field much in a deep New York receiving corp, playing 419 snaps in four seasons. Over the course of those seasons, he’s caught a total of 29 balls, with just under half of them coming this season, where he saw 19 targets over five games. Coincidentally, the best game of his career came in the team’s Week 3 matchup with the Panthers, in which he caught 9 of 10 targets for 138 yards.
Admittedly, to see Barden being successful in Carolina takes some projecting, but, at 6-foot-6, he offers great size and he could be that big target on the outside to complement Smith. Perhaps most importantly, he’d be cheap.
Follow John on Twitter: @PFF_JManey