It was a bumpy 2017 for the Carolina Panthers, and the start of 2018 has been no different.
Questions still swirl about the pending sale of the franchise, but despite the inevitable shakeup that will cause, football operations must continue as if normal.
The year began with a bang: Rivera fired his offensive coordinator of five years, Mike Shula, and hired the man who gave him his first big-time job in San Diego, Norv Turner. Turner’s son Scott also joins the staff as quarterbacks coach in place of Ken Dorsey, who also was fired.
“Strange” might feel like the new normal, but the two-year, $15.5 million contract Rivera just signed brings some stability, as does the language in interim general manager Marty Hurney’s contract that keeps him in place through June.
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That means that Hurney, head coach Ron Rivera and a staff of scouts are in place for free agency and draft evaluations.
Like every year, the process unfolds slowly until the 2018 NFL draft begins on April 26.
And after an 11-5 regular season and a loss in the wild-card round, the Panthers have some boxes they must check.
Get the staff in place
Rivera has his new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It also looks, as the coaching-search cycle winds down, like he may also retain defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who interviewed for multiple head coaching vacancies over the past week. Getting Wilks back is a boon for the Panthers, who finished the year among the top teams in the league defensively.
▪ Carolina also has questions ahead where Hurney is concerned, but he is in place to run the free agency period and draft. In light of all of the variables facing the front office, that is an injection of stability. There are tough decisions ahead of him, but rest assured: Hurney is not the same general manager who doled out big-money contracts left and right, causing damage to the salary cap before he was fired by Carolina in 2012.
The big questions in free agency
Because the Panthers gave guard Trai Turner a big (and well-deserved) deal before the 2017 season and signed left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55.5 million deal, very little cap room is left to work with All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell, who is a free agent.
That means Carolina could see Norwell go – perhaps to the Giants, who need help up front and whose free agency decisions will be run by new general manager Dave Gettleman, the man who scooped up Norwell as an undrafted free agent in 2014.
Norwell has earned a big contract. As much as Carolina would like to keep him long-term, the Panthers may not be able to give him one.
▪ Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the space-eating, run-stuffing starter next to Kawann Short, is in a similar situation. Short got a big-money deal last spring (again, well-deserved). Now the Panthers must decide: Is it Lotulelei’s turn? Behind Lotulelei are Kyle Love and Vernon Butler, the latter of whom is more in the dynamic “Short” mold of interior defensive linemen.
▪ Kicker Graham Gano is a free agent this spring after a league-high 96.67 field goal percentage and a Pro Bowl berth.
▪ Carolina must decide whether to bring back tight end Ed Dickson, who played a key role when Greg Olsen was on injured reserve, and who is versatile as a blocker. The development of rookie Alex Armah, whom Rivera has said can fill both blocking tight end and fullback duties, is a factor.
▪ Veteran defensive end Julius Peppers recorded a team-high-tied 11 sacks at age 37. Peppers said after the wild-card loss that he needed a few weeks to think about his future. Peppers proved his value last season, with a one-year deal. Can the Panthers bring him back for one final push?
▪ Carolina needs more weapons for quarterback Cam Newton while he’s in his prime years. The Panthers struggled with consistency at receiver (partially because of injuries), but needs a standout player at the position alongside Devin Funchess. Keep an eye on Jacksonville’s Allen Robinson and Baltimore’s Mike Wallace. Both can be dominant players, and perhaps for a reasonable price, because of the “but” they come with. Robinson is a prodigious young talent coming off an ACL repair. Wallace is 31 years old but was still Baltimore’s leading receiver in 2017 with 52 catches for 748 yards.
And then comes the draft...
Headed into free agency, Carolina’s needs include depth at tackle and guard – and perhaps at center, pending the health of Ryan Kalil as he enters the final year of his contract. The Panthers also need a “separation artist” at receiver and an explosive edge rusher who can take over opposite Mario Addison as veterans like Peppers and Charles Johnson age out.
The Panthers will also likely consider shoring up the secondary after a somewhat disappointing year from veterans Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams and second-year cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradberry. Explosive plays given up in the secondary were a bruise on an otherwise strong defensive season.
▪ There might be a tough decision to make at running back. Franchise back Jonathan Stewart stayed healthy enough to play in 15 of 16 games, but also had his worst season in yards per carry and total yards of any in which he has appeared in at least 13 games.
The emergence of dynamic, two-back systems in the competitive NFC South increases the need for Carolina to continue to evolve, especially with a back capable of also keeping the Panthers’ favored power-run style a threat. Carolina has Cameron Artis-Payne, but will they make him the heir apparent to Stewart and complement to Christian McCaffrey, or dip into a talented running back pool in the 2018 draft?
Buckle in, folks.