Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.
We continue the previews with one of the hottest up and coming teams in the league, the Carolina Panthers. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:
*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Estimated cap is $124 million.*
2011 Record: 6-10
PPG For: 25.4 (t-5th)
PPG Against: 26.8 (27th)
2012 Cap Number: $129,962,768
Draft Position: #8 Overall Pick
Just one year ago, the Panthers entered the offseason with every problem imaginable. The offense was historically bad, injured stars littered the roster, the coaching situation was a mess, and the guy pegged as the likely #1 overall pick was viewed as one of the riskiest top picks in recent memory. Today, the Panthers look to be one of the most promising young teams in the NFL. What happened? Cam Newton happened! The “sure fire bust” shut everyone up, including myself, in posting one of the most impressive rookie campaigns of all time.
Going forward, the team is in prime position to insert itself into the playoff picture as soon as this upcoming season. They’ll need to get clever with their cap situation, and I imagine there will be a few unproductive defensive players cut loose to free up cash, but the infusion of another strong draft class and the further development of their young stars could net them several additional wins.
Cam Freaking Newton! Let me once again take the opportunity to express how terribly wrong I was about this guy. He still has some accuracy issues to work through, but the poise and pocket presence he showed last year was something I was not prepared to see. Auburn used him as more of a running QB in their system, but Newton has proved that he is actually a QB who can run…it’s a big difference. And don’t forget, he didn’t even have a full offseason last year! If he can become a little more accurate and develop a bit more rapport with receivers not named Steve Smith, then Newton could be primed for a monster second season. In a league where having a franchise QB is a must, Carolina absolutely nailed it with Newton.
While I’m raving on and on about Cam Newton, let me also take a moment to mention the other offensive weapons they have. Steve Smith, who was “washed up” prior to last season, apparently still has quite a bit in the tank. Even at 33, he’s easily one of the best big play threats in the game. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey are one of the best TE duos in the game, and they were invaluable in giving Newton the type of reliable check down options a young QB needs. Finally, the rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart continues to be strong. Their counting stats were not necessarily the strongest, but that had a lot to do with the increased emphasis on the passing game. What was strong was their efficiency, as they both averaged 5.4 YPC. Stewart also made a big leap in the passing game, hauling in 47 catches for 413 yards. All in all, this offensive group is extraordinarily explosive, and has the potential to win them a lot of games.
The team lost 10 games and the offense was 5th in the league…what do you think was bad??? Ironically, it was always the defense that carried the Panthers in the John Fox era. No more, as the D finished a miserable 27th in scoring defense. Some of that can be attributed to injuries (Jon Beason, Thomas Davis), but there is no question that the defense is mostly devoid of top end talent. Not surprising, considering the recent departures of guys like Julius Peppers, but the depth of the problem far bigger than anybody realized. They allow yards through the air (24th) and on the ground (25th) at an alarmingly high rate. On the positive side, at least the club knows what the problem is and can begin to address it without hesitation. On the negative side, there really is no quick fix for this defense. A fresh stream of talent must be brought in, and, shy of a miraculous draft in which every draftee ends up being a quality starter, this process will take a few years.
Key Free Agents: LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, WR Legedu Naanee, TE Jeremy Shockey,
3 Key Questions:
#1 – How does Carolina free up cap space?
I was surprised to see Carolina nearly $6mil over the cap, though in retrospect, their irresponsible spending spree last fall made this inevitable. I was extraordinarily critical of it at the time, and now you can see why I thought it was such a bad idea. Nevertheless, the damage should be minimal at this juncture, as there are more than a few candidates to either restructure or release outright. Thomas Davis, and his $11.9mil cap number, is the most obvious of those candidates. Davis is coming off his third ACL injury in as many years, and has played only 9 games in that time period. When on the field, he’s an excellent player, and nearly every Panthers board I looked at has expressed a strong desire to keep him on the roster. That’s fine, but reality says that he’s 29 and has had major injuries to both knees. Time to part ways and free up the money. Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, and Chris Gamble are too valuable to cut, but all three could easily be restructured to a more cap friendly contract. Those moves, plus a few smaller scale cuts, should get them back on stable ground…until next offseason.
#2 – Do they have a viable second WR?
This has been an ongoing problem, and the issue is only magnified with the increased reliance on the passing game. By the end of last year, teams were throwing everything they had at Smith and daring the other receivers to make plays. Too often, this ends up with Newton needing to escape the pocket, and subsequently taking a hit. The guy is big and all, but do you really want your QB taking a bunch of unnecessary hits because his receivers can’t get open? With Legedu Naanee likely gone via free agency, the only real option is Brandon LaFell. LaFell, a former 3rd round pick, certainly has the look of an NFL receiver (6’2” 208lbs), but he has yet to turn potential into production. There was ample opportunity to step up last year with Newton slinging it all over the place and Naanee being the only real competition, but LaFell couldn’t lay claim to the starting position, and ended with just 36 catches. Though he did show some big play skills, racking up 17.0 YPC, the consistency has to be there if he’s going to be the long term answer. With the cap situation being what it is, and the overwhelming draft need being defense, it looks like LaFell will once again have an open road to the starters job. We’ll see if he can lock it down this time.
#3 – Jonathan Stewart or DeAngelo Williams?
The two split carries pretty evenly last year, and the production was excellent from both of them. However, while the benefits of having both are clear, I believe it would be wise for the team to move DeAngelo Williams. Though you could argue that the two were equally effective last season, Stewart’s increased role in the passing game puts him over the top in my book, and there is no question that he will be the more effective player going forward. Remember, Williams will be 29 this year, while Stewart is just 25. No question who the future is! With the cap situation being what it is, GM Marty Hurney needs to use some foresight on this one and avoid some dire cap consequences down the road. Yeah, it’s nice to have two stud RB’s, but it’s also nice to have offensive linemen and cornerbacks too! Eventually, the team will be in a situation where they have to part ways with valuable players to maintain their RB tandem, and that will certainly be a shame. Especially in today’s NFL, there really is no reason to invest so much money on RB’s. Williams has value now, and Hurney could potentially get a decent pick for him. I’d do it in a heartbeat, but it’s probably too smart a move for the Panthers.
There is no question that Carolina needs to go defense with the 8th pick. If Quinton Coples somehow fell to #8, then he’s the obvious choice, and in his delirium, I imagine Marty Hurney would rush the stage and repeatedly scream “COPLES!!!” while frantically waving his draft card in the air. That’s all very unlikely, though I really wish it could happen. Nevertheless, there are an awful lot of defensive players available in this range that would fit the Panthers nicely. DT Michael Brockers (LSU) seems to be the consensus choice for Carolina, and either he or DT Devon Still (Penn State) would make a lot of sense. Depending on what happens with Thomas Davis, OLB Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) would also work. I’d lean toward the two DT’s since Upshaw might end up being more a 3-4 guy.
Maybe I’m taking this too far, but I think Carolina will make the playoffs next year. That’s right, I went there! The return of Beason and the infusion of some young talent won’t transform the defense into the Baltimore Ravens or anything, but how good do they need to be for the team to win 10 games? If they only give up 22 or 23 PPG, how many more wins is that? Three? Four? If Newton takes the next step in his development and becomes a top ten QB next season, and if the team stays reasonably healthy, I see no reason why they can’t overtake Atlanta in the division.