The Queen’s Guard writers answer the Panthers’ biggest questions about this offseason. A series of eight questions, we answer everything from possible draft picks to which players may or may not be re-signed.
Question One: The Panthers started the year 6-2 but only won a single game in the second half of the season. Would you consider this season successful (and why or why not)?
Dylan Jackson: No. This season was far from successful. The second-half-season collapse was detrimental and many players underperformed. You can put a lot of blame on the coach, however, there are so many areas that lacked skill and performance over the final eight games of the year.
Josh George: I think the season is obviously unsuccessful because no one ever really wants to be 7-9 but I don’t think too much outrage should be had. Our QB couldn’t throw past 20 yards because he was injured and that is ultimately why we didn’t make the playoffs. There are other problems (which we will discuss later) but that was the biggest. Even with the greatness of McCaffrey, this Panther team goes as far as Cam can take us.
Stephen Sears: Absolutely not, falling from 6-2 to 7-9 is catastrophic. Obviously, certain factors played into this but once going from being considered super bowl sleepers to not even coming close to sniffing the playoffs is a big L for the organization.
Chase Pletcher: If the Panthers had gotten off to a rough start and finished 7-9 this season would’ve been considered a failure, the fact that they started off 6-2 and finished that way makes it a historic failure. The team had made the playoffs 4 of the previous 5 seasons, and has a superstar on both sides of the ball, even if you don’t think it’s “Superbowl or Bust” every year, anything less than a playoff run is a failure for this group.
Euan Reynard: Given where the team was at the midpoint of the season, winning consistently and right in the hunt for a Play-Off BYE, this season has to go down as unsuccessful. Whether the team ‘underachieved’ or not, though, is a very interesting one. With all factors considered – Injury to Cam combined with the awful coaching throughout the year from Ron Rivera, the Defensive staff and the regression that seemed to get worse throughout the year from OC Norv Turner, one could easily conclude that to come out with 7 wins was a minor miracle for this football team.
Question Two: There are a lot of notable Carolina players possibly retiring/leaving such as Thomas Davis, Ryan Kalil, Julius Peppers, Mike Adams, and Greg Olsen. What is the one or two positions that you would say needs upgrading on the Carolina Panthers roster?
DJ: The Panthers have been bad in deep-field coverage for what seems like forever. Obtaining a center-fielding safety only aids a bleeding secondary when it comes to the deep ball. Mike Adams was decent during his first season, but likely won’t return. Colin Jones isn’t the answer either. And even if Eric Reid returns, which is more probable than not, he is more of a box safety.
JG: I think the obvious position is defensive end. Ian Thomas looked great last year and I think he’s ready to be TE1. We probably do need another LB but Luke is still an all-pro player so that isn’t as pressing. Our line needs improving as well but more at the tackle positions than at center. Hopefully, we resign Eric Reid and give Gaulden a starting spot. 38-year-old Julius Peppers was probably our best pass rusher last year and that’s just sad. We didn’t give our corners a lot of help this past year because we couldn’t generate any pressure at all. We ranked 27th in sacks last year. That just isn’t going to cut it.
SS: Defensive Line and linebacker would be my top two. We have zero edge rushers that I’m confident in and Kawaan Short and Dontari Poe severely underperformed last season. Luke Kuechly is a still force to be reckoned with but I’m not comfortable with Shaq Thompson being his running mate. After those two there’s a severe drop off in talent.
CP: EDGE and anywhere on the O-Line. The Panthers pass rush is headed by a guy who while good, would not be the number one guy on many other teams (on the Raiders though!), and the Panthers are also in desperate need of a consistent tackle and guard on the left side, as well as a center. I am almost tempted to say O-Line is the top need since it’s an offensive league, but also just one dominant pass rusher can allow you to have a defense that is capable of making timely plays.
ER: The Offensive Line seems to be the obvious answer here – having had 3 Quarterbacks all suffer injuries this season playing behind it, in the case of Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, being taken out of the game in their very 1st starts in the NFL. Special mention to the Defensive Line, that drastically underperformed considering the amount of money and draft capital that has gone into that position group.
Question Three: The Panthers have also had many players excel this past season such as Christian McCaffrey, James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Curtis Samuel, and Ian Thomas. What is the strongest position on the roster (excluding quarterback)?
DJ: The strongest position on the roster, at least in my opinion, might be the corners. James Bradberry played at a very high level last season and Donte Jackson wasn’t too far behind. Together those two are a promising young duo that should be very good for a long time.
JG: Kind of cheating here but I would like to say our receiving core (CMC, DJ, Curtis, Ian). It’s crazy because we always use to complain about Cam not having weapons. The past two drafts have finally delivered and we have so much talent. McCaffrey is probably a top-five back in the league. I’m super high on DJ and he showed us a lot this past year. I wish someone would please tell Ron Rivera to play Curtis Samuel because he’s a big play waiting to happen. Ian Thomas is another big play guy at the tight end position. I’m giddy just thinking what a healthy Cam can do with these guys actually starting.
SS: I would have ranked this group last a year ago but oddly enough I would go with the receivers. I think we have two gems in D.J Moore and Curtis Samuel who are going to stress defenses out for years to come. Also, Jairus Wright is a solid slot guy who simply gets the job done. They really only need one more piece in a possession guy –not named Devin Funchess– to be a complete group.
CP: I cannot believe I am saying this just one year after Cam Newton took the field with EMS workers at WR for him, but the receivers (tight ends included). Running back was the obvious choice, and it might be the correct choice, but I would’ve only said that if we had a strong second option like CJ Anderson or something. It’s not that CMC can’t carry the load, it’s that he shouldn’t have to. But back to the receivers, DJ Moore is probably already the best YAC receiver in the NFL. He still has some areas to improve upon such as his route running and ability to win on the outside before he can be “go to” number one, but I think he will get there. Curtis Samuel in my humble opinion is the greatest receiver of all time, but on a serious note, his emergence and (hopefully) continued good health has been huge in helping fill a much-needed hole for the Panthers. This is before I even get to Ian Thomas who has shown flashes of being a good TE1 and not just “Greg Olsen’s Backup”. If Greg comes back in a lesser role to help with blocking and in the red zone this group a hole is in great, young, hands.
ER: Right now, no one can say the Panthers have a position group that would be top 5 or even top 10 in the NFL. For years the position of strength on the team had been the Defensive Line, but as previously stated, we have seen them have a very down year. If any position group could be tipped as having the potential to be one of the league’s best, it would have to be the offensive skill group. With McCaffrey coming off a record-breaking year, DJ Moore being ranked by many as the best rookie receiver in football and Curtis Samuel showing just how valuable he is when he has the ball in his hands, this group will generate a lot of excitement going into the 2019 season.
Question Four: There’s a lot of talk about ‘getting younger, faster, and more versatile’. Could we see anyone get surprisingly cut that does not fit that mold?
DJ: I could see Dontari Poe being released. The interior defensive line wasn’t spectacular as expected last season and Dontari Poe should have been more of a force than he actually was. In fact, it’s arguable Kyle Love was better than Poe in this regard. And although even he is a free agent, it’s fairly obvious the Panthers need to find another young, promising defensive lineman.
JG: Thomas Davis was already let go and I see that as being the start of that trend to get faster and younger. Mike Adams is a guy that I can see get cut. Captain Munnerlyn as well. But, those don’t really surprise me so I don’t think anyone cut would be too dramatic.
SS: Think a guy like Mario Addison could be let go in this scenario. Panthers have kind of forced him into a starting role the past couple of seasons when really he should be a rotational guy. Think they would also save some money here but don’t quote me on that.
CP: In terms of a cut that would be “surprising” but possible I guess… Vernon Butler? Not sure if that would be a surprise, but the dead cap would only be $3.8M after June 1st. A huge surprise that I guess could maybe happen would be Greg Olsen who would be owed $7.9M in dead cap. It’s definitely not likely so don’t bank on it happening, but he’s older and beaten up and there are a lot less likely candidates on the team to get cut.
ER: The releasing of Thomas Davis could well be a sign of things to come in Carolina. I would not be shocked if we saw more veteran guys be let go by the team in the coming months as the team looks to rebuild its roster in the same fashion we watched the Seattle Seahawks do last offseason. Whether Ron Rivera can galvanize a group of young players in the way we watched Pete Carroll do in the season just gone remains to be seen, and with the way we have seen Ron treat young players during his time in Carolina, I highly doubt he can.
Question Five: The Draft is happening in April and the Carolina Panthers hold the 16th pick. Is there any particular player or position that you would like to see Hurney, Rivera, and Tepper invest in?
DJ: I would like to see the front office make an effort to get an elite pass rusher in this class. Whether it’s Clelin Ferrell, Brian Burns, or Jachai Polite, Carolina needs youth amongst its edge players and any of these three players would dramatically improve that.
JG: Haven’t done my research on the CFB guys yet so I will say my answer isn’t backed up that well. However, I’d want us to go S or DE.
SS: Defensive End would be the first option I look at in the draft. This draft is loaded with some good edge rushers at the top and very rarely do highly productive pass rushers get selected in later rounds. If one of these guys falls to us at 16 we have to take him.
CP: Yes, literally just the offensive and defensive lines. If they only draft guys in the trenches and maybe a safety by day two I will be pleased with the draft. Football really is won in the trenches and if Hurney just stockpiles these guys surely one on each side will end up good, right?
ER: The Panthers roster has a lot of needs right now, both in terms of talent and depth, so it is hard to pinpoint just one area I would like to see them target. Honestly, I would be very happy if the Panthers could trade out of the 16 spot if possible in order to accumulate more picks so long as the deal was sufficient. When you have a team with so many holes, it’s hard to imagine one guy in the middle of the 1st round would have a larger impact than if we were able to get 2 or 3 guys later on who could be solid day 1 contributors.
Question Six: In contrast, is there any player or position you do not want the Carolina Panthers to go after?
DJ: Unless a player like Jonah Williams is available, I would like to wait until the later rounds to draft an offensive lineman. I also wouldn’t be too hasty to select a safety in this position as there isn’t really an elite-level safety in this class. It’s debatable whether or not Deionte Thompson is good enough to go in the first round, but quality options at safety will always be there later on in the draft.
JG: I don’t want us to take a WR or RB in the first. For depth there, I think we could look into the later rounds. As I stated earlier, I think we have a really good young receiving core.
SS: Receiver. For one, there doesn’t seem to be a guy that stands out and deserving being selected there. Maybe one or two. However, we’re already set at the receiver position and shouldn’t really be shopping there in the early rounds of the draft.
CP: *Disclaimer* when I say don’t I mean don’t unless it’s a super late Day 3 pick that you are positive is going to have an impact. Okay, don’t draft a WR/TE. I think we need a tall guy that can play outside receiver but now is not the time to try to develop another young guy, and it’s certainly not the time to waste a top pick on one either. There are a couple other positions I would steer away from such as RB because of the success of UDFA over the past couple of seasons.
ER: After watching CJ Anderson have success since being cut by the Panthers I’m sure a lot of people will want to see Carolina draft a power runner to pair with McCaffrey. If we take one with a high draft pick when plenty will be available in free agency, I believe this would be a terrible use of resources, especially when CMC has shown his ability to thrive with a heavy load of carries.
Question Seven: The NFL opens free agency before the draft. The Panthers will have roughly $27 million in cap space before cuts and re-signings. What player (you can only choose one) must the Panthers bring back?
DJ: There are only two players that the Panthers must re-sign. Those being Eric Reid and Daryl Williams. Reid was great for Carolina this year, and despite what Tom from Salisbury tells you, was not a distraction in the locker room. Williams, even not playing this year, is a must-re-sign with a weak Panthers offensive line.
JG: I think the guy we need to lock up at a reasonable price is Eric Reid. He definitely had an impact on our defense and is an above average guy at his position. We need him going forward.
SS: Has to be Eric Reid. Had a great year for us at safety and we’re notorious for having a revolving door at the safety position. If anything, bring him back for stability.
CP: This won’t be a common answer because he’s not a big name on the team, but I’d like to see Kyle Love back. He will be cheap and is a solid backup at the DT position. Maybe not the most important name we’d need to bring back, but it’s someone I’m positive we should bring back.
ER: Eric Reid. An obvious decision, for me. The ownership showed the bravery to go and sign him and should reward him now with a more long term deal after impressing in 2018 for the Panthers.
Question Eight: There are many premier free agents that will be available and Panthers owner David Tepper has noted that Carolina will have ‘selective aggression’ when it comes to signing players. Are there any realistic targets in particular that immediately come to mind?
DJ: The Panthers need an X-Receiver. It’s doubtful that Devin Funchess returns and Tyrell Williams would be an excellent fit alongside Curtis Samuel, DJ Moore, Jarius Wright, and Cam Newton. He would complete the wide receiver group in Carolina. Williams was a quality option on a Chargers team loaded with talent: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, and Melvin Gordon.
JG: I’d like the Panthers to look at Ezekiel Ansah. He’s had some injury troubles which is concerning but that can also work in our favor. We could sign him at a good number. If he can get healthy, he’ll definitely outperform a reasonable contract. He’s still young too and would fit the talk of getting younger and faster.
SS: I’d go free safety here. Mainly because I don’t like the talent at the position in the draft and the options in free agency are actually really good. Tyrann Mathieu, Tre Boston, Earl Thomas, Adrian Amos, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be good options. If not safety invest in the protection of Cam Newton. I’m actually fairly positive about our offensive line going into the season. Daryl Williams returning at RT, move Moton to LT, Trai Turner at RG. If we can find a solid LG or center I will be happy.
CP: Tyrell Williams from the Chargers would be a really nice addition assuming Funchess won’t be back. As I’ve said we need a taller receiver to play on the outside and at 6’4 he can be just that. I have no clue what the rumors are in regards to whether or not the Chargers plan to bring him back, but if not it feels pretty realistic so long as he isn’t more expensive than what Funchess would command (I don’t think he will, but I also have no clue, really).
ER: Carolina passed on the opportunity to sign free agent safety Tyrann Mathieu last offseason after he was cut by the Arizona Cardinals. After signing a 1 year deal with the Texans and impressing as the team made the postseason, the honey badger is now back on the market and I think Panthers GM Marty Hurney would be smart to make the deal happen this time around. Tyrann will be 27 at the start of the 2019 season which is surprisingly young for a guy who feels like he’s been around forever and signing a guy who can mentor a group of young DB’s as well as plug a lot of holes as a jack of all trades seems like an easy decision. Add to this the growing number of players from ‘DBU’ LSU in the Panthers secondary, and bringing the Badger to the Bank of America Stadium starts to feel like a match made in heaven.