Offseason to-do list for the Carolina Panthers
Immediately after just missing out on the ultimate prize, the thought of having to wait another nine months for a shot at redemption must have been eating away at Cam Newton as he sat in front of the cameras and microphones in Santa Clara, California. There are reasons for optimism for this franchise but, coming off a Super Bowl loss, it probably doesn’t seem that way to the MVP.
Carolina has the benefit of stability, with only two key contributors set to hit unrestricted free agency (FB Mike Tolbert and CB Josh Norman). Extending the season for as long as possible also helped the Panthers’ keep hold of their coaches. Both offensive coordinator Mike Shula and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott are set to return. The nucleus of an outstanding team is in place, but there are still a handful of areas the Panthers could improve going into next season.
The Panthers were written off as contenders in the spring of 2015 when Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the year in training camp. Consensus at the time suggested a shoddy receiving corps was bound to limit the offensive production. Despite a largely mediocre group at wideout, the Panthers were able to make enough big plays to get to the Super Bowl. In order for the offense to elevate itself from good to great, however, they need to add a difference-maker on the perimeter. Philly Brown (77.8 overall grade) made enough plays to suggest he deserves to be a part of the rotation alongside with a healthy Kelvin Benjamin. Ted Ginn (72.5) and Devin Funchess (73.4) made their fair share of plays, but can’t be relied upon after dropping 18 combined passes in 2015. Wiley veteran Jerrico Cotchery (78.3) normally makes tough grabs, but had a couple go through his hands in the Super Bowl, and lacks the explosion to generate big plays.
In short, the Panthers have a host of guys capable of playing complimentary roles, but none who could beat the Broncos’ tight man-coverage. Carolina need to add a receiver capable of taking attention away from TE Greg Olsen (95.4 receiving grade) to open up more favorable matchups.
If the Panthers plan on shifting Brown into more of a slot role, then they need a threat on the perimeter capable of stretching defenses. The addition of Benjamin suggests the front office has a preference for tall targets who can win contested catches. No receiver better fits that description than Alshon Jeffery, whose game we recently analyzed. If the Panthers are intent on collecting physical freaks, then Jeffery fits the bill—if they are willing to pay for him.
Alternatively, Carolina might invest the 30th-overall pick in the top wideout on their board. TCU’s Josh Doctson might reach the end of the first round. He’s raw in a number of ways, especially with his route running, but he tracks the ball well in the air and boxes out defenders at the catch point. Sound familiar? Doctson led all FBS wide receivers with a +28.8 receiving grade, catching 78 passes on 109 targets for 1,327 yards and 14 TDs. He’s not much of a threat after the catch (just nine broken tackles and a 3.9 YAC average) and has issues with concentration at times (six drops), but those flaws might see him fall to the back end of the first round—and into the Panthers’ lap.
Consistent edge rusher
Kony Ealy’s absurd Super Bowl aside (+5.0 game grade), the one area the Panthers were short this season was defensive end. No member of their four-man rotation achieved a pass-rush grade above 75.6. Ealy, who achieved a 75.5 mark in that regard, only finished the year as our 70th overall edge defender—below teammates Mario Addison (60th), Jared Allen (45th), and Charles Johnson (41st).
While all but Allen achieved a positive cumulative pass rush grade this year, none of the Panthers’ edge rushers proved capable of taking over games. Charles Johnson has been that guy in that past, but recorded only a 74.4 pass rush grade during an injury-plagued season. He recorded just 21 combined pressures in 262 snaps.
As the Broncos proved, an excess of pass rushers is never a bad thing. Coupling Kawann Short’s interior pressure with a guy who can consistently collapse the pocket off the edge would make the Panthers’ impressive defense even more formidable.
Should the Panthers opt to dip into free agency, Dolphins’ defensive end Olivier Vernon would make an outstanding pickup. Vernon finished with the top pass-rush grade amongst 4-3 defensive ends (90.7). Only Von Miller had a better pass-rush grade when considering edge rushers regardless of scheme. Vernon took 492 pass rush snaps, amassing 10 sacks, 30 hits, and 41 hurries. In contrast, Miller recorded 11 sacks, 21 hits, and 50 hurries in 448 snaps. While he wasn’t quite at Miller’s level, Vernon’s production in 2015 was outstanding. The Dolphins’ defensive end also did the majority of his damage in the second half of the season, recording pass-rush game grades of at least +1.8 in each of the last seven games.
Alternatively, the Panthers might want to keep costs down, looking to the draft for an infusion of talent. The top pass-rushers will undoubtedly be gone by the time Carolina is on the clock, but this class is stacked with defensive line talent. Penn State defensive end Carl Nassib doesn’t possess the athleticism of some of his peers, but knows how to get to the QB. Considering his limited reps, Nassib’s production makes for even more impressive reading. In just 258 snaps, he recorded 16 sacks, nine hits, and 28 pressures for the best pass-rush productivity amongst 4-3 defensive ends. With an impressive Senior Bowl week thrown in, Nassib makes for an intriguing option this May.
In the ensuing period before free agency, the Panthers’ No. 1 priority will likely be tying Josh Norman down to a long-term contract. His coverage grade of 88.1 was bettered by only a handful of corners, and he led all NFL players with a QB rating when targeted of 54.0. Norman might not have made as many plays as others at his position, but he only allowed 0.66 yards per route run (second in league) and just a pair of touchdowns. The pressure on the Panthers to retain Norman is added to by a lack of depth behind him. Charles Tillman is one of the greatest competitors of the last generation, but at the age of 35—and coming off a season-ending ACL tear—the Panthers may look to move on. Aside from Tillman, the cupboard is a little bare; Bene Benwikere was exposed somewhat in his 14 games, finishing with a coverage grade of 52.7, while Cortland Finnegan appears merely a stopgap. Adding depth on the back end has to be a priority for the Panthers this offseason.
The projected free agent crop of corners has a number of underrated options who might be available at a bargain price. Adam Jones (83.3) might be getting up there in age, but experience has matured the former sixth-overall pick into a very solid corner. He was one of only 12 corners to give up a touchdown or less this season (minimum 50 percent of snaps), and QBs had a rating of just 60.7 when throwing into his coverage. Jones can play man or zone in a Ron Rivera defense that likes to switch up its coverages with a willingness to attack aggressively in the run or screen game.
Alternatively, Casey Hayward might hit the market because his form tailed off slightly in 2015. Hayward still played well (82.7 overall grade), but failed to register a regular season pick, while giving up three scores and a 100.7 QB rating. His postseason performances suggest that was just a minor blip, however, and he remains an enticing free agency option.