Carolina Panthers

Get prepared for a busy Panthers stretch: 10 rhetorical questions about what’s next

Will Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (90) be back? He has been rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder at Bank of America Stadium, but hasn’t announced a direction for 2018.
Will Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers (90) be back? He has been rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder at Bank of America Stadium, but hasn’t announced a direction for 2018.

The Carolina Panthers’ offseason has been marked by separate NFL investigations of their owner and general manager, and this small matter of selling the team.

Oh, and Ron Rivera’s coaching staff now includes three new coordinators and several other new assistants.

Other than that, it’s been quiet.

But with the combine starting next week and free agency not long after, actual football-related discussions are going to pick up – and with them, decisions that will shape the roster the next owner will inherit.

So we’re sticking to football in this space, with 10 critical questions facing the Panthers this offseason.

Q. Did Marty Hurney’s leave of absence put the Panthers behind?

A. Having the general manager sit out two weeks wasn’t ideal. But the Panthers tried to make up for the lost time by having their scouts and coaches come in last weekend for draft meetings. Those continued through Thursday, giving Hurney a chance to share ideas with Rivera’s staff and the personnel department on the direction this offseason will take.

Q. What exactly is that direction?

A. GMs and scouts aren’t in the business of laying out their plans publicly. But clearly some position groups – receivers, offensive line, edge rushers – figure to take on more importance based on what transpires the next couple of weeks. For instance, the Panthers probably need to sign or draft a defensive end to replace veteran defensive ends Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers.

Q. Wait, both Johnson and Peppers will be gone?

A. There’s certainly that chance. Johnson is 31, has been banged up the past few years and is coming off a season in which he was suspended four games for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. And he finished with as many sacks as your mailman. Also, the Panthers can create $3.25 million in salary cap savings by cutting him, which seems like the likely scenario.

Charles Johnson
Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) struggled with injuries in 2017 and had the same number of sacks as your mail carrier. David T. Foster III

Q. And Peppers?

A. Peppers’ situation is different. The future Hall of Famer was incredibly productive (11 sacks) in 2017, despite playing with a labrum injury in his shoulder that required surgery after the season. He turned 38 in January and said after the season he wanted to take some time away and see where his heart takes him.

Peppers has been at Bank of America Stadium rehabbing his shoulder and is said to be still mulling the decision, according to team sources. Rivera and Eric Washington essentially let Peppers set his own practice schedule last season and would make the same accommodations.

But the issue for a player who has been in the trenches for 16 NFL seasons isn’t just getting through the season. It’s also putting in the time and work getting ready for the season. This is a tough one to call.

Q. What about Andrew Norwell?

A. Hurney seemed to make his decision on Norwell last summer when he gave right guard Trai Turner a four-year, $45 million extension. Teams typically don’t pay two guards big money, which is what Norwell is looking for after coming to Carolina as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and developing into an All-Pro. Someone will pay Norwell handsomely, but it is highly doubtful it will be the Panthers.

Andrew Norwell
Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell will expect to get paid after going from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowl player. There’s a good chance someone other than the Panthers will show him the money. Jeff Siner

Q. So the Panthers need to sign or draft a guard, right?

A. More than likely – and ideally one who can also play center. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, who has battled through major injuries each of the past two years, recently told the Observer that 2018 would be his final season. So finding an interior lineman to replace Norwell and/or groom behind Kalil makes sense.

But the Panthers also have potential answers on the roster. Tyler Larsen, who has filled in admirably for Kalil, was a center at Utah State, but played guard during preseason stints with Miami, Washington and Carolina. Taylor Moton, a second-round pick last season, was primarily a right tackle at Western Michigan, but started at right guard one season (and played well enough to earn third-team all-MAC honors).

Q. Would the Panthers really use the franchise tag on a kicker?

A. Although team sources have told the Observer the Panthers likely wouldn’t use the tag, NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport floated this possibility on Twitter this week. Ryan Succop set the market for Graham Gano (and other free-agent kickers) when he signed a five-year, $20 million extension with the Titans.

It could be that Gano and his agent want the tag (estimated around $5 million for kickers/punters this year) to serve as a starting point for negotiations on a long-term deal. Gano – like Norwell – improved his market in 2017 with a league-best 96.7 accuracy percentage on field goals.

But there are some in the organization who question Gano’s ability to make pressure kicks, and the Panthers were willing to draft a kicker last season. The guess here is a deal gets done, unless Gano’s camp sets the bar too high.

Graham Gano
Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) watched Ryan Succop set the NFL salary market, and it was a lucrative day for him. The Panthers have the next move. Jeff Siner

Q. What’s the outlook for the other free agents?

A. The coaches love what Derek Anderson brings to the quarterback room (new QBs coach Scott Turner was with Carolina previously). That said, expect the Panthers to look hard at other possible options behind Cam Newton, particularly in the middle to late rounds of the draft.

Don’t expect Hurney to shell out a ton of money to keep defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, although the sense is the Panthers would bring him back on a team-friendly deal.

There’s been little talk this offseason about Ed Dickson, a starter last season while Greg Olsen was out with a broken foot. Given all that Dickson does as a blocker and receiver, he has more value than a lot of No. 2 tight ends.

Q. What player besides Cam Newton could most benefit from Norv Turner’s hiring?

A. Turner’s first priority, of course, is finding ways to try to get Newton back to his MVP form.

But Panthers staffers are excited about what Turner can do for second-year back Christian McCaffrey, who was a workhorse as a rookie. Mike Shula wasn’t shy about getting the ball to McCaffrey, but the feeling inside the organization is that Turner might use him more effectively.

Turner might be best known for his vertical passing game. But he has also had success getting his backs involved in the passing game, including Darren Sproles and Emmitt Smith, who averaged nearly four receptions a game during the three seasons Turner was Dallas’ offensive coordinator.

Q. Dave Gettleman used to say, “Sometimes the answer’s on the roster.” Anyone fit that bill?

A. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler, whom Gettleman took in the first round in 2016, will move into a bigger role if Lotulelei leaves in free agency.

Since Gettleman drafted Lotulelei and Kawann Short with the first two picks in 2013, Lotulelei has been labeled as the space-eater who occupies blockers, allowing Short and others to make plays. Fair enough.

But it’s possible to do both. This isn’t to say the 6-4, 330-pound Butler is the next Ndamukong Suh, but the Louisiana Tech product has shown playmaking flashes (including two blocked kicks as a rookie) and would benefit from more playing time.

Vernon Butler
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Vernon Butler, right, has been accused of a Class C assault, according to the Dallas Police Department. Jeff Siner

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson