Offseason to-do list for the Carolina Panthers

John Breitenbach identifies the three biggest offseason needs for the Panthers coming off their Super Bowl 50 loss.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

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.

Elite receiver

Problem

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.

Solution

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

Problem

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.

Solution

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.

Secondary depth

Problem

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.

Solution

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.

| Analyst

John joined the PFF team in 2008, providing focused analysis on the NFL draft, team-building strategies, and positional value.

  • Catman

    Yep, I looked at the FA class a month ago or so and figured if the Panthers go after anyone, it should be Olivier Vernon.

    • JudoPrince

      If they choose to release Charles Johnson, it would create $11 m in cap space. That could possibly be enough to space to sign Vernon if they want but it would likely have to be for at least 5 years.

      • Catman

        He’s only 26 or 27

  • AJ

    This defense is honestly only a couple of players away in the secondary and d-line from being just as potent as the Denver defense.

    On offense, they need to be less reliant on Cam Newton. We’ve seen year after year, no matter how great the QB is, teams that are too reliant on one player fall apart when that player is neutralized. Same reason Denver lost in the Super Bowl two years ago.

    • Jack Casey

      Yeah but a couple of GREAT players away. They have the best trio of CBs in the league. They have 4 outside pass rushers (Miller Ware Ray Barret) as well.

      • Lord Father

        2 of those players are free agents. and did u see the statline? Broncos O was completly dominated. 190 yds total offense

  • CWE

    A left tackle would help them as well–Oher didn’t hurt them too much during the season but he fell apart last night and is not a long term answer

    • Lord Father

      Oher did hurt them. His run blocking is horrid and it hurt them in the SB. Him and those TE’s could not maintain the edge for a second

    • sharmantober

      More like a right tackle. Remmers was getting abused by Von Miller

  • JudoPrince

    The secondary is solid at safety with pro bowler Kurt Coleman returning next year and the emergence of Tre Boston. As for corner, McClain really impressed this postseason. He’s never received a real shot as a starter, but boy did he impress when his number was called. He wasn’t perfect, but he made several standout plays and was up to the challenge every game. This guy should be a keeper in terms of depth. Bene Benwikere slipped a bit this year, but keep in mind he was very good last year as a rookie. There is a certainly a chance he bounces back stronger and holds down the other starter spot. A corner should be addressed at some point in the draft, but they don’t have to go first or 2nd round on one.

    The Panthers have done a great job the last few years getting their once miserable cap situation in order. They have drafted well, cut aging players and have not splurged in Free Agency. They should continue this model and only reserve the big contracts for drafted players that emerge into stars. Josh Norman and Kawaan Short are next up on this list. Carolina will have cap space this season, but keep in they can create much more by releasing Tolbert and Charles Johnson. Should be fun watching this team build on the success from this season.

    • Zac

      Kurt Coleman wasn’t a pro bowler, but he should have been. You would think when you finish third in the regular season in picks and get 3 more in the playoffs to finish the year in the league that you would make it, but he wasn’t popular amongst fans. Not to mention he was on one of the best defenses which should have also helped his claim to making the pro bowl.

    • Jack Casey

      Like to see Coleman do it for more than a season before I am confident in him long term.

      McClain was really good one year in Atlanta, I wonder what happened. Wouldn’t be surprised if he signs some where else, he is a free agent right?

  • Mary Dodson

    Panthers, we are proud of you. Look at all that we did without Benjamin all year and without others off and on all season. Cam, stay true and keep moving forward. You know what it is and you know what to do. Enjoy Chosen and your family. As for football, they “ain’t seen nothing yet”! Congratulations for all that you have done and continue do for the Game. You have enriched, inspired, and brought joy to so many lives. Thank you, Cam Newton. Thank you, Panthers.

    • Jack Casey

      You think Panther players/coaches read these comments?

  • Dannybrown Stan

    sure devin funchess had his struggles but hes a rookie. they don’t need another wide out. he should improve over the off-season. and ginn and brown can be the deep ball guys and cotchery the slot/3rd down guy if he isn’t cut.

    the biggest needs are a pass rusher hopefully kony ealy continues to develop and they draft another guy in the first 3 rounds, a corner opposite of Norman should be a 2nd or first rounder, and to replace mike remmers maybe daryl williams or a a pick in rounds 1-4..

  • Robert

    Teddy williams deserves a shot. I mean he’s deffinatly earned it and “Guy’s got Talent”!

    • Robert

      And not the old yankey guy! PLANTERS CB Teddy Williams