2016 Carolina Panthers Offseason Positional Needs
Charlotte, North Carolina experienced pure football euphoria in 2015.
From the 15-1 regular season record to fielding the league’s highest-scoring offense with Ted Ginn Jr. as a No. 1 wide receiver to, yet again, boasting a downright greedy defense—folks dawning that Carolina black and blue were laying witness to history. And if you’re into the individual accolades, they racked those up too—having employed the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, Offensive Player of the Year and Head Coach of the Year.
Quite simply, this was the most successful campaign in the franchise’s 21-year history. Only one team, however, ultimately hoists the coveted Lombardi Trophy at the end of it all. And unfortunately for the Carolina Panthers, they weren’t that team.
Improvement is always welcomed, even for a group that won 17 of their 19 games this past season. After all, these Panthers still fell one step short of the ultimate goal despite their unexpected, yet overwhelming dominance.
So how do they finish the job in 2016? Here are a few needs general manager Dave Gettleman and company may address as Carolina looks to return to the Super Bowl stage:
Lost in the shuffle of Von Miller heading a defensive clinic alongside his Bronco teammates was an all-time Super Bowl performance from Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy and his boys. Ealy, who racked up three sacks and a one-handed interception, contributed largely to a Carolina unit that held Denver’s offense to a measly 194 total yards.
There’s no doubting the excitement for the soon-to-be third-year player following his breakout game in Santa Clara. But even the anticipated emergence of Ealy may not be enough to solidify the Panthers’ pass rush for the fall.
Despite finishing this past year with 44.0 sacks (sixth in the NFL), Carolina left plenty of quarterback takedowns on the table in 2015. Their progressive inability to get to opposing passers allowed some late-game scares where comfortable 20-point leads quickly dissolved into nail-biting one-score games.
Outside of Ealy and standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, the collective state of the team’s pass rushers is relatively unsettled. 33-year-old Jared Allen sorta, kinda rode off into the sunset, Mario Addison proved he’s still best served as a rotational end and Charles Johnson—who totaled one sack in nine games during the regular season—can be delivered his walking papers pretty soon given his incoming cap hit of over $15 million.
Gettleman, whose New York roots tend to favor a surplus of pass rushers, is always on the lookout for added pressure. The solutions to the problem can, of course, be found in the 2016 draft and/or on the free agent market with a few intriguing veterans out there such as Jason Pierre-Paul, Quinton Coples, Robert Ayers and Adrian Clayborn.
Over the last couple of drafts, Carolina has spent two high picks on wide receivers for quarterback Cam Newton—Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. And while both have shown flashes of becoming considerable factors in an NFL offense during their rookie seasons, neither is that “give-and-go” type this Panthers team really needs.
They have their trees in Benjamin and Funchess, their speedsters in Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown and their reliable pair of mitts in Greg Olsen. But where’s the explosiveness? Where’s that incendiary weapon that can pick up his own ground and lighten the load on Newton’s arm?
In 2015, Panthers pass catchers went for only 4.97 yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R). That average was good enough to for the 25th overall rank in the category.
The need for a receiver that can create separation and pick up extra yardage was evident all year for Carolina, especially against Denver’s suffocating secondary in Super Bowl 50. Will they dip into free agency or hope a talent like Baylor’s Corey Coleman somehow trickles down their way?
Unless you’re a Panthers fan, Josh Norman will not be your team’s newest cornerback this March. So let’s just get that out of the way. Because whether Norman inks a long-term agreement or not, there’s always that trusty franchise tag lifeline Carolina can use to lock him up for at least another season.
But with the certainty of hoarding their No. 1 cover-man also comes the cloudiness in much of their secondary.
Remember who closed out the season at the No. 2 and slot corner positions? Yup, Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan. And where were McClain and Finnegan prior to signing with Carolina late in the year? Yes, on their couches.
In addition, 35-year-old and oft-injured Charles Tillman (happy birthday, by the way) and 33-year-old safety Roman Harper are free of their current contracts. Although they've provided some much-needed veteran stability to a young bunch of defensive players in Carolina, will they be worth bringing back from a performance standpoint?