2015 NFL Offseason: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 7-8-1)

2015 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB Jordan Todman, WR Jarrett Boykin, ILB Jason Trusnik, CB Charles Tillman, S Kurt Coleman, KR Ted Ginn.
Early Draft Picks:
LB/S Shaq Thompson, WR/TE Devin Funchess, OT Daryl Williams. Panthers Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB DeAngelo Williams, OT Byron Bell, C Fernando Velasco, DE Greg Hardy, OLB Chase Blackburn, S Thomas DeCoud.

2015 Carolina Panthers Offense:
Even though he led his team to the playoffs and won a postseason game for the first time in his career, the 2014 campaign was one that Cam Newton will gladly want to forget. Newton set a career-low in YPA (7.0) and a career-high in turnovers (17), and he also missed action for the first time as a pro. Newton dealt with countless injuries this past season, so it’s actually quite impressive that he was able to help his team reach the playoffs, though being in one of the worst divisions in NFL history definitely helped matters.

Newton is now healthy, but will that last? The conventional thinking was that Carolina’s front office was going to upgrade the offensive line, but that didn’t happen. It could be just as bad as it was this past season. The Panthers jettisoned inept tackles Byron Bell and Nate Chandler, but they didn’t upgrade those two. Instead, they added Michael Oher and promoted Mike Remmers. Oher, known as the “Blind Side,” might actually be blind based on how poorly he has played over the past few years. And the thing is, he hasn’t even been stationed on the blind side. He has remained at right tackle, but now he’s expected to shield Newton on the left, which could be disastrous because he couldn’t even stop a paper bag from blowing into the backfield. Remmers, meanwhile, nearly got Newton killed in the playoff defeat to Seattle. Carolina spent a fourth-round choice on Daryl Williams to push either player, but it remains to be seen how effective this mid-round prospect is.

The interior of the Panthers’ offensive line isn’t nearly as bad. It’s led by center Ryan Kalil, who is one of the better players at his position. Meanwhile, guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner were thrust into the lineup during the middle of the season, and they both performed very well, helping to spark the team’s late-season surge.

Another player responsible for Carolina’s hot finish was Jonathan Stewart. The oft-injured running back went berserk, rushing for 486 yards on 91 carries in the five games following the team’s Week 12 bye. Having Stewart run like this in 2015 will go a long way in helping the Panthers make a deep run into the playoffs, but they can’t count on that. Stewart, after all, has missed 20 games in the past three seasons, so there’s a good chance that he’ll miss a chunk of 2015. If so, the Panthers don’t really have anyone proven to take over, given that DeAngelo Williams signed with the Steelers this spring. The most promising replacement would be Cameron Artis-Payne, a fifth-round rookie.

The other draft pick utilized to potentially bolster the offense was a second-rounder used on Devin Funchess. However, the Michigan product doesn’t have a true position; he’s too slow to be a receiver, but too small to be a tight end. The plan for him is to line up across from Kelvin Benjamin, who thrived as a rookie, but it’s unclear how Funchess will be able to get open. At the very least, he won’t draw much attention, given that the opposition will be concentrating on Benjamin and Greg Olsen, who is coming off a career year in which he caught 84 passes for 1,008 yards. Olsen should be great again, but there are concerns with Benjamin, who showed up to OTAs overweight and out of shape.

2015 Carolina Panthers Defense:
While Jonathan Stewart sparked the offense during Carolina’s late-season surge, a few changes made on defense helped push the team over the top. Including the playoffs, the Panthers surrendered just 15 points per game in the six contests following the Week 12 bye, and that includes matchups against high-powered offenses like Atlanta and New Orleans.

What Carolina did was make wholesale changes to the secondary. Ineffective veteran retreads were benched in favor of a pair of rookies: Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston. The former was exceptional at cornerback, and he’ll enter the 2015 campaign as a starter across from Josh Norman, who also had a solid campaign, taking over a starting gig in the middle of the season after beginning the year as a backup. Meanwhile, Boston played very well at free safety, displacing the horrid Thomas DeCoud. He’ll keep his job as the starter next to Roman Harper, who struggles in coverage but can thrive in run support. Harper turns 33 in December, however, so he’ll need to be replaced soon.

The Panthers’ secondary was outstanding to close out the year, but it could still use some help in the pass-rushing department. Unfortunately for the team, Greg Hardy won’t be back after missing all but one game in 2014. Carolina will have to move forward without him, and it still at least has Charles Johnson able to put tons of pressure on the quarterback. Johnson began his 2014 campaign slowly because of a hip flexor issue, but quickly got over it and finished the year strong, collecting 8.5 sacks. It’s unclear, however, who will start across from Johnson; it could be 2014 second-rounder Kony Ealy, but he struggled mightily as a rookie. Wes Horton, another option, did as well. The favorite could be Frank Alexander, who has 3.5 career sacks.

The team is in much better shape at defensive tackle. Kawann Short is Carolina’s second-best pass-rusher; he notched 3.5 sacks in 2014, but that’s not nearly indicative of how much pressure he put on opposing signal-callers. Star Lotulelei brought some heat as well, but he was stronger in run support. Dwan Edwards, meanwhile, provided solid depth as a rotational player.

Much like Devin Funchess, Carolina’s first-round rookie doesn’t have a defined role either. Shaq Thompson, considered a reach, has the ability to play either strong safety or weakside linebacker. He’ll likely play both as a hybrid player, though a hamstring injury that he sustained in OTAs could set him back. He would otherwise be a potential perfectfit in a linebacking corps comprised of two mega talents, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The latter is a great player, but as outstanding as he is, he doesn’t compare to Kuechly, who is arguably the top non-pass-rushing linebacker in the NFL right now.

2015 Carolina Panthers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Panthers need to develop a strong homefield advantage. They were 7-2 at home in 2013, but are just a mediocre 20-22 as hosts in the past five seasons.

Graham Gano signed a 4-year, $12.4 million contract last offseason. He went 29-of-35 this past year, though he was just 1-of-3 from 50-plus after being a perfect 6-of-6 from that range in 2013.

The front office spent a late-round pick in 2012 on punter Brad Nortman. He was brutal last year, finishing dead last amongst 32 qualifiers in net yardage (36.5). He wasn’t good at placing kicks inside the 20, either.

Carolina had arguably the worst special teams in the NFL this past season. Philly Brown took a return back to the house, but the team was outgained by 7.5 yards on punts and a whopping 10.6 yards on kickoffs.

The Panthers have a pretty easy schedule overall, but it’s worth noting that they have a brutal four-game stretch beginning in Week 6 in which they play the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts and Packers. The good news is that all but the former are at home.

2015 Carolina Panthers Rookies:
Go here for the Panthers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.

2015 Carolina Panthers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2015 Carolina Panthers Analysis: Was Carolina’s hot finish in 2014 a sign of things to come this upcoming season? That’s very likely, as the Panthers’ late spark was the result of young players finally getting the chance. With Cam Newton healthy – for now – there’s a good chance that Carolina will repeat as NFC South champions.

Projection: 9-7 (Tied 1st in NFC South)

NFL Draft Team Grade: D Grade

Goals Entering the 2015 NFL Draft: It’s well known which two positions the Panthers have to address in the draft: receiver and offensive tackle. They do have other needs, though. A third linebacker, an upgrade at safety and another running back have to be acquired.

2015 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I slotted Shaq Thompson to the Panthers at No. 25 in one of my final mock drafts because I knew they liked him, but I ultimately made the decision to move him to Carolina’s pick in the second round because I thought he was too much of a reach with the 25th-overall choice. Other teams we spoke to felt the same way, slotting Thompson in the second frame. Thus, it’s apparent the Panthers reached for him. Thompson doesn’t have a truly defined position in the NFL, so using a first-rounder on him is a curious move.

Having said that, taking Thompson at No. 25 was brilliant compared to what happened next. The Panthers dealt multiple picks to move up for Devin Funchess, another player who doesn’t have a real position. Funchess is too small to be a tight end and too slow to be a receiver, so where does he fit in? He was expected to slide, so if the Panthers truly coveted him, they could have obtained him (or a similarly talented receiver/tight end) with their own selection in the second round. Taking a major reach is bad enough; using multiple resources to do so is beyond disastrous.

Two of Carolina’s third-day selections salvaged this grade from being a Millen. Daryl Williams was a nice bargain pick and could end up starting, while Cameron Artis-Payne provided great value in Round 6. However, neither prospect is good enough to offset what transpired earlier, as well as the fact that the Panthers made only one upgrade to their beleaguered offensive line.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

25. Shaq Thompson, LB/S, Washington: C+ Grade
I had Shaq Thompson to the Panthers – in the second round. I only had him falliing that far because it was apparent that they really liked him. In fact, I slotted Thompson to the Panthers at No. 25 a few weeks ago, but ultimately thought that was a bit too early for him. The teams we spoke to agreed, as they had him as a second-round prospect. Having said that, this is a fine pick, as Thompson’s versatility will definitely help Carolina’s defense. He’ll be able to play both safety and linebacker, depending on the situation.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

41. Devin Funchess, TE, Michigan: MILLEN Grade
Eww… This wouldn’t be a truly terrible pick if the Panthers simply selected Devin Funchess at their spot in the second round, but they surrendered third- and a sixth-rounders in the process? Uhh… why!? Funchess is a man without a true position. He’s too slow to be a receiver, and there were better wideouts available. He’s too small to be a tight end, and there were better tight ends available. This selection makes no sense on so many levels.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

102. Daryl Williams, OT, Oklahoma: B Grade
The Panthers are going to kill themselves in terms of lack of depth by trading up so frequently. This move makes much more sense than the other one, however. Daryl Williams was getting third-round buzz from some teams, so this is a nice spot for him. Considering the offensive line talent in Carolina, Williams could start Week 1 this year.

169. David Mayo, ILB, Texas State: D Grade
I didn’t have David Mayo in my top 400 rankings, and I don’t know of anyone else who did either. Mayo doesn’t project to be anything more than a special-teamer.

174. Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: A- Grade
DeAngelo Williams is gone, and Jonathan Stewart is frequently hurt. The Panthers had to find a new running back, and they may have secured a good one in Cameron Artis-Payne, who was outstanding at the Senior Bowl. It wouldn’t surprise me if Artis-Payne, a projected fourth-round pick, emerged as a starter down the road.

Season Summary:
The Panthers endured many hardships this season. Greg Hardy was suspended for domestic abuse; injuries knocked several key players out of the lineup; the offensive line struggled immensely; and Cam Newton was banged up and ineffective for the first half of the year. However, the Panthers made some changes following their bye and caught fire, winning their final four games to claim the weak NFC South. They beat Arizona in the wild-card round, but fell at Seattle, though they played valiantly in that contest.

Offseason Moves:
  • Titans sign OT Byron Bell
  • Panthers sign CB Charles Tillman
  • Panthers sign ILB Jason Trusnik
  • Panthers sign RB Jordan Todman
  • Panthers sign WR Jarrett Boykin
  • Cowboys sign DE Greg Hardy
  • Panthers sign S Kurt Coleman
  • Steelers sign RB DeAngelo Williams
  • Panthers re-sign TE Ed Dickson
  • Panthers re-sign DT Dwan Edwards
  • Panthers sign WR/KR Ted Ginn
  • Panthers sign OT Michael Oher
  • Panthers re-sign DT Colin Cole
  • Panthers cut RB DeAngelo Williams

    Team Needs:
    1. Two Offensive Tackles: Carolina’s No. 1 priority this offseason is improving the offensive line. The team needs to bolster Cam Newton’s pass protection early and often, and it begins with the left tackle spot, where Byron Bell surrendered nine sacks in 2014. Right tackle is also a big problem area. Signed Michael Oher

    2. Wide Receiver: The Panthers look like they have a strong No. 1 receiver in Kelvin Benjamin, though the rookie made some mental blunders throughout the 2014 season. Carolina has to find a secondary wideout though. Perhaps it’ll spend its opening-round selection on one. Signed Ted Ginn and Jarrett Boykin

    3. Running Back: Jonathan Stewart shockingly ran well to close out the year. Stewart, however, has been unreliable over the years, so the Panthers should spend a mid-round pick on another back, especially with DeAngelo Williams on his way out.

    4. Safety: The Panthers made some nice changes to their secondary during the bye that helped propel them into the playoffs. However, one liability continued to be Roman Harper, who needs to be upgraded with an early draft choice. Signed Kurt Coleman

    5. Weakside Linebacker: Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are studs, but Carolina could stand to find a third linebacker to complement the two Pro Bowlers.

    6. Defensive End: Greg Hardy is as good as gone, leaving just Charles Johnson as a reliable, exterior pass-rusher. The Panthers drafted Kony Ealy in the second round last spring, but he has yet to show anything. Some competition could be acquired.

    7. Cornerback Depth: Some of Carolina’s young corners played well to close out the year, but depth should still be acquired.

    8. Interior Offensive Line Depth: The interior of Carolina’s line did well late in the year, as Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell looked good. Depth is an issue, however.

    9. Interior Defensive Line Depth: Two of Carolina’s rotational defensive tackles have expiring contracts. Re-signed Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards

    10. Punter: Brad Nortman was dead last in net yardage this past season.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2015 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Michael Oher, OT, Titans. Age: 29.
      Signed with Panthers (2 years)

      What happened to Michael Oher? He played well early in his career but he has regressed each year. He still has great talent, so perhaps he’ll find some way to turn it around, but he shouldn’t get any sort of contract like the 4-year, $20 million deal he received last offseason.

    2. Ted Ginn, WR/PR, Cardinals. Age: 30.
      Signed with Panthers

      I’m biased against Ted Ginn because he has a habit of costing me money when I wager on or against him, but he still deserves to be rated as a two-star free agent. He’s not much of a receiver, but he’s still a dynamic punt returner; he took a touchdown to the house in 2014 and averaged more than 10 yards per return.

    3. Jason Trusnik, ILB, Dolphins. Age: 31. — Signed with Panthers
    4. Charles Tillman, CB, Bears. Age: 34. — Signed with Panthers
    5. Kurt Coleman, S, Chiefs. Age: 27. — Signed with Panthers
    6. Jarrett Boykin (RFA), WR, Packers. Age: 25. — Signed with Panthers
    7. Jordan Todman (RFA), RB, Jaguars. Age: 25. — Signed with Panthers

    Carolina Panthers Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers. Age: 27.
      Signed with Cowboys (1 year, $11.3 million)

      It’s difficult to rank Greg Hardy. He’d have a 4.5-star rating under normal circumstances, given that he’s one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL. His domestic-abuse issue looms large, however. I’ll bump him down a star.

    2. Dwan Edwards, DT, Panthers. Age: 34. — Re-signed with Panthers
    3. Byron Bell, OT, Panthers. Age: 26. — Signed with Titans
    4. Fernando Velasco, C/G, Panthers. Age: 30. — Signed with Titans
    5. DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers. Age: 32. — Signed with Steelers
    6. Chase Blackburn, OLB, Panthers. Age: 32.
    7. Thomas DeCoud, S, Panthers. Age: 30.
    8. Colin Cole, DT, Panthers. Age: 35. — Re-signed with Panthers (1 year)
    9. Ed Dickson, TE, Panthers. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Panthers
    10. Garry Williams, OT, Panthers. Age: 29.
    11. Chris Scott, G, Panthers. Age: 28.


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