2018 NFL Offseason: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 11-5)

2018 NFL Season Preview:

Veteran Additions:
RB C.J. Anderson, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jarius Wright, OT Jeremiah Sirles, NT Dontari Poe, CB Ross Cockrell, S Da’Norris Searcy.
Early Draft Picks:
WR D.J. Moore, CB Donte Jackson, CB/S Rashaan Gaulden, TE Ian Thomas, DE Marquis Haynes. Panthers Rookie Forecast
Offseason Losses:
QB Derek Anderson, RB Jonathan Stewart, WR Brenton Bersin, WR Charles Johnson, WR Russell Shepard, TE Ed Dickson, G Andrew Norwell, DE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, CB Daryl Worley, CB Zack Sanchez, S Kurt Coleman, S Jairus Byrd.

2018 Carolina Panthers Offense:
Cam Newton is obviously a great talent, but his passing numbers haven’t quite lived up to expectations in recent years. This past season, Newton failed to complete 60 percent of his passes (59.1%) and maintain a 7.0 YPA (6.7). He also threw just six more touchdowns than interceptions (22:16). Newton expressed his frustration during the offseason, citing the need for better weapons, and rightfully so.

The front office listened to Newton, spending its first-round pick on D.J. Moore. The Maryland weapon is a dynamic athlete who should be able to win a starting job quite easily, given how well he has performed in OTAs. Besides, he doesn’t have much competition. The other “top” receivers the Panthers have on their roster are the mediocre Devin Funchess, who caught 63 passes for 840 yards as the No. 1 wideout last year; the poor-handed Torrey Smith; and 2017 second-rounder Curtis Samuel, who caught just 15 passes as a rookie. Samuel had his best game in a Monday night affair versus Miami – five catches, 45 yards – but suffered a season-ending ankle injury in that very contest. He could be a bigger part of the offense in his sophomore campaign. Greg Olsen, meanwhile, will continue to be heavily leaned on, and he’ll be hoping for a rebound year after barely playing because of a foot injury.

Christian McCaffrey also figures to be more involved. The eighth-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey split the workload with Jonathan Stewart last year, which seemed like a mistake. The offense almost seemed as though it was in quicksand every time Stewart ran the ball. McCaffrey was much more dynamic, catching 80 passes for 651 yards. That said, McCaffrey’s YPC average wasn’t very impressive (3.7), and there’s doubt that he can handle an entire early-down workload, so the Panthers signed C.J. Anderson over from the Broncos. Anderson rushed for 1,007 yards last year despite getting very little help behind a mediocre offensive line.

Speaking of the blocking, the Panthers will have a downgrade in that regard this season because of Andrew Norwell’s departure. One of the top guards in the NFL, Norwell signed with the Jaguars in free agency. The Panthers don’t have a viable replacement for Norwell, as the anemic Amini Silatolu is the favorite to take his spot. The rest of the interior is more promising, though there are questions concerning center Ryan Kalil, who told the media that he would retire following this season. Kalil missed 10 games last season because of a neck injury, so it remains to be seen how he’ll hold up in 2018. At the very least, right guard Trai Turner should be solid.

There’s definite doubt with the other Kalil brother as well. Left tackle Matt Kalil was woeful this past season, which was hardly a surprise, given that he struggled mightily in Minnesota. The good news here is that his bookend, Daryl Williams, was tremendous in 2017.

2018 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 after that, thanks to the departure of Josh Norman. One would think Carolina would be able to find a capable replacement for Norman by now, but that hasn’t been the case. This offseason also proved to be a failure in that regard, though there is at least some hope.

The Panthers signed Ross Cockrell in free agency to play across from the inconsistent James Bradberry. Cockrell is a solid cornerback; he’s not anything special, but he won’t be torched. Bradberry, meanwhile, had a solid rookie campaign in 2016, but proceeded to really struggle last year. A second-round selection was used on LSU’s Donte Jackson, who could end up being Carolina’s top cornerback, though that really isn’t saying very much.

Carolina’s safety situation isn’t in great shape either. The best player at the position, Mike Adams, turned 37 this offseason, so he’s a candidate for regression. He’ll start next to the mediocre Da’Norris Searcy unless third-round rookie Rashaan Gaulden impresses in training camp.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they are much stronger in the front seven, particularly at linebacker. Luke Kuechly is still playing at the top of his game, and he’s one of the best players at his position in the entire league. His long-time sidekick Thomas Davis has been suspended four games for PEDs, but that’s not a big deal because talented fourth-year linebacker Shaq Thompson was ticketed for more snaps anyway. Davis, upon his return, will likely be relegated to a two-down role.

The defensive line, meanwhile, has some new faces. Nose tackle Dontari Poe was signed over from the Falcons to replace the Buffalo-bound Star Lotulelei. Poe seems like a slight upgrade, and he’ll start next to the prolific Kawann Short, who registered 7.5 sacks in 2017, a high number for a player at his position. The Panthers will be hoping for 2016 first-rounder Vernon Butler to finally step up and push for a starting job, but he’s been a disappointment thus far.

As for the edge rush, the Panthers spent a fourth-round pick on Marquis Haynes to pump some young blood into the rotation. This was needed, given that two of the primary players there last season – Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson – were a combined 67 years old. Johnson is gone, yet Peppers, now 38, is still around, signing a 1-year, $5 million contract. Peppers was very effective for a player his age in 2017, logging 11 sacks. He’ll have to see fewer snaps going forward, however, so the Panthers will be counting on more from Mario Addison, who also notched 11 sacks last year.

2018 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’ve been 20-6 as hosts since 2015.

Graham Gano was one of the top kickers in the NFL last year, going 29-of-30, though he missed on his only attempt from beyond 50. Still, he was rewarded with a 4-year, $17 million contract in the offseason.

Michael Palardy emerged as one of the top punters in the league last season, ranking fifth in net yardage.

Carolina was terrific on special teams last year, outgaining the opposition in both punt and kickoff returns. It scored two touchdowns and surrendered none to its foes.

The Panthers are projected as favorites in three of their first four games, with the lone exception being at Atlanta. The rest of the schedule seems pretty balanced.

2018 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.

2018 Carolina Panthers Positional Rankings (1-5 stars):
Offensive Line
Running Backs
Defensive Line
Special Teams

2018 Carolina Panthers Analysis: The Panthers won a number of close games last year, so some expect them to regress to the mean. This thinking seems flawed, however, as Carolina had injuries to most of its top players (Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, Ryan Kalil), which would be the reason for all of those close calls. With better health, the Panthers figure to compete for a playoff spot once again in 2018. Thanks to Newton, some dynamic offensive weapons, tremendous special teams and a prolific front seven, Carolina could even win the division. However, the offensive line and secondary are such liabilities that they could be the downfall of the Panthers.

Projection: 11-5 (2nd in NFC South)

2017 Projection: 7-9. 2017 Actual Result: 11-5.
2016 Projection: 11-5. 2016 Actual Result: 6-10.

NFL Draft Team Grade: A+ Grade

Goals Entering the 2018 NFL Draft: Carolina has two major glaring areas of need: the receiving corps and the secondary. It would be a big mistake if they left the draft without upgrading both of these spots. They have some other needs, but they absolutely have to acquire a receiver, a cornerback and a safety.

2018 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Panthers’ first three selections were used on their biggest needs, as they took a receiver, cornerback and safety in the initial three rounds. While some teams completely ignored needs this weekend, Carolina made a point to address them, all while selecting some of the top players on the board.

There was some question about D.J. Moore, taken 24th overall, given that Calvin Ridley was still available. Some thought Ridley was the superior receiver, but I know for a fact that Moore was heavily considered by two teams in the teens, yet they passed on him only because some superior talents unexpectedly fell to them.

Meanwhile, cornerback Donte Jackson provided excellent value at No. 55 overall. Jackson could have been chosen at the end of the first round without any complaints, so getting him near the bottom of Round 2 was a steal. Rashaan Gaulden, taken in the third frame, is a talented player who will help at safety. The Panthers will be hoping that Gaulden, like some other recent Tennessee prospects, will do much better in the NFL than they did in college. This has been a pattern because Tennessee players have been extremely poorly coached by Butch Jones.

Carolina’s great drafting continued into Day 3. Ultra-athletic tight end Ian Thomas will be a nice heir for Greg Olsen, while defensive end Marquis Haynes provided solid value at No. 136. In fact, the only pick I didn’t like of Carolina’s was fifth-round linebacker Jermaine Carter.

This was an A+ draft for the Panthers. I loved pretty much everything they did, as they grabbed some very talented players and filled most of their biggest needs.

NFL Draft Individual Grades:

24. D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland A Grade
I imagine there will be some publications who think D.J. Moore was taken too early, or that Calvin Ridley should have been the pick, but I can tell you this: One team in the teens had Moore as its No. 2 option. Moore could have gone about 8-12 selections earlier than this, so I think this is great value.

Moore definitely fills a huge need as well. The Panthers had no No. 1 receiver, thanks to the Kelvin Benjamin trade, and Moore certainly changes that.

55. Donte Jackson, CB, LSU A+ Grade
Wow, Donte Jackson is another player I forgot was on the board. Some people in the media had Jackson in the first round, but teams said they had high second-round grades on him. Jackson slipped a bit, so the Panthers are lucky to pick him up. Jackson, quite possibly the best slot cornerback in this class, will provide a big upgrade for Carolina’s pedestrian secondary.

85. Rashaan Gaulden, CB/S, Tennessee A Grade
Rashaan Gaulden is a very versatile player who should be able to help the Panthers’ atrocious secondary in some regard. I love the idea of picking Tennessee prospects because Butch Jones was such a horrible coach that he didn’t get anything out of his players. Gaulden is a second-round talent.

101. Ian Thomas, TE, Indiana A Grade
This is a great bargain, as Ian Thomas should’ve gone in the third round and maybe even could’ve snuck into the second frame. Thomas doesn’t have much production in college, but he has immense upside. By the time he’s ready to play, Greg Olsen will likely be retired.

136. Marquis Haynes, DE, Ole Miss B Grade
The Panthers traded up for a pass-rusher, which makes sense. They need some young blood on the edge, and Marquis Haynes makes sense in this range as a solid fourth-round prospect.

161. Jermaine Carter, LB, Maryland C Grade
Jermaine Carter tested very well in the lead up to the draft, running a 4.69. Still, he’s a raw player who probably should’ve been taken in the sixth round at the earliest. He can provide depth when Thomas Davis is serving his suspension.

234. Andre Smith, LB, North Carolina C+ Grade
Andre Smith made a poor decision by declaring early after an injury-ridden 2017 campaign. Smith has athleticism limitations and will only be a two-down run-stuffing linebacker in the very best case scenario. Smith is fortunate to be drafted.

242. Kendrick Norton, DT, Miami B+ Grade
Kendrick Norton had a few nice moments at Miami, but was a disappointment for the most part. He should have played better than he did, so perhaps Ron Rivera will be able to get the most out of him. I had Norton in the sixth round, so there’s some amount of value with this choice.

Follow @walterfootball for updates.

Season Summary:
The Panthers came close to knocking off the Saints in the opening round of the playoffs. This was despite Cam Newton, Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly being injured at various points of the season. Perhaps Carolina will have better luck in 2018.

Offseason Moves:
  • Panthers sign RB C.J. Anderson
  • Panthers sign CB Ross Cockrell
  • Panthers sign OT Jeremiah Sirles
  • Panthers sign S Da’Norris Searcy
  • Panthers sign WR Jarius Wright
  • Panthers sign NT Dontari Poe
  • Panthers acquire WR Torrey Smith from Eagles for CB Daryl Worley
  • Panthers cut RB Jonathan Stewart
  • Panthers cut S Kurt Coleman
  • Panthers cut DE Charles Johnson

    Team Needs:
    1. Wide Receiver: Cam Newton needs weapons. Kelvin Benjamin was traded away, and Devin Funchess is not a No. 1 option. Perhaps Curtis Samuel will be a star, but the Panthers should probably find a top target for Newton. Signed Jarius Wright

    2. Left Tackle: Newton also needs better protection. Left tackle has been a huge problem area for years now, and Matt Kalil certainly was not the solution.

    3. Cornerback: Carolina’s top defensive needs are in the secondary. Both positions must be addressed. The Panthers have had issues at cornerback ever since the front office got rid of Josh Norman. Signed Ross Cockrell

    4. Safety: The Panthers also have poor play at safety. Mike Adams turns 37 this offseason, while Kurt Coleman has struggled the past two years. Signed Da’Norris Searcy

    5. Defensive End: Another big need for the stop unit is the edge rush. Carolina can’t keep counting on Julius Peppers, who turns 38 this offseason. Charles Johnson is also past his prime. There should be some options in the first round. Re-signed Julius Peppers

    6. Center: Ryan Kalil said he’s going to retire after the 2018 season, so a successor will be needed.

    7. Tight End: Greg Olsen turns 33 this spring, so the Panthers should think about finding a young tight end to pair with Olsen, much like the Chargers did with Hunter Henry joining Antonio Gates.

    8. Running Back: Jonathan Stewart turns 31 this offseason, so Carolina will soon be looking for another back to pair with Christian McCaffrey. Signed C.J. Anderson

    9. Backup Quarterback: Derek Anderson is a 35-year-old free agent, so the Panthers may want a younger option.

    10. Kicker: Graham Gano is also an impending free agent. Re-signed Graham Gano

      Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

    2018 NFL Free Agent Signings:
    1. Dontari Poe, NT, Falcons. Age: 27.
      Signed with Panthers

      Dontari Poe signed a 1-year “prove it” deal this past season after struggling his final year with the Chiefs. He responded well, playing well in both run support and the pass rush. I would be nervous to sign him to a long-term deal, but it could pay off if Poe lives up to his immense potential.

    2. C.J. Anderson, RB, Broncos. Age: 27.
      Signed with Panthers

      It’s unclear why the Broncos felt the need to trade or cut their best running back by a mile, but they did the latter with C.J. Anderson. The 27-year-old is coming off a 1,000-yard season in which he averaged 4.1 yards per carry, a solid number considering the state of his sub-par offensive line. Anderson should have plenty of suitors on the open market.

    3. Ross Cockrell, CB, Giants. Age: 27.
      Signed with Panthers

      Ross Cockrell had been a solid starting cornerback for the Steelers, so it’s odd that they only got a conditional seventh-round pick for him after acquiring Joe Haden. Cockrell is a decent player who won’t turn 27 until August.

    4. Da’Norris Searcy, S, Titans. Age: 29. — Signed with Panthers (2 years)
    5. Jarius Wright, WR, Vikings. Age: 28. — Signed with Panthers
    6. Jeremiah Sirles (RFA), OT, Vikings. Age: 27. — Signed with Panthers

    Carolina Panthers Free Agents:

    Salary Cap: TBA.
    1. Andrew Norwell, G, Panthers. Age: 26.
      Signed with Jaguars

      Andrew Norwell is one of the top guards in the NFL. He has improved every single season in the league, and he’s now dominant in every regard. Norwell should continue to get better, as he won’t even turn 27 until October.

    2. Graham Gano, K, Panthers. Age: 31.
      Re-signed with Panthers (4 years, $17 million; $9 million)

      Graham Gano was a near-perfect 29-of-30 in 2017, though that’s a bit misleading. He didn’t make a single 50-yarder (until the playoffs), and he whiffed on three extra points.

    3. Julius Peppers, DE, Panthers. Age: 38.
      Re-signed with Panthers (1 year)

      Julius Peppers is going to be in the Hall of Fame five years after he retires, but given the way he performed in 2017, he may not hang up the cleats for another two or three seasons. Despite playing about half the snaps each game, Peppers logged 11 sacks. He had 7.5 sacks the year before.

    4. Star Lotulelei, DT, Panthers. Age: 28.
      Signed with Bills (5 years)

      Star Lotulelei was a first-round pick in 2013, but never lived up to that billing. He has just been a below-average player for most of his career, but has played well enough at times to warrant a two-star rating.

    5. Charles Johnson, DE, Panthers. Age: 32.
      Charles Johnson used to be a tremendous edge rusher, but is clearly past his prime. He has just five total sacks in the past three years, and he hasn’t played a full season since 2014.

    6. Kurt Coleman, S, Panthers. Age: 29.
      Signed with Saints (3 years, $18 million)

      Kurt Coleman was great for the Panthers during their run to the Super Bowl two years ago, but has struggled since. Still, he’s only turning 30 in April, so perhaps he can rebound and have another quality season for some other team.

    7. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers. Age: 31.
      Signed with Giants

      Jonathan Stewart is a big name, but he hasn’t played up to it in a couple of seasons. He has failed to reach four yards per carry in each of the past two years. Many injuries throughout his career have compounded and weighed him down – he hasn’t played a full season since 2011 – and at 31, he appears to be finished.

    8. Ed Dickson, TE, Panthers. Age: 31. — Signed with Seahawks (3 years)
    9. Jairus Byrd, S, Panthers. Age: 31.
    10. Derek Anderson, QB, Panthers. Age: 35.
    11. Brenton Bersin, WR, Panthers. Age: 28.
    12. Charles Johnson, WR, Panthers. Age: 29. — Signed with Jets
    13. Amini Silatolu, G, Panthers. Age: 29. — Re-signed with Panthers
    14. Andrew Gachkar, OLB, Panthers. Age: 29.
    15. Ladarius Gunter (RFA), CB, Panthers. Age: 26. — Re-signed with Panthers
    16. Kaelin Clay (RFA), WR, Panthers. Age: 27. — Signed with Bills
    17. Spencer Paysinger, ILB, Panthers. Age: 30.
    18. David Yankey (RFA), G, Panthers. Age: 26.
    19. Scott Simonson (RFA), TE, Panthers. Age: 26.
    20. Greg Van Roten (RFA), G, Panthers. Age: 28. — Re-signed with Panthers

    NFL Free Agent Tracker:
    Top 90 | QB | RB | FB | WR | TE | OT | G | C | DE | DT | OLB | ILB | CB | S | K/P | FA Grades | FA Rumors

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