Panthers’ offseason of uncertainty continues at combine

Carolina continues to shed veterans as new names added are to the list

New Panthers coach Matt Rhule speaks during a press conference last Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. (Michael Conroy / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers continue to cut ties with the past, and all indications are that the changes will keep coming for the franchise.

While the team isn’t quite in full rebuild mode yet, each new move pushes the Panthers closer to that reality. Gone this offseason are Greg Olsen, who signed with the Seahawks after parting ways with Carolina, and Luke Kuechly, who retired. They are two of the more popular players the franchise has had in recent years and faces of the franchise. Olsen was heavily featured on the Amazon documentary on the team last year, and Kuechly was the endorsement face of a security company that advertised during Panthers games in recent seasons.

Now, it seems that the next Panther to go might be Trai Turner. According to reports by ESPN and other media outlets. Carolina was reportedly shopping the five-time Pro Bowler while at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last week. The 26-year-old guard should be in high demand by several contenders. If the Panthers pull the trigger on Turner, it would be the clearest indication yet that the team is building for the future and coach Matt Rhule’s debut season in 2020 could be sacrificed.

It also may have an impact on the biggest name still in question on the Panthers roster. At the combine, Rhule seemed to indicate that he was on board with Cam Newton at quarterback.

The NFL Network reported that the Panthers were planning to move forward with the former MVP, and, in his combine press conference, Rhule said, “I’m unbelievably excited to get to work with Cam. … I’m excited to get him healthy. Obviously, that’s the No. 1 goal for us. He’s doing a great job of doing his part. We have to make sure we’re doing our part as we try to get him healthy for the 2020 season. … I’m excited to have him here. I want him to be here. I want to coach him.”

Still, Newton’s injury history can be blamed, at least in part, on a lack of protection, and the team’s willingness to explore trading its best offensive lineman seems to run counter to the stated desire to have a healthy Newton throwing passes for the Panthers in 2020 and beyond.

There have been rumors that the team is targeting Ryan Tannehill, who had a career rebirth in Tennessee last year, in free agency. National NFL writers Mike Freeman and Matthew Berry have both said they believe the Panthers are still open to trading Newton.

Certainly, any number of teams would be interested in bringing Newton aboard, including Chicago, who appears ready to move on from former Tar Heel Mitch Trubisky, Tampa Bay, who is uncertain about Jameis Winston, and Washington, now coached by former Panthers head man Ron Rivera.

Newton released a workout video saying he wanted a commitment, although he didn’t mention the Panthers directly. He expressed his desire to remain in Charlotte earlier this offseason. The team trading one of the building blocks of the line would likely be seen by Newton as a lack of a commitment from the Panthers’ front office. It’s possible that, with plenty of attractive options elsewhere and frustration mounting, he begins pressuring the team to make a decision or demands a trade or release. 

The free agency market also threatens to take away more Panthers veterans. The team seems to be undecided about whether to keep cornerback James Bradberry. Defensive lineman Dontari Poe is likely on his way out as the team will look for younger and cheaper options to replace him.

Even the team’s draft plans seem to have taken a hit lately. The Panthers were believed to be strongly considering Isaiah Simmons of Clemson with their top pick. Simmons would be given the chance to replace Kuechly at linebacker.

Simmons was one of the stars of the NFL Combine, however, and vaulted his draft stock with his performance. It’s doubtful he’ll still be around when the Panthers pick at No. 7.

As the Panthers continue to part with veterans, the team’s list of needs gets longer. Carolina now needs to find answers at linebacker, tight end and, if the team follows through on some of the rumored moves, quarterback, guard, defensive tackle or corner. In other words, pretty much everywhere except running back, where Christian McCaffrey seems secure.

It’s been an offseason of change, and the next few weeks will go a long way in determining which direction the Panthers head — for next year and the years beyond.