Monday, January 7, 2013

Off-season Diagnosis: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers decided to give Rivera another crack
at making the playoffs.
After a wonderful rookie season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers were the darlings of the NFL. Many people, including myself thought the Panthers would make the jump, and become a playoff contending team. That certainly was not the case, as Carolina limped out of the gate, starting 2-8 and blowing many games (who can forget Atlanta starting a drive inside their 5 and pulling out a win). The good news? The Panthers ended the year going 5-1 including a four game win streak that featured wins over Atlanta at home, and New Orleans on the road. Ron Rivera probably saved his job, for now. Rivera will surely be on the hot seat in 2013. This roster is built to make the playoffs now. Outside of Newton, try to name a great young player that can be built around for years to come. Last years first round pick, Luke Kuechly was a beast. He led the team in tackles with 103 total tackles and had two picks. Outside of these two, Carolina doesn't have a lot of young talent to build upon for years to come. This doesn't mean that Carolina is in rebuild mode. DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith are still good players, though not the stars they were years ago. Jon Beason is still a great linebacker, but can he stay healthy? That is a question with a lot of players on the defense. There are many pro bowl caliber players on this roster, but the window is closing on this group. If Carolina wants to make a run with this current roster, the time is now.

Will Captain Munnerlyn take his talents elsewhere
this offseason?
With that said, Carolina needs to have a productive draft to set it self up for future success, and help the core that is in place. Before we get to the draft, lets focus on free agency, and what Carolina can do to improve. The good news? The Panthers don't have too many decisions to make regarding their own players. The biggest name that could walk would be corner back Captain Munnerlyn, but the Panthers should be able to retain the young corner out of South Carolina. After they take care of Munnerlyn, Carolina should focus on bolstering the wide receiving core. Steve Smith is 33 and needs help. Brandon LaFell finished 2012 with 39 receptions and 615 years. LaFell should still be an integral part of the offense going forward, but Cam Newton needs another weapon. Dwane Bowe and Mike Wallace are two options that Carolina should look into, but a better option may be Brine Hartline. Hartline is coming off a 1000 yard season in Miami, and didn't have much help around him. He is young, only 26 and coming off the best year of his career. He wont cost as much as the other top targets, and would take tons of pressure off Smith, Newton, and even tight end Greg Olsen. Tackle is another position of need for Carolina, and with Jake Long on the market it may not be a problem for long. The question is, will Carolina put more money into their line. They already have a lot of money committed to Jordan Gross. Some other guys to keep an eye on, corner back Brett Grimes, corner Tracy Porter, or any other "mid to high" level defensive backs.

Kuechly may win DROY, but Carolina needs
to find more talent in the draft.
As I noted earlier, the Panthers need to increase their young talent from top to bottom. The best way to do that is obviously through the draft. Other than Luke Kuechly, the Panthers didn't find many impact players (yet anyway). They will once again have an opportunity to get some top end talent, as they will be selecting 14th overall. Carolina has only  five picks not counting any compensatory picks. They traded away their third-round selection to San Francisco and their seventh-rounder to Oakland. Much of what Carolina does in free agency prior to the draft will dictate what they do in the draft, but look for Carolina to rebuild the trenches. Either offensive tackle or defensive tackle seems logical. The D line has a lot of talent, including Charles Johnson and Thomas Davis but both are ageing. A few names to remember are D tackles Johnathan Hankins out of Ohio State, Johnathan Jenkins out of Georgia, and Star Lotulelei out of Utah. I would not be surprised if Carolina tried to move up and grab Dion Jordan, a pass rushing specialist out of Oregon, but that will be difficult with the lack of picks. If Jordan is still available at 14, it will be hard to pass on him. Playing Drew Brees and Matt Ryan four times a year, it can't hurt to add another top end pass rushing threat. Offensive tackle Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) could be an option if the Panthers look O-line early. In the later rounds, Carolina should look at grabbing more offensive linemen, a safety, and of course, a play maker. The dynamic Stedman Bailey out of West Virginia could be an option. In the late rounds, look for Carolina to add...wait for it... A KICKER! The Panthers could be in the market for a young leg.
The Panthers don't need Newton to
be Superman, just a better QB.

All in all, the Panthers still aren't far away from becoming a playoff contender. They beat Atlanta once, and should have beat them a second time. They have a good young QB, and some dynamic (but older) play makers. I believe they made the right decision in keeping Rivera around, and making another run at the playoffs with this core.

When it comes down to it though, Cam Newton needs to improve. He is so dynamic, and is maybe the best rushing QB in the league. He can take hits, unlike RGIII or Mike Vick. He led the team in rushing this season (come on DeAngelo Williams and John Stewart), and is a nightmare to defend. Guess what? It won't matter if Newton does not improve his accuracy and overall passing abilities. He has finished in the middle of the NFL (17th and 16th) in total QBR, and showed no improvement in his second year (He actually lowered his QBR from 55 to 54.2. In comparison, Peyton Manning led the league this season with a 84.1 rating). Newton has the talent to become the biggest weapon in the league. The thing is, he doesn't have to be the top weapon, just a better QB. If he can become a top 10 QB, at least in QBR, the Panthers will surely be a playoff team.

---Lee Kunkel

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