The Panthers overall 7-9 mark in 2018 obscured a promising-season-turned-disaster. A seven-game losing streak is buried in the nine losses, and the streak would have hit eight had they not faced a New Orleans Saints team in week 17 that was resting starters for the playoffs.
After hitting the halfway mark at 6-2, the Panthers began their downward spiral on a Thursday night in Pittsburgh, when Ben Roethlisberger threw for five touchdowns and exposed the Panthers’ secondary in a 52-21 rout.
The secondary went on to give up 32 touchdowns through the air on the season. Not surprisingly, the Panthers were 27th in the league in sacks, giving opposing quarterbacks ample time to find their targets. The Panthers ranked 14th in the league in both scoring and yielding points, suggesting a mid-pack finish, which is where they landed via a night-and-day path.
The Panthers won’t be heavily impacted by the loss of unrestricted free agents. The nucleus of the team – including Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Luke Kuechly – remains under contract. Linebacker Thomas Davis is the highest-paid of Carolina’s unrestricted free agents ($6.75 million in 2018) and at 36 will not be re-signed.
Ryan Kalil, the Panthers’ second-round pick out of USC in 2007, and a five-time Pro-Bowl selection, retired at the end of the season. Backup Tyler Larsen was an undrafted free agent out of Utah State originally signed by the Dolphins in 2014 and latching on with the Panthers in 2016. He will try to anchor a line beset by injuries last year.
Keeping Cam Newton from reinjury, once he returns, is the challenge of the Panthers’ offensive line and organization. Ryan’s brother, Matt Kalil, went down with an injury prior to the 2018 season at left tackle. Matt landed a $55 million contract with the Panthers going into 2017, and there is speculation that even though he is under contract until 2021, he may not return. The Panthers could take a several-million-dollar hit against their cap if he doesn’t, but with multiple roster needs and with Kalil underperforming, they may choose to.
Newton underwent his second career shoulder surgery on his throwing arm on January 24. The quarterback’s timeframe for return is uncertain, as is the ongoing durability of the shoulder. If the Panthers should decide to shut Newton down for 2019, will they look for a one-year starter rather than going with backup Taylor Heinicke who started for the team, but was also injured down the stretch? At 6’1″, out of Old Dominion, and on his fourth team in four years, Heinicke fits the profile of a long-term backup.
The team needs to shore up its secondary, including at strong safety where Mike Adams was a liability last season. 2018 addition Eric Reid is solid at free safety.
It is unlikely that Newton will miss all of 2019, but if concerns about his recovery persist, the Panthers could look for a one-year starter in Nick Foles or Teddy Bridgewater. Early reports on the scale/scope of Newton’s surgery can best be described as murky.
Defensively, Carolina needs to bring pressure, and one available free-agent option is the Vikings’ Anthony Barr. Barr struggled in his pass coverage in 2018, but the Panthers can leverage his pass-rushing ability and minimize his downside by keeping him out of a coverage role. Giants’ safety Landon Collins is a free agent and after an average 2018 season didn’t become a bargain, but will be more affordable and on the market. Prior to 2018, Collins was an all-pro caliber player and his positional versatility would be a boon for a Carolina team that can anchor Kuechly in the middle and fill in flexible packages around him.
The Panthers pick 16th overall in the first round. They then pick up the 47th pick of the draft in the second and take their next pick 31 spots later in the third round.
The retirement of likely Hall of Famer Julius Peppers on February 1 underscored the team’s already existing need for a dynamic pass-rusher. Linebacker Brian Burns out of Florida State will get long consideration from Ron Rivera.
Tight end Greg Olsen will be 34 this fall and could return to the Panthers if fully recovered from his latest foot injury, but along with Newton his 2019 fate is uncertain.
Kaden Smith, a junior tight end from Stanford who declared for the draft in early January, lists at 6’5″ and could prove a replacement for Olsen and a tall underneath target that a returning Newton or a stop-gap fill-in could turn to when pressured. Where Smith falls in the draft will determine if the Panthers can afford to spend a high pick on a tight end.
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