A disappointing 2016 season gave way a 2017 return to form for the Carolina Panthers. The defense bounced back, with the return of Julius Peppers providing some bite on third downs while the secondary matured and improved. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis were healthy and hostile, and the whole unit was once again among the best in the NFL.
The offense, conversely, struggled to match the heights of 2015. The passing game was less explosive, and the running less efficient. Still, they made enough plays to keep the defense happy and the record strong. The Panthers finished the year 11-5 and as the #5 seed in the NFC, but would fall to the Saints in the wildcard round.
Heading into the offseason things are a little different to last year. Dave Gettleman is out as general manager, replaced by the man he cleaned up after Marty Hurney. With a change of leadership one does not know where the Panthers will go with their 27 million in cap space and nine draft picks, but where should they focus their attention?
The Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin partway through the season much to the surprise of everyone. The return was a third- and seventh-round pick, which is unlikely to help them replace him, but they do help.
2018 is not a good year to need a wide receiver. Calvin Ridley is the only receiver worth a first round pick, and he is unlikely to be on the board when the Panthers come on the clock at #24. The free agency pool is full of limited veterans who can be useful pieces of a receiver corps, but not leaders of it.
While the Panthers have Devin Funchess and can lean on tight end Greg Olsen, a lack of outside threat hampered the offense all year. Even if they were to add someone like Mike Wallace that can stretch the field outside the numbers it would be a big help to the overall function of the offense.
I said the Panthers secondary had improved, but I didn’t say it was good. The cornerback position is still an issue for the Panthers, and while Dave Gettleman and Ron Rivera clearly didn’t massively value it, Marty Hurney may think differently.
Both James Bradberry and Daryl Worley ranked as “poor” in Pro Football Focus’ grading, and while the Panthers were able to cover for them with good pass rush and impressive interior coverage, they were isolated weaknesses against the better teams in the NFL.
If the Panthers want to compete for a Super Bowl again they must improve at corner. They lack the cap space to seriously chase after Malcolm Butler or Trumaine Johnson, but adding the likes of Johnathan Joseph or Brent Grimes could really help their competitiveness on the outside.
Don’t be surprised if they throw their first round pick at the position either. The likes of Donte Jackson or Mike Hughes could well be worth a shot at the end of the first round given their playmaking ability.
The other area the Panthers need help is the offensive line. Their “normal” running game, ie not Cam Newton options or scrambles, was something of a disaster last year. While some of that is the shortcomings of Jonathan Stewart at running back, some of it was the line as a whole. The Matt Kalil contract is already a horror show and Andrew Norwell is hitting free agency and likely to be too expensive for them to re-sign.
Any help both on the outside or inside of the line would be very welcome for both Newton and whoever ends up taking the bulk of the carries next year. With three picks on day two the Panthers have a good opportunity to find some talent that can compete across their line.
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