After a disappointing 7-9 season, the Carolina Panthers enter the offseason faced with more uncertainty than usual. With a new owner who likely wasn’t happy with the team’s second-half tailspin, there’s the possibility that the team could look very different next fall. Here’s a look at the key areas that will shape the Panthers for 2019 and beyond.
Head coach Ron Rivera found himself on the proverbial hot seat during the team’s seven-game losing streak. His job appears to be safe, however. Rivera survived Black Monday, and reports surfaced in multiple media sources that he’d be back in 2019.
His staff will likely feature some changes. He stripped first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington of responsibilities during the losing streak. Last season’s coordinator, Steve Wilks, is surprisingly available, after getting fired by Arizona after one season as head coach. There’s the possibility Carolina could put the band back together, rehiring Wilks in his old role and moving Washington back to his previous job, coaching the defensive line.
The team has several needs to fill on the roster, but first, the Panthers need to make decisions on their own guys. Carolina has 20 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including several veteran contributors. GM Marty Hurney will have to decide which, if any, have enough left to bring them back for one more year, and which areas need to be added to the team’s lengthy “positions of need” list.
Center Ryan Kalil has already made the decision for the team. The season finale was his final game, as he heads into retirement. Linebacker Thomas Davis backtracked from his preseason declaration that this would be his final season and would like to come back for one more go-round. Similarly, defensive end Julius Peppers has to decide if he wants to retire or have one more year in the NFL. Then the team will have to determine whether or not to bring Davis and Peppers back or move on to younger replacements.
Safeties Mike Adams and Eric Reid are two other veteran free agents. The team appears to already be making strides to re-up Reid, a midseason pickup.
Other key contributors on the list of free agents include unheralded defensive tackle Kyle Love, special teams standouts Ben Jacobs and Colin Jones, and offensive linemen Amini Silatolu, Chris Clark and Darryl Williams.
Then there’s wide receiver Devin Funchess. In his fourth year, Funchess saw his catch, yardage, average and touchdown numbers plummet. He was inactive for the team’s final game, and Rivera gave every indication that Carolina is ready to move on.
The Panthers also have some key non-free agents who need to get healthy over the offseason, or else the team will need to spend resources on a contingency plan. Tops on that list is quarterback Cam Newton, who missed the last two games to rest his injured shoulder. The Panthers and Newton need to decide quickly whether he’ll have surgery to repair it or try to rehab it without going under the knife. Depending on his status going into camp, Carolina may need to find a veteran backup to hedge its bets on Newton’s progress.
Tight end Greg Olsen, who battled a season-long foot injury for the second straight year, is also an uncertainty. Assuming he can get back to 100 percent, he’d likely want to return so he can go out on his own terms. He may decide the rehab and recovery isn’t worth it, however, and chose to move on to broadcasting or whatever his next career will be.
Kicker Graham Gano also battled injury and missed the end of the regular season. The team will need to make a decision on the veteran.
Draft and other acquisitions
Once Rivera, Hurney and the rest of the decision-makers have a handle on the current roster, the Panthers can set about filling holes. Among the areas of need Carolina currently has are the offensive line. The tackle spots likely needed to be upgraded even before the likely postseason free agent departures we’ll see. The Panthers will likely look for a way to inexpensively part ways with Kalil’s brother, Matt, a disappointing free agent pickup last offseason. The team will also be in the market for a new center.
Like the line, the safety spot was an area of need, even before Adams and Reid hit the market. Even if both come back, the Panthers need to get younger and deeper there. The defensive line, receiver and corner are other spots in need of an upgrade.