In a five-day whirlwind in Indianapolis, the 2019 NFL scouting combine came and went, leaving a flurry of tidbits and insights about the Carolina Panthers.
Ahead is the start of a new league year, and free agency, which will help clarify remaining position needs and set up the Panthers’ draft board ahead of the 2019 NFL draft in April.
But first, the Panthers’ staff got through the combine, evaluating prospects on the field and in meetings behind closed doors. Head coach Ron Rivera also met with the media on Thursday to provide a “state of the Panthers” of sorts.
Here are 12 key takeaways from the week:
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Team needs will stay the same
The Panthers needed to revive both their offensive and defensive lines by the end of the 2018 season, and those needs won’t change as priorities despite the excitement and rising stock of some draft prospects at skill positions.
Carolina needs to invest in protection for quarterback Cam Newton on the offensive line, and in speedy pass rushers on the defensive line. Carolina’s draft pick must be able to join the team as a Day 1 starting-caliber player.
And that leads us to a lucky break for the Panthers …
This draft class is strong up front
NFL draft analysts and coaches — including Rivera — agree: This particular draft class is chock-full of prodigious talent on both sides of the line, at both interior and exterior positions. For a team with as many needs as the Panthers, it’s the perfect opportunity to find the right players to assist in a roster rebuild.
Cam Newton’s status is positive
Rivera gave an update on quarterback Cam Newton’s rehabilitation process on Thursday, after Newton had an arthroscopic procedure on his shoulder in January.
“Probably the biggest thing I can tell you is what (head athletic trainer) Ryan Vermillion updates us, and just that everything is progressing very well,” said Rivera. “He’s been going through his rehab sessions, and everything has been positive.”
The Panthers won’t look for a quarterback in free agency
A sign the Panthers are very confident in Newton’s progress? Rivera also said the team won’t seek out a quarterback in free agency, turning instead to the potential of finding a player in the draft who could be developed into a long-term backup role.
A complement to Christian McCaffrey?
Starting running back Christian McCaffrey’s snap count was high in 2018 (91 percent), but he touched the ball on just 34 percent of his total snaps. Carolina wants to get more efficient with McCaffrey’s extraneous snaps while still keeping him at an average of 20-30 touches per game, and will strongly consider picking up another running back in 2019 — whether it’s re-signing free agent Cameron Artis-Payne or looking to the draft.
Interestingly, Rivera indicated that the team is seeking a running back with a skill set similar to McCaffrey’s: Explosive runner, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and durable.
Interior offensive linemen are at a premium
Not only do the Panthers have to invest in depth at tackle, they also have to make a decision about what they want to do at left guard (and find a replacement for center Ryan Kalil).
Carolina’s ideal interior offensive lineman is a guy who can play both guard and tackle. But their ideal center has to be a little something extra — a natural leader who is confident and well-versed in the type of control a starting NFL center must have over the offensive calls and game plan.
The future at receiver is now
Carolina Panthers receiver Devin Funchess won’t be getting a new contract from the team, a league source told the Observer on Friday, and will hit free agency at the start of the new league year on March 13.
That makes way for incoming second-year receiver DJ Moore to take over the No. 1 receiver role, and for incoming third-year receiver Curtis Samuel to be his complement. The move to let Funchess go doubles down on Carolina’s new offensive direction, which emphasizes speed and versatility.
State of the secondary
The Panthers like Corn Elder as a competitor for the nickle back vacancy left by Captain Munnerlyn, who the team released last week. But their starting safety opposite Eric Reid is still undecided.
Rivera said they’ll evaluate that position further as they get closer to organized team activities (OTAs), but Reid’s substantial three-year contract suggests the team won’t add another safety via free agency.
That means the Panthers could add safety depth via the draft. One key trait this player must have? Versatility.
Speed, speed, speed
The game is getting faster every year, and the Panthers need to keep up, particularly on defense. Pass rushers they will consider must have good technique, length and strength, sure. But they must also have explosive game speed.
Sigh of relief
A report from the New York Post earlier this week stated that Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was being pursued by both ESPN and FOX as an NFL analyst. That was followed by the news that Monday Night Football analyst and tight end Jason Witten will return to the Cowboys in 2019, leading many to speculate that Olsen would be a frontrunner candidate for the vacancy.
But Rivera said Olsen has told him he will be playing in 2019, and a league source told the Observer that despite the Witten news, Olsen is continuing to prepare to get back on the field after missing most of the last two seasons with a fractured right foot.
This year’s tight end draft class is superb. But it’s actually one of the rare positions in which Carolina does not have a need.
Replacing Ryan Kalil
Finding their next long-term center is not going to be an easy task for the Panthers. Not only are they looking for a high-quality player, they also are seeking intangibles that they will sorely miss without Kalil’s presence in the locker room in 2019.
“The leadership qualities (we want) is a guy who is willing to step up and take responsibility, be accountable, hold others accountable in the right way,” said Rivera. “Ryan Kalil was a very special player. I was very fortunate to have a number of those types of guys. That’s one of the things that has happened to us in terms of the transition, losing some of those guys. The people who we are going to have to replace not just on the field, but in the locker rooms, in the meeting rooms, in the team room and on the field is going to be very, very important.”
Don’t forget about defensive tackle
When Carolina switched up its pressure schemes with six weeks left in the regular season, coaches decided to go more vertical with their pass rush — meaning the pressure on the quarterback came from up the middle and the edge-rushers worked as containment.
Quarterbacks in the NFC South are getting the ball out fast, and that means the Panthers must continue to add fresh legs on the defensive line in the draft. A lot of focus will be on defensive ends, but don’t forget that this is a great draft class for defensive tackles, too.