by Brian Umbaugh, @NFLRosters
The 3-8-1 Panthers had just lost to Minnesota after their bye week and were looking up at the Saints and Falcons. As coach Ron Rivera was taking this underachieving Panthers team on the road to play New Orleans, this was the most positive thing on Twitter regarding their chances to win:
27. #Panthers 3-8-1 (0.2144) – Ranked 31st in special teams. Projected to lose 30-21 at the Saints in week 14 (Carolina leads series 20-19)
— NFLranking (@NFLranking) December 3, 2014
Carolina won that game, 41-10, on their way to winning the division at 7-8-1. They proceeded to take down an admittedly wounded Cardinals team in the playoffs before their luck ran out in Seattle. The ups and down of their season echoes their roster; the strengths were just enough for a playoff run, but the weaknesses prevented much hope for a ring. How should they go about turning those weaknesses into strengths?
Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Joe Webb (UFA)
Cam Newton returned from a broken back to lead this team to the playoffs. That in itself is pretty awesome, which is probably why Cam is still his mom’s favorite player. While he doesn’t throw like division counterparts Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, he is 2nd only to Russell Wilson when running the ball. This dual-threat ability allows him to rate in Pro Football Focus’s top 10 overall QB’s. In 2015, Cam needs to play a little more consistently to earn that raise from $3.3 million to $14.7 million. He is the face of the franchise, and will almost certainly sign long-term either this offseason or in-season.
Backup Derek Anderson has some chops throwing the ball (arguably better than Cam), and if he continues to accept the backup job he should continue as such. 3rd-stringer Joe Webb is a UFA, but if they re-sign him it will be because of his “slash” status.
Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Fozzy Whittaker (ERFA), Darrin Reaves, FB Mike Tolbert
Discussion of the Panthers’ running game has focused around Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for 7 years, and the fact that they’re both signed through 2018 means that may not change. However, this year finally saw one elevate past the other. The maddening unreliability of DeAngelo Williams finally took a backseat to the dependable Jonathan Stewart.
Stewart put forth a good year running and catching the ball, and was a good pass blocker to boot. Williams, on the other hand, missed much of the year, was outperformed by Fozzy Whittaker and played less than Darrin Reaves. If Whittaker is re-signed as an ERFA (and he should be), then all four backs return, along with fullback Mike Tolbert. While Reaves and Tolbert are below average, the set as a whole should probably remain unchanged for now. They have other needs.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
WR: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown, Brenton Bersin (ERFA), DeAndre Presley
TE: Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson (UFA), Richie Brockel, Brandon Williams
It is true that rookie Kelvin Benjamin was outperformed by quite a few rookie receivers; however, with the loss of Steve Smith, the team needed a #1 WR and Benjamin will be just that. Consistency should come with experience. Behind Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown, and Brenton Bersin were a very average group. Since none of backups can really stretch the field or scare opposing defenses, the Panthers would do well to add one or two high-upside wideouts.
Carolina does have one player that requires game planning: Greg Olsen. Olsen only trails Rob Gronkowski in passing game effectiveness from a TE. While he doesn’t block as well as Jason Witten, he does well enough and is much better than national media portray. The other tight ends on the roster are not particularly good blockers, especially UFA Ed Dickson. The Panthers should add one that can be a multi-faceted weapon, like Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman.
L to R: Byron Bell (UFA), Amini Silatolu, Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner, Mike Remmers
Top Backups: G Andrew Norwell, C Brian Folkerts, T David Foucault
Carolina has roughly 17,000 linemen on the roster to see who sticks. The major question revolves around LT. UFA Byron Bell has gone on record as saying he should be re-signed because he can really help this team. Maybe, but he sure didn’t help in 2014. He was 83rd out of 84 tackles, only rating better than rookie Jake Matthews. If the Panthers were to move on without him, there is not a lot on which to fall back. RT Nate Chandler was a terrible blocker as well, and fill-in Mike Remmers is inexperienced, although he did well enough in his 5-game audition. Bell has been below-average at best for the last 3 years; it’s time to move on, draft a LT, and keep Chandler or Remmers at RT.
The guard position had a lot of injuries this year, but most frequent starters Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner were above average enough to grant them the first shot to start at LG and RG, respectively. Third starter Amini Silatolu did not fare as well, giving up 6 of the 7 sacks given up by guards, and should come off the bench. Chris Scott also has starting experience, so UFA Fernando Velasco need not be re-signed.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil did not have his best season, especially with regard to his usual sub-standard pass blocking, but he still hung around the top 10 at the position. Backups Brian Folkerts and Kevin Matthews (UFA), of the famous Matthews family, don’t have much experience. Matthews should be re-signed because you never know how far the apple has fallen from the tree.
DE: Greg Hardy (UFA), Charles Johnson, Wes Horton, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, Frank Alexander
DT: Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Dwan Edwards (UFA), Colin Cole (UFA), Kyle Love
Defensive end Charles Johnson toils in obscurity for the Panthers. His production was similar to the Rams’ Robert Quinn, but doesn’t get his due respect. Unfortunately, his cap number is $20 million for 2015. On the other side, Mario Addison, Kony Ealy, and Wes Horton filled in for suspended DE Greg Hardy without much success. Addison did get 8 sacks, but he was subpar against the run. Horton defended the run, but couldn’t get a pass rush. Ealy was bad at both. Frank Alexander, back from his PED suspension, is also in the mix for backup snaps.
Hardy’s trial is set for February 9th, at which point this ordeal may be over and the league can decide to re-instate him. If they do, should the Panthers re-sign him? I think so. Personal conduct suspensions are tricky, but if found innocent, he deserves a chance to make a living. He’s still young and has talent.
At defensive tackle, Carolina is blessed with a pair of quality players in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Both can generate pass rush and defend the run. Backup Dwan Edwards is a UFA and while he was not great, he was consistent and dependable. At 34 years old, he should sign a 1-2 year deal while they try to develop Kyle Love and Micanor Regis. UFA Colin Cole was bad over his 2 years in Carolina and shouldn’t be re-signed.
OLB: Thomas Davis, A.J. Klein, Adarius Glanton, Chase Blackburn (UFA), Horace Miller
ILB: Luke Kuechly, Ben Jacobs (ERFA), Kevin Reddick
The starting three – Luke Kuechly (MLB), Thomas Davis (SLB), and A.J. Klein (WLB) all return for 2015. In the 4-3, Davis isn’t asked to generate much pass rush, so he focuses on pass coverage and stopping the run. Along the same story as Charles Johnson, Davis doesn’t get his due headlines, even if he’s getting paid. This guy is the #1 OLB in the NFL in pass coverage.
Klein, who actually splits time with UFA Chase Blackburn, is decent against the run but is only average overall. Since he comes out on the nickel packages (which is frequently used by Carolina), his pass coverage isn’t as important. Backup Adarius Glanton is also a decent run defender and is also in the mix.
Former defensive player of the year Kuechly is Patrick Willis minus the pass rush. In other words, he’s pretty good. A stud against the run and decent in coverage, Kuechly has proven over the course of his rookie contract that he will be a good investment for years. The backups, consisting of a handful of practice squad guys and retreads, aren’t used too much.
CB: Bene Benwikere, Josh Norman, Melvin White, Carrington Byndom, James Dockery (UFA)
S: Roman Harper, Tre Boston, Robert Lester, Thomas DeCoud, Colin Jones
The 2014 draft proved very fruitful for Carolina. Other than WR Benjamin, G Turner, and backup DE Ealy, their 4th and 5th round picks were used for Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston. These two earned starting positions at RCB and FS by the end of the season. Benwikere turned into a top 15 cover man once he moved from slot corner; and Boston was rated the #21 safety, behind Kam Chancellor.
On the other side, 3rd year CB Josh Norman blossomed once taking over as a starter. His coverage skills resulted in a QB rating of 53.2 on passes thrown his direction. Antoine Cason struggled mightily and was cut; Melvin White didn’t play well and was demoted. UFA James Dockery was subpar in coverage, and Charles Godfrey was terrible when used as a slot corner. Considering the Panthers use their safeties as nickel and dime corners, the depth at this position is dire.
Safety Roman Harper plays as the complement to Boston; he’s the enforcer on run plays. Although he’s not as good as he used to be, he’s still slightly above average. Third safety (and nickel corner) Colin Jones isn’t spectacular, and former starter Thomas DeCoud has been scary bad for a few years. Safety will need to be upgraded as Harper’s game starts to decline, but it’s not a priority this offseason.
Kicker Graham Gano seemed like he was gold in college, but he hasn’t shown much in the pros. His kickoffs are booming, though, and he will probably be around through the end of his contract in 2017. Punter Brad Nortman is an average punter in nearly every punting category, good enough for one more year before the team discusses re-signing him. Long snapper J.J. Jansen is not good, but not too harmful. He is also under contract one more season.
Kick/punt returner Philly Brown has proven a bit of a threat, especially on punts. He even scored a TD this year, which hadn’t been done in Carolina since before 2007. No luck with him or Fozzy Whittaker on kickoffs, though.
Initial cap space: $11.8 million
Re-sign: Webb ($745K), Whittaker ($585K), Bersin ($510K), Scott ($585K), Hughes ($585K), Folkerts ($585K), Matthews ($850K), Edwards ($2.2 mil), Jacobs ($585K), Blackburn ($1.2 mil) – with a net $1.6 million needed to sign draftees, these are projected to leave approximately $3.8 million in cap space.
Let walk: Dickson, Bell, Velasco, G. Williams, Cole, Dockery
Best cap cuts to clear up room, if desired: Thomas DeCoud ($1.9 mil), Mike Tolbert ($2.4 mil), Cam Newton (restructure/extension)
Biggest Team Needs: LT, WR, CB, TE
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Other team analysis reports and depth charts can be found in the archive.