Carolina Panthers

Changes are coming to Panthers. Here’s what you will, and won’t, see in 2019

Like many in the NFL, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera did not get to finish his playing career on his own terms.

He was, he says, a “cap casualty” as a nine-year veteran linebacker for the Chicago Bears. He, and a lot of his teammates and close friends, all lost their jobs.

“In 1993, they passed a whole new (collective bargaining agreement),” he said. “There were a group of us who were caught up in the middle of it. That was the first time there was a salary cap. ... It was the changing point in the NFL at the time. For what they were paying me, they could have signed three rookies, (which is) the nature of the game, now.”

So a player getting to end his career on his own terms, well, that’s something that really matters to Rivera.

“It’s a big deal for me,” he said this week. “And one of the things I talk about with guys is not wasting opportunities, more so than anything else. I think that it’s really important that guys understand that you only get so many chances at playing this game. And while you’re playing it, you gotta give it everything you have.”

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Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera talks with officials during the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

The desire to give everybody a graceful exit could be at least a small part of the reason why Rivera, over the years, has been well-regarded as a “player’s coach” and has, mostly successfully, kept a locker room full of able-bodied, respected veteran players.

And Rivera said he wishes he could keep all of them around.

But many of Carolina’s current veteran contracts are in their final year, and with the Panthers on the back end of 6-8 season that’s in danger of sliding even further, it’s clear there will be changes on the roster — and all over the organization itself.

That means some players’ time with the Panthers might not end on their terms after all.

Rivera’s future is not guaranteed, either — but it might be solidified if he can follow steps he’s taken before.

When Rivera was going through losing seasons in his first two years as head coach of the Panthers, he actively created change.

He started making gutsier calls, and the Panthers started winning. In 2014, he went younger and faster with his personnel to shake things up. But through time, Rivera also had the patience of then-owner Jerry Richardson, who sold the team last year in the wake of a workplace misconduct scandal.

It’s hard to imagine he’s getting any such guarantee from new owner David Tepper. Rivera has repeated that the two will have that conversation when the time is right.

So right now, he’s walking a precarious line.

But he might find he can draw upon what he learned in the early years of his tenure to make changes and revive the Panthers.

Especially if he, one day, wants to go out on his own terms — the way he couldn’t as a player.

And Tepper might need someone who is not only engrained in the franchise, but who also has made those types of changes before.

Change is needed with or without Rivera. In the NFL, it’s key to growth. But so is keeping important pieces in place.

Here’s what, and who, I think you will — and won’t — see by training camp next summer:

Coaching staff

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Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington, right, glances over at head coach Ron Rivera, left, during late fourth quarter action against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. The Browns defeated the Panthers 26-20. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS) Jeff Siner TNS

What you’ll see

I wouldn’t be surprised if Rivera kept his job and took over the defensive play-calling full time, with a coordinator assisting him. It’s something that has seemed to rejuvenate him and certainly lit a fire under his defense.

But I also think defensive coordinator Eric Washington, demoted last month as Rivera took over the play-calling, will continue to coach the defensive line. He has a well-regarded knack for developing talent, and the Panthers will almost certainly be bringing in young legs to revive the pass rush.

It’s also fair to wonder about former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. There are “hot seat” rumors swirling around Wilks with the Cardinals at 3-11. He’s in his first year, so ownership might be patient. But if he’s fired, it’s reasonable to think Rivera could give him a call.

What you won’t see

Many offensive skill position changes. Even during this six-game slide, Carolina’s offense has thrived under coordinator Norv Turner and his son, quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. In five of Carolina’s past six games, they’ve averaged 389.4 yards of total offense — with a quarterback playing through a sore shoulder.

Cam Newton

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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, center, follows his blocker tackle Taylor Moton, right, on a run up the middle during the team’s final series against Washington during late fourth quarter action at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on Sunday, October 14, 2018. Washington defeated the Panthers 23-17. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

What you’ll see

Rest, rest and more rest for quarterback Cam Newton’s throwing arm. Carolina likely wants to do everything it can to avoid an Andrew Luck situation, in which Newton, like the Colts quarterback, would have to sit out a year rehabilitating his shoulder.

In the meantime, the Panthers must think about the future. I’d predict they draft a quarterback for the first time since selecting Newton No. 1 overall in 2011 — but not as a player who would immediately take over for Newton. Instead, they’d want to see if Newton can get back to his old form and that player could develop behind him.

The thing is, Newton might need time to get back to normal. And the Panthers don’t seem to know how much of it he’ll really need.

With so much money needed to restructure other positions, drafting a rookie to develop and perhaps one day take over would be smart.

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What you won’t see

The end of Newton. Talking heads and Twitterers like to speculate, but he’ll be back to finish his career on his own terms.

As Panthers veteran center Ryan Kalil said after the decision was made to sit Newton, “He’s a young guy with a lot of football left in him.”

Offense

What you’ll see

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Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey fights to maintain control of the ball while being tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker A.J. Klein (53) during the third quarter at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. The Saints won, 12-9. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS) Jeff Siner TNS

Running back Christian McCaffrey has proven that much of this offense can run through him, and especially so the past eight weeks. He set the franchise record for single-season scrimmage yards on Monday night and has 1,747 with two games left. He has rushed for seven touchdowns, caught six and even threw one against the Saints. After just hitting expectations in his rookie season, McCaffrey, in the hands of the right play-caller, has exceeded them in his second year.

McCaffrey is doing everything but fly the team plane to road games. Oh, and returning punts. Because that would just be too much.

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Carolina must re-tool its offensive line, and a big piece of that might be right tackle Daryl Williams, who went on injured reserve in Week 2. Talks had started between Williams’ camp and the Panthers before the injury, but a league source said the initial offer from Carolina was way off the expected amount. That injury might change things, though, and Williams has made it clear he loves being in Charlotte.

Elsewhere, Carolina should ride with backup Taylor Moton at left tackle. That, of course, puts them in an impossible situation with starter Matt Kalil’s hefty contract, on which he has three remaining years. I don’t know how general manager Marty Hurney could wiggle out of that one, but Moton stepped up big time for the Panthers this year when he played left tackle, then flipped to the right because of injuries. He’s a smart player and one of the key pieces for the future.

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of veteran tight end Greg Olsen. He just had a second surgery on his foot after rupturing his plantar fascia in early December. I think he’s going to give it one more go, and that the Panthers will welcome that — as long as there is room for growth for rookie tight end Ian Thomas.

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What you won’t see

It might be close to the end of receiver Devin Funchess’ time in Carolina. After a five-drop game against Detroit in Week 11 and a back injury that sidelined him in Week 12, Funchess has been all but phased out of the Panthers’ offense as they’ve favored a smaller, faster and more versatile attack. The wide receiver market is much more inflated for so-called “No. 1 receivers” than his current value in this role, and the Panthers’ offense works without a stereotypical No. 1.

Veteran center Ryan Kalil is in his last season. Will the Panthers turn to backup Tyler Larsen full time, sign a veteran center in free agency or draft a development guy? Oh, and who will that player even be snapping the ball to?

Carolina doesn’t seem to believe it needs a “power runner” to complement McCaffrey. After releasing seldom-used CJ Anderson shortly after the trade deadline this year, they might stick with that formula and continue to keep McCaffrey’s rather large workload right where it is.

Defense

What you’ll see

Rivera made it clear this week that he wants the Panthers to re-sign safety Eric Reid, which is a rare remark for a head coach to make with the season still ongoing.

But they might need to make a move where veteran safety Mike Adams is concerned, if their goal is to get younger in every tier of the defense. Reid could take over the role of “veteran leader” in the secondary, and the Panthers could give rookie Rashaan Gaulden his long-awaited opportunity opposite him — or look to the draft.

Carolina needs to strike gold with early draft picks along the defensive line, particularly at edge rusher. They probably need a starting-caliber player to replace veteran Julius Peppers, a solid rotational player in tandem with Mario Addison, and to continue to bring in depth on the inside as well as rejuvenate their long lost speed rush.

Defensive line will probably be one of the heaviest areas of focus in the draft for the Panthers this spring.

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Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis reacts during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Cleveland. Cleveland won 26-20. (AP Photo/David Richard) David Richard AP

Not all of the Panthers’ tough personnel decisions will be public, but in the case of veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, in his 14th season, it probably will be. Davis has long been a face of the organization and one of its all-time best, toughest players. He also wants to keep playing, and his teammates think he can so so. But with two games left on Davis’ contract, Hurney must decide whether to commit fully to a younger wave of players, or stay committed to Davis.

What you won’t see

The Panthers will overhaul their defensive line to the point of looking into trades for former first-round pick Vernon Butler, a defensive tackle who was benched twice this season. Despite getting into the rotation behind Kawann Short, Butler has not performed at first-round pick standards.

Facilities

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Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper talks to fans before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) Mike McCarn AP

What you’ll see

It’s been easier than ever to see how laughably behind the rest of the NFL the Panthers are in terms of practice facilities. Carolina practices outdoors with no covers or bubbles, and has had to adjust the weekly practice schedule at least five times since the season began, because of bad weather.

I’d be surprised if Tepper hasn’t looked into cost and feasibility of overnight construction on a dome-like structure to house the Panthers on bad weather days. And I’d be absolutely shocked if a “bubble” was not firmly in place by the time training camp rolls around this summer.

I’d also expect heavy upgrades to begin on Bank of America Stadium soon. President Tom Glick, just a few months into the job, has already been instrumental in upgrading equipment in the stadium to improve sustainability and save the organization money on energy costs. More upgrades might include better health code practices — badly needed, according to an Outside the Lines study — and details to improve the fan experience.

But all of that is relatively short-term thinking.

Intertwining sports gambling with the fans’ game day experience could gain steam in the coming year. So could introducing new events and perhaps even other franchise opportunities.

What you won’t see

Carolina’s stadium in Charlotte isn’t going anywhere, at least for a long, long time. So while you might see it change, you certainly won’t see it move.

And despite recent reports to the contrary, the construction a multi-use indoor-outdoor practice facility is going to take a while — especially since the organization has not decided on a location.

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In the meantime, keep an eye on the small infrastructure and culture changes that unfold as Tepper settles in.

Because if the right decisions are made, both on and off the field, the future of the Carolina Panthers could be exciting.

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