Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Carolina Panthers.
It’s fair to say that the Panthers overachieved in 2017 to a degree. Their passing offense was horrific, as Cam Newton had a down season by his standards, throwing only 3,302 yards and tossing 16 interceptions. The pass defense wasn’t great either, ranking 18th in the league.
However, they were still strong in the run game, ranking 4th in rushing offense and 3rd at stopping the run. Rookie Christian McCaffrey was a huge boon for the offense as a whole. While their schedule was pretty lightweight, eight of their wins were one-score games, showcasing their ability to win in crunch time.
Newton was visibly playing hurt at times and didn’t have many quality receivers to throw to either, which could explain his poor performance. The Panthers finally decided to get rid of oft-criticized offensive coordinator Mike Shula as well, ostensibly to help Newton, though having Norv Turner fill the role isn’t much better.
The defense lost their coordinator as well, with Steve Wilks leaving to take the Arizona Cardinals head coaching job. Defensive line coach Eric Washington was promoted to replace him, so not much will change on that side of the ball. Head coach Ron Rivera should be able to work well with both of the newbies.
Still, front office turmoil could jeopardize the Panthers offseason. There will be a new owner at some point, as Jerry Richardson will sell the team following sexual harassment allegations. Interim general manager Marty Hurney was the subject of a league investigation for similar reasons, though he was cleared and was reinstated by the team a few days ago.
All the noise surrounding the team could be too distracting, and it doesn’t bode well for their plans to improve the roster over the next few months. If Hurney sticks around for the draft, he’ll have to be smart with their selections, especially given their limited cap space.
But if Newton can use the time off to rejuvenate himself, the Panthers should stay competitive next season. Eventually, however, they’ll have to move past just making the playoffs and start seriously vying for a Super Bowl berth.
Current number of draft picks: 8 (#24 in the first round)
Cap space: $11-15 million
Notable free agents
Julius Peppers, DE: Peppers returned to the Panthers after a two-year stint with the Green Bay Packers and was just as productive as ever. Despite starting just five games, he tied for the team lead in sacks with 11, his highest since 2012. He turned 38 last month, but until his numbers go down, Peppers can still contribute in some capacity to any team in the league.
Andrew Norwell, G: It isn’t hyperbole to say that Norwell is the best free agent offensive lineman this offseason. He’s continually gotten better since entering the league in 2014, and 2017 stands out as his best. He allowed no sacks or QB hits to go with just 13 hurries. Pro Football Focus graded him at 88.8, third among all guards, averaging an 85.1 for his career. You can’t get much more than that at guard.
Star Lotulelei, DT: Lotuelei was highly regarded when he was picked 14th in the 2013 draft, but he’s done little to live up to expectations. He had just 25 total tackles in 2017, along with 1.5 sacks, in spite of starting every game. He’s never had more than 4 sacks in one season of his career. Maybe he can start over somewhere else.
WR: It was a strange decision to ship Kelvin Benjamin off to Buffalo midseason, as it left Newton with average-at-best wideouts to throw to. Not surprisingly, McCaffrey ended up leading the team in catches out of the backfield. The Panthers have to do something to bolster the passing game this offseason.
G: Norwell departing as a free agent would be a huge hit to the offensive line. It’s likely that another team will throw a lot of money his way, something that the Panthers can’t compete with right now. If he leaves, they’ll struggle to find an adequate replacement for him.
CB: While the Panthers have a strong front-seven, their secondary hasn’t been as strong. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are still young, but they’ve been largely inconsistent as starters. Maybe a veteran option to pair them with would help them develop more quickly.
DE: Even if Peppers returns, he can’t last forever, and the Panthers don’t have much in the way of long-term options at edge rusher outside of Mario Addison. Spending an early draft pick on one would be a smart move.
TE: Greg Olsen continues to be one of the top tight ends in football. He’s got a dubious injury history, however, and #2 tight end Ed Dickson, who actually played the most snaps at the position in 2017, is a free agent.
DT: Lotueleli leaving in free agency wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Panthers, as they have former first-round pick Vernon Butler waiting in the wings. Their depth would take a hit though.
QB: With the number of hits Newton is used to taking, the Panthers need a strong backup QB in case he gets injured. Their current one, Derek Anderson, is a free agent.
K: Graham Gano is coming off a fantastic season where he missed just one field goal. He’s a free agent, however.
Best player/building block
Luke Kuechly, MLB: Kuechly remains a top-tier linebacker, and as long as he stays healthy, he’ll stay that way. He led the team in total tackles with 125, good for tenth in the league. Kuechly also led the team in interceptions with 3, showing off his versatility. PFF graded him as the third-best linebacker in 2017 at 93.9. Having him on the field just makes the Panthers a better team.
Daryl Williams, T: It was truly a surprise to see Williams breakout as a blocker this season, and it was equally disheartening to see him get ignored during the year-end awards. PFF gave him a grade of 86.5, third-best among all tackles and the best for any right tackle. While he did allow 4 sacks, he kept his pressures to an overall minimum, and his run blocking was especially solid.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers