Thursday, July 6, 2017

Offseason Review Day 3: The Carolina Panthers


Carolina Panthers

Division: NFC South

Well that certainly could have gone better.

After the most exciting season in our franchise history, which saw us complete a 15-1 record, an easy sweep of the NFC in the postseason and a trip to the Super Bowl, reality came crashing down on my beloved Panthers like a giant cartoon anvil. Highlights include the following:

  • Our MVP QB turning in the worst season of his career

  • Our OL crumbling into dust

  • Our superstar LB being carted off the field in tears following his second concussion in as many years.

  • Surrendering the 6th greatest receiving game of all time to Julio Jones

  • Losing about 7 heartbreakers by less than a field goal

  • Winning 1 game against our entire division

  • A national TV humiliation by the Seattle Seahawks

  • Our best beat writer shuttering his site

  • Our special teams coach fucking died

The upshot of all this misfortune was a 6-10 season, a playoff miss and statistically the worst Super Bowl hangover in NFL history.

So who is this team? Where does it go from here? Has its window closed? Where on the spectrum is it between the sorry squad we watched last year and the juggernaut it appeared to be in 2015?

My name is BlindWillieJohnson and I’m here today to shed some light on those very questions for you. So without further delay, let’s dive into the Carolina Panthers’ moves this offseason and the future of this team as it licks its wounds and prepares to move past the debacle that was 2016.

Coaching Changes

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR - Sean McDermott finally got the job he rightfully deserved at the end of last season when the Buffalo Bills hired him to be their 22nd head coach. Though Rivera’s acumen as a defensive mind blunts this loss somewhat, it’s still a significant one. McDermott had been an absolute genius in utilizing his linebacker talent and scheming around the personnel at his disposal. His creative prowess will be missed.

Replacing him is secondary coach Steve Wilks. While that might sound like a significant downgrade considering the state of our secondary last year, it should be remembered that Wilks has cobbled together some damn fine secondaries out of very dubious players in the past. He did a very admirable job developing our young rookies last year and was the key man in coaching up Josh Norman, who it should be remembered was a 5th round project coming out of college. Wilks was really the only man for the job and I feel comforted knowing that he has it.

SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR: On December 27th of 2016, Special Teams Coordinator Bruce DeHaven lost his year long battle with cancer. Replacing him is Thomas Mcgaughy, who has served around the League in various ST capacities. It’s hard to say what this change symbolizes. But it’s worth noting that even through the 2015 season, we have not had a good ST unit in years.

Departures

AJ Klein, LB - A solid player and good depth guy, Klein was our starting OLB opposite Thomas Davis until one Shaq Thompson was drafted in the first round of 2015. But with Shaq now on the team, adding Jeremy Cash as an OLB development prospect and Mayo outplaying him as Kuechly’s backup, this was a mutually beneficial breakup. Klein, who has clear starter potential, was buried on our depth chart and wanted a chance to compete for a starting job. And it made very little sense for us to throw money at a position group that, even without him, is one of the deepest in the NFL. He’s moved onto the New Orleans Saints who, if they’re wise, will be treating him as an outside rather than MLB where he’s a more comfortable fit.

Ted Ginn Jr., WR - Teddy Ginn was our top receiver in 2015 and our #2 last season. Losing him means we’re out a valuable deep threat. While I will never consider Ginn an irreplaceable talent on our team or any other, it does leave us thinner at receiver where we’re potentially thin to begin with. He joins Klein in heading to New Orleans, which I think was a savvy pickup for a team freshly relieved of Bradin Cooks’ services.

Corey Brown, WR - Corey, or more popularly, Philly Brown, is taking his talents to Buffalo. Brown is a receiver with significant upside who I never felt we properly utilized. He doesn’t have the speed to be a burner nor the size to beat corners in press coverage, but he’s a solid route technician and a potentially valuable slot receiver. I like his fit with the Bills, but given how poorly we utilized him, I don’t think his loss is going to have much impact on us.

Mike Tolbert, FB - Mike Tolbert was a Pro Bowler in 2015, which proves how much one’s name can influence voting at obscure positions. Put frankly, Mike Tolbert sucked in 2016 and he’s been declining for years. He’s a poor runner, a poor receiver and a hilariously bad blocker at this stage of his career and losing him is not significant. He is now a Buffalo Bill, and more power to them.

Mike Remmers, OT - The loss of Remmers is difficult to make heads or tails of. On one hand, he was a serviceable RT for us for years. On the other, he seemed to have peaked at “below average starter”. Remmers heads to the Vikings, who better be damn sure that he starts at right tackle for them and not left. While he was consistently the weak link on our line in 2015 and 2016, his departure leaves more questions than answers, as the RT depth behind him was exposed when we slid him over to LT to replace Michael Oher. This is a significant loss, make no mistake, and it has the potential to be a disastrous one.

Kony Ealy, DE - Even more perplexing than Remmers was Ealy, who while technically not a FA loss, was traded to New England in order to allow us to move from the 6th pick in the 3rd round to the 32nd pick in the 2nd. This is a trade that left many of us fans scratching our heads. Ealy put in an amazing showing in Super Bowl 50 and was awesome all through the 2015 playoffs. But his time writ large here was marred by inconsistent play in which he tottered somewhere between serviceable and forgettable. Finally, the coaching staff lost patience with him. Given his flashes of brilliance, I wish we’d have either kept him or tried to get more for him, but I understand the rationale for moving on.

Tre Boston, S - Boston, like Ealy, leaves Carolina as a player who flashed high potential but with no consistency whatsoever. We tried him at FS, where he struggled mightily and SS where he was often good and often bad. He spent most of his time here buried behind Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman. He’s now an LA Charger. Hopefully they can get his potential to shine more often than we could.

Arrivals

Julius Peppers, DE - Pep is back in the house! I’m not as convinced as some of our fanbase that this is a transformational signing. Rather, I would compare signing the future Hall of Famer favorably to the Jared Allen trade two years ago; a consistent, quality player who will provide good QB pressure and can help coach our younger talent. Peppers still has quite a bit left in the tank, and while he may not be the transcendent talent at 36 that he was ten years ago, he’s still a quality player that adds to our already deep DL.

Captain Munnerlyn, CB - It’s no secret how woefully inadequate our secondary was last season. And while our two draft picks at corner excelled as the season progressed, the fact remains that Carolina has not had a competent slot corner since Munnerlyn’s departure in 2014. His return provides a relief to that problem, and he was still playing at a high level in Minnesota. Munnerlyn provides us an instant boost at nickel and will also compete with Daryl Worley for time on the outside.

Mike Adams, SS - Speaking of positions we’ve sorely needed in the secondary, Strong Safety was a huge hole last season. We patched it over with Tre Boston at some times and Kurt Coleman at others, but neither was really meant for the role. Adams represents another vet stopgap who can put a band aid on the position until we get a shot at addressing it long term. He still played at a high level in Indy and I suspect that if Harper were still on our roster, he would provide a solid upgrade over him. He’ll also allow Coleman to slide back over to FS, where he’s a much more natural fit.

Matt Kalil, LT - Say hello to the most expensive free agent signing in Carolina history. Yeah….great. Kalil, as everyone knows, was great as a rookie and bad just about every other year he ever played. While his career was often plagued by injuries, it seems the arrow was pointing downward on him before we gave him the contract that we did.

Of course after Oher’s concussion failed to clear as the winter turned into spring, we were fairly desperate at the position. Everyone and their mother knew what a poor draft class this was for OT, and that left reaching for Kalil as our only real option. So we outbid the Vikings for him and brought him here. If he is truly healthy can get to even 75% of what he was as a rookie, this will be a solid signing, even at the price. But there are real questions as to whether injuries hamstrung him or he’s just bad. This represents Gettleman’s riskiest signing to date.

Russel Shepherd, WR - A rising star on the Tampa Bay Buccs, Shepherd was a well respected ST player and slot receiver, both of which we badly needed. Assuming he makes the roster, he’ll provide us an option underneath and ST tackle machine and occasional returner.

Charles Johnson, WR - Johnson is a receiver who, after a promising 2014 campaign with Minnesota, has mostly disappointed. I give him about a 50/50 shot of making the roster, but he does provide speed that we badly need and the large frame we often covet. I think he makes a more natural fit with us than he does Minnesota, and he should help fill some of Ted Ginn’s snaps as a deep threat.

Extensions

Kawaan Short, DT - Short is alpha and omega in our pass rush; a player who causes incredible disruption on the interior DL. He was one of our most important players and our top priority coming into this offseason. He deserves every penny of his 5 year, $87 million contract. And while that may seem like a lot for a DT, just remember that we’re paying him like a top tier pass rusher, as that’s exactly what he is.

Mario Addison, DE - Addison was another critical cog in our pass rush. With 9.5 sacks last year, Addison lead the team. He’s a specialist who is something of a liability against the run, but quietly one of the better pass rushers in the NFCS. Keeping him in the rotation along with our other DEs keeps the pass rush fresh and I’m excited to see what he can do opposite Peppers in pass rushing packages.

Wes Horton, DE - Horton is the opposite of Addison; a liability against the pass but an excellent run stopper. He’ll rotate out on run packages.

Charles Johnson, DE - You’re seeing a running theme here. Keeping the DL together was a high priority for us, as it remains one of the strengths of our defense. Johnson is our best all around DE, solid against the run as well as the pass.

Jonathan Stewart, RB - This one was a bit of a head scratcher for many as he was considered him a popular cut candidate when it became obvious that we were targeting a RB high in the draft. But the extension makes perfect sense. When healthy, Stew is still an explosive player, and his pass blocking skills will help offset McCaffery’s relative weakness at that role.

Brentin Bersin, WR - Because of course we fucking did.

Draft

Capping what, in my opinion, was a strong free agency was an even stronger draft. And make no mistake; this draft represents major changes to the way the Carolina Panthers do business. If it works out, this could be a revolutionary class for us. If it doesn’t, it will be due to our inability to fit these talented players in our system.

Christian McCaffery, Round 1, pick 8 - The sexiest of our moves this offseason was drafting highly touted RB Christian McCaffery. McCaffery offers a skillset that is both diverse and sorely lacking on our team. He can play RB. He can play slot receiver. He can line up outside. He can catch out of the backfield. He can play special teams. He’s one of the most diversely talents in this class, and indications so far are that he will be used in all of his capacities early and often. Our offense for years relied has on Cam to be a ball carrier and to make deep threat plays while offering him very little help underneath or in the short yardage game. CMC and his high draft position represent a change of offensive philosophy that should see Cam getting quick release options he has heretofore in his career lacked, and that prospect should be very exciting.

Curtis Samuel, WR. Round 2, Pick 40 - Samuel was drafted as a WR, plain and simple. I bring this up as many people seem to be under the assumption that Samuel is little more than a McCaffery clone; a gadget RB that can catch out of the backfield. So I think it’s important to dispel that notion. While he has struggled with health in camp, he has worked almost exclusively as a wideout with us, and we plan to put his blistering 4.31 40 speed that he recorded at the Combine. I fully expect him to take up time in the slot, but I imagine he’ll spent most of his time split wide and running routes that can place him in space with defenders; an intermediate threat more than a purely deep or short one. He’ll allow Funchess to move to routes out of the slot more, where he has been vastly more effective than he has split wide.

Taylor Moton, OT, Round 2 pick 64 - While I wasn’t happy with the Ealy trade, I can’t argue with the player we got out of it. At 6’5, 291 lbs, Moton is a big boy. A real hog molly, if you will. It remains to be seen whether he’ll provide depth at guard or OT, but early reports are that he’s pushing Daryl Williams for RT reps. Without question, he’s got the physical size and strength needed to be a starting OT. His technique needs work, but if there’s one team that’s good at making something out of nothing at OT, it’s us. I have a lot of faith in his potential, even if I don’t think he’ll necessarily flash it for another year or so. Regardless, for a team desperate for OT depth, Moton was an excellent pick.

Daeshon Hall, Round 3, pick 77 - A key draft priority for us was getting younger at pass rush, and with prospects like Smoot, Willis and Wormley all off the board by this pick, we went with Texas A&M’s Hall. Though overshadowed by 1st overall pick Myles Garrett, Hall is a prospect with all the size and intelligence to be a 4-3 end. His technique is raw and will need to be worked on extensively to see significant time, but the building blocks, work ethic and IQ are all there. I think he could be a valuable pass rusher in time, but I doubt he sees much action as a rookie.

Corn Elder, CB Round 5, Pick 152 - We didn’t pick in the 4th round this year, so our next selection was CB Corn Elder in round 5. This was a very solid value pick, as Elder projected as one of the better nickel corner prospects in this draft. Though only 5’10, he’s fast and shifty enough to play slot corner and I expect him to develop behind Munnerlyn this year. But given the rave reviews we’re already hearing, he may allow Munnerlyn to play outside on passing plays while taking up the nickel role even as a rookie.

Alexander Armah, FB? Round 6, pick 192 - Armah is an intriguing prospect. At West Georgia, Armah played DE, RB, FB and occasionally TE. Though versatile, his likely role will be replacing Mike Tolbert. I like his value as a blocking FB and a receiving one with the odd snap or two at TE. He’ll be an exciting piece to develop.

Harrison Butker, K, Round 7, Pick 233 - Graham Gano, your ass is on notice. That’s the message sent by this pick. Butker himself was a strong kicker for Gorgia Tech. If he excels, we get to dump Gano, who was frankly awful last year and represents an expensive contract. If he doesn't, he’s a 7th rounder and can comfortably be cut.

Strengths and Weaknesses

I’ll now attempt to identify the positives and negatives on the roster based where I think the team is at. I’ll also outline a few X factors that could go either way and might make or break us depending on how they pan out.

Strengths

Interior OL - While the OL writ large is something of a concern, the interior is stout. Ryan Kalil is still an All Pro talent when healthy and his backup Gino Gradkwoski is also talented enough to start for a number of teams. Trai Turner is an absolute stud, having made Pro Bowl in 2 of his first 3 seasons and is a prime candidate for an extension this offseason. Andrew Norwell opposite him is almost as good. This unit is excellent in both pass and run blocking. They were instrumental in our change of fortune from 2014 to 2015, and I have every faith that they’ll keep up the good work now that they’re all healthy and playing in position.

The Run Game - This was a strength prior to taking Christian McCaffery and it’s an even stronger one now. Cam is in a class of his own as far as short yardage runs go, and J-Stew is an explosive player when healthy. That power run game is now aided by McCaffery, who brings an outside run threat and receiving option we previously lacked. His own ability to assist on power runs should help keep Stew healthy too, and gives us a thunder/lightning combo we haven’t had since we were pairing Stewart and Deangelo Williams.

Greg Olsen - He gets his own mention, as he seems to be speeding up at 31 rather than slowing down. While it’s not unheard of for a TE to play well into their 30s, Olsen’s third straight 1,000 yard season is unprecedented in NFL history. Better yet, Olsen was forced (mostly due to our personnel) to play 53% of his snaps out of the slot despite being a great deal more effective outside. The additions of McCaffery and Samuel only free him up to do more damage where he does it best.

The DL - Our defensive line is stout. Though not made up of superstars, we’ve cobbled together an outside rush that is effective in all its packages. Addison is an excellent pass rushing specialist while Horton a run stopping one. Peppers and Johnson are both do-all DEs who can play any down. Adding Hall is good depth in case any of those guys gets hurt. Then there’s the interior; a beastly unit that should be even better than it was last year. Our 2016 first round pick Vernon Butler was explosive as a pass rusher in his limited action, but spent most of the year sidelined by injuries. He’s got a clean bill of health now, and the early reviews indicate that he and Short may be able to reap absolute hell up the middle. Combined with run stuffing specialists Star Lotulelei and Kyle Love, we have a diverse DL that can perform against any offensive package that takes the field.

LBs - This one is obvious, as we arguably possess the best 4-3 LBs in the NFL. The prowess of Kuechly and Davis is well known by now, but quietly flying under the radar is 2015 1st round pick Shaq Thompson, who turned in an excellent season. His snap count is only going to increase. David Mayo was excellent for us as well in his limited action and provides a solid backup to Luke. This is a diverse group of LBs who are as capable against the run as they are in coverage. Provided a clean bill of health, they have the ability to transform our defense.

The Secondary - This one may seem a bit odd considering how putrid the unit was last year, but bare with me here. Early on it was plagued by injuries, which is a bad sign for a team that was already relying on a pair of rookie corners to shoulder the load. But Bradberry was excellent whenever he was on the field, and Worley developed into a solid player. Adding Munnerlyn and Elder will provide a boost to this group of corners and give us a nickel presence we haven’t had since his departure. Furthermore, safety has received a relief package in the form of Adams, who will allow Coleman to slide back over to FS where he’s a great deal more comfortable. All totaled, this is a unit that much more strongly resembles its 2015 version than last year’s.

Weaknesses

Offensive Tackle - While the interior of our OL is about as good as it could be, the tackle situation remains dire. We badly require that Kalil plays more like his rookie self than the version the Vikings had for years, and the results if he doesn’t could be catastrophic. And the picture across from him at RT is even worse. Daryl Williams, though a solid run blocker, has been absolutely miserable in pass protection. He’s a downgrade over Remmers until he proves otherwise. Behind him? A rookie Moton who needs more time to develop and a bunch of depth guys I couldn’t even name. We not only need this unit to exceed expectations, but to remain healthy. Because the minute injuries start piling up, our OTs are doomed.

WR - Olsen represents our best and only reliable receiving threat. And as much as I like signings like Shepard and Johnson, the fact is that until proven otherwise, our receiver corps behind Benjamin remains a collection of rag tag spare parts. And while Kelvin Benjamin’s weight problems have been wildly overstated (the 280 weight was denied by every single beat writer we have, even our most disreputable) the fact that he disappointed last year cannot be denied. While Funchess has shown some promise as a slot receiver, he has unquestionably failed to live up to his draft spot. Samuel and McCaffery will both help alleviate this troubled crew, but if our current players don’t step up, the passing game could be in a very bad way.

Health - Obviously, health is a major concern for every team. But for us in particular, the health concerns are in pretty key areas. Cam Newton’s shoulder needs to hold up if we’re to have an effective offense. Ryan Kalil is an awesome player, but he’s missed time in both of the last years and the 8 games he lost in 2016 proved absolutely catastrophic for our offense. Likewise, Kuechly may be a couple of concussions away from being finished, and losing him last year was a crippling blow to our defense. That’s three of the most important Panthers with big injury concerns going into this season. And we’re a single injury away from complete disaster at offensive tackle.

X Factors

Michael Oher - At this point, it seems more likely that Oher is a weakness rather than an x-factor. But it’s hard to believe that he’d still be on the team if the coaching staff and FO didn’t have some faith that he could return. If Oher is able to recover, we can slide him to RT and our OT situation suddenly goes from dire to surprisingly good. But going on his 9th month in the protocol, it’s getting harder and hard to see that outcome.

Cam - Cam was a strength in 2015 and a weakness this year. Frankly, I think the truth of Cam Newton is somewhere in between those years; the difference between everything going perfectly right in the former and unbelievably wrong in the latter. Concerns over his shoulder have largely abated now (he’s back to throwing again, which puts him well ahead of schedule for a full recovery by the start of the season) but I remain more concerned about his head space. Can he fight adversity? Can he deal with pressure, both literal and figurative? Can the skillset he’s displayed over the years jive with the new weapons we’ve put in place for him? These are open questions. If resolved to the positive, I could see another MVP caliber season from him, or at the very least a return to his 2013 form. If he can’t rise to the occasion, it will be another long year in Carolina.

Youth - Youth on a football team is both a blessing and a curse. Take our young corners for instance. Either of them could develop into studs, and at least one is already trending in that direction. They looked good by the end of last year, and in Bradberry’s case, damned good. But it’s only one year. They could just as easily regress. The same goes for our new rookies, who, while extremely promising prospects in at least three cases, might easily be busts. We need our young players to contribute and in the case of our rookies, to do it early. We are very heavily relying on them; more than a lot of teams. That is a prospect that is both exciting to our future and potentially dangerous to it.

Schedule Prediction

Last year I made the foolhardy effort to painstakingly predict our wins and losses based on matchup. And given that I finished with a 12-4 record by those predictions, you can see about how well that worked out for me. This year, instead of embarrassing myself, I’m going to attempt to outline our likely wins, likely losses and toss ups, giving a range I think we’ll finish in.

Week 1 @ 49ers: Likely Win - The 9ers are in a full rebuild and whatever you think of the Panthers, we are not. This should be the easiest win of the season even as an away game.

Week 2, Bills: Likely Win - Our first home game of the year has us taking on the Bills in the McDermott revenge game. I think we’re the more talented team here and we should take it at home.

Week 3, Saints: Likely Win - A 3-0 start to the year would be great and the schedule favors it. The Saints are already a struggling team that has continued to rack up injuries. I think the Saints have the potential to be quite good this year, but as things stand now, I think this is a nail biting win for us at home.

Week 4, @ Patriots: Likely Loss - It’s the Pats in Foxborough. I’d love this win more than any other this season but I’m not seeing it.

Week 5, @ Lions: Toss Up - The Lions had a better record than us last year, but I’m not convinced they have a more talented roster. This is one of those matchups that I think will show our true colors early on, as Detroit is a good team. I could see this going either way, even if I think the Lions will rightfully be favored.

Week 6, Eagles: Toss Up - Philly is an interesting team this year, but it’s one in transition. Given that this is a home game, I think we should be favored here, but I could see this one going either way.

Week 7, @ Bears: Likely Win - I don’t think there’s any arguing that Chicago’s a better team than us. This is a promising road game that we should definitely win.

Week 8, @ Buccaneers: Toss Up - Like us, the Buccs are a team that could be on the verge of great things, or could see the same old flaws catch up to them. I think we’ll be in a knife fight with the Buccs for a WC spot, and while I like our matchup at home, the road game is anyone’s guess.

Week 9, Falcons: Likely Loss - The Falcons kicked our asses proper last year, both times we played. Until we prove we can beat them (and by the time this game is played, the conversation might be very different), I think I have to accept this one for the L collum.

Week 10, Dolphins: Toss up - The Dolphins are a team on the upswing, but I think we will be in 2016 as well. Their defense, however, lacks the pass rush to properly exploit our offensive weakness. I could see this going either way.

Week 11, Bye - God it sucks having a bye this late.

Week 12, @ Jets: Likely Win - I’m not sure there’s a single game on the Jets schedule that they should be favored in.

Week 13, @ Saints: Likely Loss - Drew Brees lights us up at home every single year. We lose those contests more often than we win them.

Week 14, Vikings: Likely Loss - The Vikings DL absolutely savaged us last year when we took them on, and I don’t see that changing this year.

Week 15, Packers: Likely Loss - I think the Packers have some sneaky weaknesses we could take advantage of, and if our defense is as good as I think it might be, we can totally win this game. But at this point we’re favored to lose and rightfully should be considering our teams’ relative performances last year.

Week 16, Buccaneers: Likely Win - I’m a lot more confident that we can beat Tampa Bay at home than I am on the road.

Week 17, @ Falcons: Likely Loss - Again, I don’t think we can beat the Falcons. I hope by repeating how great the Falcons are I can jinx them into failure, like I did that time I put on their bandwagon flair before the Super Bowl. But realistically I think we have to admit that a sweep is more likely than not.

Final record, somewhere between 11-5 and 6-10, though I’ve said for months now that nothing between 3 and 13 wins would particularly surprise me.

Conclusion

Last season, I boldly predicted that this was a team that wouldn’t lay down and die before it promptly proceeded to do exactly that for 16 weeks. Our 15-1 record wasn’t a fluke, but it was in large part due to circumstances going exactly right. They went exactly wrong in 2016. Our rookie corners, though good, were both banged up early leading to some truly humiliating defensive performances. Our offense averaged about 30 points a game until week 8 saw us losing our starting and backup centers in one fell swoop, which coupled with the loss of Oher in week 3, decimated our offense. And losing Luke was a critical blow to our defense, which relies on him as much in coverage as against the run.

All told we caught some tough breaks, and I firmly believe that between the growth of our young players and the improvements we made during the offseason, we are a better team than our last season would have you believe. Outside of OT, we managed to at least put a band-aid on all of our major holes. It remains to be seen if your second year players can keep up their positive growth. Health is a major concern and so is the house of cards that is the OL. Will our fresh blood revolutionize our offense, or will Cam and Shula be unable to fully utilize them?

There are a lot of open questions, but I do believe, at the end of the day, that we’re a much more competitive team than we were a year ago. Our ceiling is a deep playoff run, but our floor is continued mediocrity.



Submitted July 06, 2017 at 01:29PM by BlindWillieJohnson
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