2017 NFL Offseason: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 6-10)

2017 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
WR Charles Johnson, WR Russell Shepard, OT Matt Kalil, DE Julius Peppers, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Mike Adams.
Early Draft Picks:
RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Curtis Samuel, OT Taylor Moton, DE Daeshon Hall, CB Corn Elder. Panthers Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
RB Mike Tolbert, RB Fozzy Whittaker, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR Philly Brown, OT Mike Remmers, OT Michael Oher, DE Kony Ealy, NT Paul Soliai, ILB A.J. Klein, S Tre Boston.

2017 Carolina Panthers Offense:
The 2016 campaign had to serve as a wake-up call for the Panthers. For far too long, they’ve been relying way too much on Cam Newton to do everything offensively. It’s easy to see why they would do that because Newton is a mega-talent, but he labored through an injury this past season and had his worst year as a pro as a result. He completed only 52.9 percent of his passes, and his YPA dipped below 7.0 for the first time. He also maintained a 19:14 passing touchdown-to-interception ratio, which worsened significantly from 2015’s 35:10 figure.

As a result, it’s not a surprise that the Panthers used their first three picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on offensive weapons to help Newton. The first choice was used on Christian McCaffrey, who will be an extremely versatile weapon for Carolina. McCaffrey will split time on the ground with Jonathan Stewart, but he’ll also be used as a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield and in the slot. The Panthers will be able to turn him into a mismatch weapon, and McCaffrey is sure to reward them by threatening to go the distance whenever he touches the ball.

Carolina’s second-round selection was used on Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel, who compares favorably to Percy Harvin. Samuel, like McCaffrey, can explode down the field whenever he gets his hands on the ball. He’ll be a replacement and a potential upgrade for Ted Ginn. His presence will be welcome in a Panthers receiving corps that was severely lackluster this past season. Returning from injury, Kelvin Benjamin struggled in 2016, as he never looked completely healthy. Making matters worse, Benjamin reportedly showed up to offseason workouts at a reported 280 pounds. Benjamin has been trying to lose weight since, but it’s astonishing that he let himself get so out of shape in the first place. Meanwhile, Devin Funchess has been a major disappointment as a 2015 second-round pick. Several Carolina beat writers thought Funchess would out-produce Benjamin last year, yet Funchess logged just 23 receptions for 371 yards. He’ll need to improve, or the Panthers will give up on him soon.

Newton’s preferred weapon will continue to be Greg Olsen for the foreseeable future. It’s nice that he can rely on Olsen because he can’t do so with the offensive line. The tackle situation has been horrible for years now, and that continues to be the case. Matt Kalil was signed to be the new blind-side protector, but any Viking supporter will tell the Carolina faithful that Kalil is not a good blocker. Kalil played well early in his career, but numerous injuries have ruined him. And speaking of injuries, Michael Oher’s status is unclear because of his extensive concussion history. Oher was also arrested this offseason after allegedly assaulting an Uber driver, so his status for 2017 is even cloudier (edit: he has since been cut.) Even if he plays, he hasn’t performed well in years, so Newton’s edge blocking is extremely questionable. Second-round rookie Taylor Moton could help, but he’s a raw prospect.

The Panthers at least have strong interior blocking. Ryan Kalil is one of the better centers in the NFL, and he’s joined by a couple of very talented guards in Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner. The latter disappointed following a prolific 2015 campaign because of a nagging knee injury, but he figures to return back to form in 2017.

2017 Carolina Panthers Defense:
Cam Newton was the MVP in 2015, but a major reason why the Panthers reached the Super Bowl that year was because of their prolific defense. The stop unit took a step backward this past season, thanks to the departure of Josh Norman. Luke Kuechly suffering a scary concussion in the middle of the year didn’t help much either.

It’s going to be an extremely difficult task to replace someone as talented as Norman, but the Panthers have not come close to doing so yet. James Bradberry, chosen in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, played very well as a rookie last season, but is probably better off being a No. 2 cornerback. Even if he evolves into a No. 1, he almost certainly won’t play on the level that Norman did, though asking him to reach that status is unfair.

The Panthers were devoid of talent at cornerback outside of Bradberry, though they did have some other young players like 2016 third-rounder Daryl Worley and fifth-rounder Zack Sanchez. One of them will have to play across from Bradberry, while the newly acquired Captain Munnerlyn will be stationed in the slot. Munnerlyn is coming off a down year, but is a skilled nickel who should be able to help out the secondary.

Munnerlyn wasn’t the only acquisition Carolina made to improve its defensive backfield, as safety Mike Adams was signed away from the Colts. Adams has been a great player for Indianapolis over the past few seasons, and he could continue to perform on a high level for the Panthers. However, he turned 36 this offseason, so he’s bound to regress at some point in the near future. Adams will start next to Kurt Coleman, who has experienced an up-and-down career. Coleman was terrific in 2015, but struggled mightily last year. It’s unclear which safety the Panthers will be getting in 2017, though it’s likely it’ll depend on the pressure Carolina’s front can generate. It’ll also help that Coleman is returning to free safety after performing poorly at strong safety.

Speaking of the defensive line, the Panthers welcomed back another former player in Julius Peppers. Signed in free agency, Peppers is obviously no longer the player he once was, but did well for the Packers in a limited role last year, recording 7.5 sacks. Peppers turned 37 this offseason, so further regression could be possible. The same can be said for Charles Johnson, a 31-year-old who has undergone back surgery and will miss the entire offseason program as a result. Johnson was banged up in 2016, so this is not a new phenomenon for the Panthers. They’ll need to count more on Mario Addison, who recorded 9.5 sacks last year and was rewarded with a $22.5 million contract this offseason. Kony Ealy is gone, so it’ll be up to Addison to provide the most pressure from the edge this season.

Of course, Carolina’s top defensive lineman is Kawann Short, who put together a dominant 2016 campaign. It remains to be seen, however, if Vernon Butler can emerge as a viable complement. Last year’s first-round pick, Butler struggled as a rookie, but definitely possesses great potential. It would be a huge boon for Carolina’s defense if he could unseat the highly disappointing Star Lotulelei.

The best part of Carolina’s stop unit is the linebacking corps, though that wasn’t the case this past season when Kuechly got hurt. Kuechly will be back, which is extremely important because he’s arguably the top linebacker in the NFL. Kuechly, Shaq Thompson and Thomas Davis form quite the trio, though Davis is now 34. He regressed a bit this past season, prompting defensive coordinator Steve Wilks to tell the media that he’s going to limit Davis’ snaps this year. It’s likely that Thompson will overtake Davis in playing time, which is fine because Thompson was the better player in 2016.

2017 Carolina Panthers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Panthers needed to develop a strong home-field advantage. They were a mediocre 20-22 as hosts in the five seasons prior to 2015. Problem solved: They were a perfect 10-0 as hosts in 2015, and they were 4-4 this past season (compared to 2-6 on the road).

Graham Gano was once a solid kicker, but he has struggled recently, going 30-of-38 in 2016. The Panthers, as a result, selected kicker Harrison Butker in the seventh round.

Andy Lee wasn’t eligible to be ranked atop the net yardage rankings for punters because he played in only nine games, but he certainly would’ve been in the top 10 had he qualified.

Carolina was mixed on special teams, outgaining opponents on kickoffs, but losing on punts. Return specialist Ted Ginn is no longer with the team.

The Panthers had a very easy schedule the year they reached the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t as kind in 2016. Things are easier this year, as the 49ers, Bills and Saints are the first three opponents. Carolina also gets the Bears, Dolphins and Jets later in the season.

2017 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.

2017 Carolina Panthers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2017 Carolina Panthers Analysis: Injuries, poor offensive line play and a declining defense crushed the Panthers in 2016. There’s a chance for Carolina to rebound, as the team could have better luck with injuries, while the stop unit figures to be a bit stronger. Offensive line play, however, has not really been addressed, so another deep trip into the playoffs is unlikely.

Projection: 7-9 (4th in NFC South)

2016 Projection: 11-5. 2016 Actual Result: 6-10.

NFL Draft Team Grade: B+ Grade

Goals Entering the 2017 NFL Draft: How long can the Panthers go without upgrading the offensive line? Addressing this area of the roster is an absolute mess. The blockers in this particular class are not very good, unfortunately, so Carolina can focus instead of finding offensive play-makers for Cam Newton to work with.

2017 NFL Draft Accomplishments: Think the Panthers focused on upgrading the weapons around Cam Newton, or what? Both of their initial selections were used on offensive play-makers. Christian McCaffrey will serve as a dynamic weapon out of the backfield, decreasing the amount of punishment Newton will have to take on a weekly basis. Curtis Samuel will offer great speed in the slot, possibly upgrading what the departed Ted Ginn offered.

The Panthers didn’t have much of an opportunity to improve their offensive line, as expected. They spent the final pick in the second round on Taylor Moton, but he’s far from a guarantee to upgrade the situation. It just wasn’t in the cards for Carolina, as this was a weak class for blockers.

Carolina made some positive and negative choices on the third day of the draft. I liked the Corn Elder pick, but they whiffed on the fullback they opted for. Overall, it was a positive haul for the Panthers, and I think it’s worth a B+. Newton has to be happy for now, though the team’s primary problems are far from solved.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

8. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford: B+ Grade
Credit to Joe Person for first linking Christian McCaffrey to the Panthers. McCaffrey checks off all the boxes for the Panthers. He’s everything Carolina looks for in a prospect, and he fills a huge need at running back. He’s extremely versatile, and Cam Newton will love working with him. Carolina’s offense was stagnant last year. Part of that was Newton being hurt, but a major factor was the lack of weapons at Newton’s disposal beyond Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin. That will no longer be the case with McCaffrey now in the mix.

40. Curtis Samuel, WR, Ohio State: A- Grade
The Panthers were expected to address their lack of speed at receiver in the wake of the Ted Ginn departure. Curtis Samuel certainly qualifies, as he should be able to emulate what Ginn brought to the offense and special teams. Hopefully he doesn’t drop as many passes. Samuel is a solid selection, as he fits the range at this spot. Cam Newton has to be thrilled with these new weapons.

64. Taylor Moton, OT, Western Michigan: B Grade
I’m not sure Taylor Moton will be able to fix Carolina’s offensive tackle needs, but it’s slim pickings as far as that position is concerned in this class. Moton is a fine choice, as he could play either tackle or guard for the Panthers. He fits the range at the bottom of the first round.

77. Daeshon Hall, DE, Texas A&M: C Grade
The Panthers moved up about 20 spots to select Daeshon Hall, surrendering a fourth-round pick in the process. I’m not sure it’s worth it, as there still plenty of talented edge rushers still on the board. Daeshon Hall is a good one, as he possesses very good athleticism. He fills a need as a successor for Charles Johnson, but I don’t like the trade.

152. Corn Elder, CB, Miami: B Grade
Corn Elder may sound like an aging farmer, but he’s really a raw cornerback who is still learning the position after transitioning from running back. Elder fits the range in the fifth round, and he could be a decent slot corner for the Panthers down the road.

192. Alexander Armah, FB, West Georgia: D Grade
I’m not sure why Alexander Armah was drafted. He wasn’t anywhere close to being on my board, and there were several better fullbacks available.

233. Harrison Butker, K, Georgia Tech: C- Grade
We didn’t have Harrison Butker in our kicking rankings, so I don’t know what to make of this. Surely, the Panthers could’ve signed him as a UDFA. I don’t understand the logic behind this selection.

Season Summary:
Everything seemed to go right for the Panthers during their 15-1 Super Bowl run in 2015. The complete opposite happened, as Carolina lost many close games and suffered numerous injuries to key players. The good news is that the nucleus of the team remains, so the Panthers can rebound next year.

Offseason Moves:
  • Panthers waive S Tre Boston
  • Panthers re-sign CB Teddy Williams
  • Panthers re-sign DT Kyle Love
  • Panthers re-sign G Chris Scott
  • Panthers sign WR Russell Shepard
  • Panthers sign WR Charles Johnson
  • Panthers sign CB Captain Munnerlyn
  • Patriots acquire DE Kony Ealy, 3rd-rounder from Panthers for 2nd-round pick
  • Panthers sign S Mike Adams
  • Panthers sign DE Julius Peppers
  • Panthers sign OT Matt Kalil
  • Panthers re-sign DE Charles Johnson
  • Panthers re-sign S Colin Jones
  • Panthers re-sign DE Mario Addison
  • Panthers cut NT Paul Soliai
  • Panthers cut FB Mike Tolbert

    Team Needs:
    1. Two Offensive Tackles: Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were able to skate by on easy matchups in 2015 until the Super Bowl, when they were both exposed. They weren’t as fortunate in 2016. They both struggled until Oher got hurt. Carolina has to make amends for its mistake of not finding better tackles last spring. Signed Matt Kalil

    2. Cornerback: The Panthers inexplicably cut Josh Norman last offseason, a decision they undoubtedly regret because they weren’t able to cover anyone in 2016. James Bradberry is a decent corner, but a top player at the position is needed. Signed Captain Munnerlyn

    3. Defensive End: Both Charles Johnson and Mario Addison are set to hit the market in March. At least one of them needs to be retained, and young depth must be added as well. Re-signed Charles Johnson and Mario Addison; Signed Julius Peppers

    4. Defensive Tackle: Kawann Short is the other major free agent. The Panthers did draft Vernon Butler in the first round last year, but they’ll still need help on the defensive interior if Short leaves. Franchised Kawann Short

    5. Safety: The Panthers don’t have horrible safety play, but they could stand to improve in that regard. Signed Mike Adams

    6. Wide Receiver: Devin Funchess hasn’t shown much thus far, and Ted Ginn is a free agent, so the Panthers could add someone to their receiving corps this spring. Signed Charles Johnson and Russell Shepard

    7. Running Back Depth: Jonathan Stewart turns 30 this offseason, so the Panthers may opt to find a successor sometime in the near future. At the very least, they need a better backup.

    8. Fullback: The Panthers cut Mike Tolbert, so they’ll need a replacement.

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2017 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Captain Munnerlyn, CB, Vikings. Age: 29.
      Signed with Panthers

      Captain Munnerlyn has been a quality slot cornerback for quite some time now. Munnerlyn actually had a bit of a down year in 2016, but he’s only 29, so he could bounce back next season and play well into 2019.

    2. Mike Adams, S, Colts. Age: 36.
      Signed with Panthers (2 years)

      Mike Adams has played on a very high level for a long time, and this includes this past season. Adams, however, turns 36 in March, so he could begin to decline as soon as this upcoming year.

    3. Julius Peppers, DE, Packers. Age: 37.
      Signed with Panthers

      Julius Peppers was great to start the 2016 season, but he declined a bit down the stretch and told the media that he was contemplating retirement.

    4. Matt Kalil, OT, Vikings. Age: 28.
      Signed with Panthers

      Matt Kalil has dealt with numerous injuries over the past few years, and he’s regressed as a consequence. He’s performed on a replacement level recently. Perhaps Kalil will get healthy, but the Vikings can’t trust him anymore.

    5. Charles Johnson (RFA), WR, Vikings. Age: 28. — Signed with Panthers
    6. Russell Shepard, WR, Buccaneers. Age: 26. — Signed with Panthers (3 years)

    Carolina Panthers Free Agents:

    Salary Cap Space: $57.1M.
    1. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers. Age: 28.
      Franchised by Panthers

      Kawann Short is an explosive defensive tackle who generates a great pass rush and also happens to be a force against the run. Short registered 11 sacks in 2015, a very high number for a defensive tackle, and while he didn’t get to double digits last year, he was still an extremely potent player.

    2. Andrew Norwell (RFA), G, Panthers. Age: 25.
      Tendered by Panthers (2nd round)

      Carolina’s offensive line was a mess this past season, but the lone bright spot throughout the entire year was Andrew Norwell. The 25-year-old was outstanding in both pass protection and run blocking, and given that he’s so young, he could even be better in 2017 and 2018.

    3. Charles Johnson, DE, Panthers. Age: 31.
      Re-signed with Panthers (2 years, $9.5 million)

      Charles Johnson was re-signed to a 1-year deal last offseason, as there were some injury concerns with him. Johnson didn’t appear to be the same, dominant force in 2016, as he lost some of his pass-rushing burst, recording only four sacks. Johnson was very good versus the run, but given the numerous maladies he’s suffered over the years, Johnson may never be the same player again, especially given that he’ll be 31 in July.

    4. Mario Addison, DE, Panthers. Age: 29.
      Re-signed with Panthers (3 years)

      Mario Addison had always been a decent rotational player, but never a key starter. That changed this past season, as he approached double-digit sacks. Addison is a late bloomer, but the problem is that he’ll turn 30 during the first week of September.

    5. Tre Boston, S, Panthers. Age: 25.
      Signed with Chargers

      It’s pretty confusing as to why the Panthers waived Tre Boston. He’s a solid player who is only 25 (as of June). Any team with a safety need should be interested. Some of those teams include the Bears, 49ers, Chargers and Texans.

    6. Ted Ginn, WR/KR, Panthers. Age: 32.
      Signed with Saints

      Ted Ginn eclipsed the 50-catch barrier for the Panthers this past season and still served as a dangerous kick returner. However, Ginn turns 32 in April, so he doesn’t have much time remaining in the NFL.

    7. Mike Tolbert, FB, Panthers. Age: 31.
      Signed with Bills

      Mike Tolbert made three Pro Bowls in five years with the Panthers, but his play declined in 2016. He didn’t block very well, and he was no longer needed as a short-yardage back. He turns 32 in November, and it appears as though his best days are behind him.

    8. Mike Remmers, OT, Panthers. Age: 28.
      Signed with Vikings (5 years, $30 million)

      Mike Remmers has plenty of starting experience, which is his best attribute. Remmers shouldn’t be a starter, but he could serve well as a top backup swing tackle.

    9. Fozzy Whittaker, RB, Panthers. Age: 28.
    10. A.J. Klein, ILB, Panthers. Age: 26. — Signed with Saints
    11. Colin Jones, S/ST, Panthers. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Panthers
    12. Wes Horton, DE, Panthers. Age: 27.
    13. Paul Soliai, NT, Panthers. Age: 33.
    14. Philly Brown (RFA), WR, Panthers. Age: 25. — Signed with Bills
    15. Chris Scott, G, Panthers. Age: 30. — Re-signed with Panthers
    16. Kyle Love, DT, Panthers. Age: 30. — Re-signed with Panthers
    17. Teddy Williams, CB, Panthers. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Panthers
    18. Michael Griffin, S, Panthers. Age: 32.
    19. Brenton Bersin, WR, Panthers. Age: 27.
    20. Ben Jacobs (RFA), ILB, Panthers. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Panthers


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