The Carolina Panthers are in danger of making history, and not in a good way.
A loss at New Orleans on Sunday afternoon would mean the Panthers finish the season 6-10 for the second time in three years, and it also means they’d become the first team in the 16-game era of the NFL to finish 6-10 after beginning the season 6-2.
But the Panthers, already eliminated from playoff contention, must balance wanting to win and sending a handful of veteran players out the right way with a focus on the future on Sunday.
Roster changes are coming, and perhaps a lot of them. And before the Panthers make them, they need to know for sure who they already have.
That means younger, less-featured guys might get opportunities to build a bit of a resume ahead of free agency.
“As we look at it, depending on what position and who it is, you look to see what they’ve improved on,” coach Ron Rivera said. “A defensive back for instance, what you want to see is if he’s using the technique that we’re teaching. Is he reacting the way we want him to react? Is he playing along the lines of the scheme of the defense?
“If it’s a receiver, you want to see how their routes are, stuff like that. And their releases. It just depends on the position and the player.”
Sunday, Rivera said, could be a good time for the Panthers to see what they have.
So who are the young potential up-and-comers, and what are the chances they stick?
If the Panthers wanted to get a look at their backups, they certainly got that opportunity this season. Quarterback Cam Newton will sit again against New Orleans, and backup Taylor Heinicke, who started in Week 16, went on injured reserve on Monday.
Carolina will start rookie undrafted free agent Kyle Allen on Sunday. He has thrown four NFL passes — all last week while Heinicke was being attended to by medical staff.
With Newton’s recovery timeline uncertain, the best option might very well be to find a starting-caliber backup, or to draft a young quarterback to develop behind Newton if, in the team’s best-case scenario, Newton is ready to play in 2019.
The Panthers have reason to be optimistic about the future of their receiving corps after their young players displayed speed and consistent growth.
Second-year receiver Curtis Samuel missed the first four weeks after a heart procedure, and his snaps increased after midseason.
Rookie DJ Moore’s production improved weekly and spiked in Weeks 12 and 13, a span in which he had 15 catches for 248 yards. The Panthers like how both Samuel and Moore can extend plays like running backs, especially as they’ve missed Newton’s deep ball this season.
“There is a group of young (receivers) who have done a great job for us,” Rivera said. “And they have to continue to learn and grow at their position, as well.”
Samuel and Moore have helped prove the Panthers can be extremely productive using smaller, faster, more versatile receivers. That puts Devin Funchess’ future with the group in question in a contract year, especially since his targets have dipped in the latter third of the year.
The Panthers know what they have in Christian McCaffrey, who has 1,080 rushing yards with a game left and set the franchise record in receptions (106 for 845 yards) and single-season scrimmage yards (1,925).
But what about his complement? Carolina is comfortable with McCaffrey’s workload, but long term it might not be sustainable. They’ve been saying Cameron Artis-Payne needs “an honest look” since he was drafted in 2015, but he has only gotten 23 touches in the past two years.
With Artis-Payne set to become a free agent this spring, Carolina will probably draft a young back who can complement McCaffrey.
It’s not like McCaffrey’s touches will take a nose-dive if that happens, either. It’s just about bringing in a reliable back who can ultimately keep McCaffrey healthier, longer.
Carolina rookie tight end Ian Thomas could become a big, strong red-zone target. We saw a glimpse of that when Heinicke connected with him inside the 20 for a score last week. Thomas has flashed great potential as a blocker and a receiver, and will continue to develop if the Panthers can balance his growth efficiently with the likely return of veteran Greg Olsen next season.
Missing its starting left and right tackles since the beginning of the season, Carolina’s offensive line has been a disaster since midseason.
The Panthers know what they have here, and that is a project.
But there is a young bright spot on the roster: Second-year tackle Taylor Moton. He played well as a fill-in right tackle this season and also showed promise on the left. If starting right tackle Daryl Williams gets re-signed — and it’s likely he will — it would not be surprising to see Moton take over full time at left tackle.
The team also really likes rookie undrafted free agent guard Brendan Mahon, but he didn’t play much with Greg Van Roten doing so well at left guard.
But the Panthers must still find young talent in the draft and develop it, especially with not much current depth and veteran center Ryan Kalil retiring.
The Panthers know they have another big offseason project here, with several players aging out and young depth needed.
Promising newbies include speed rusher Marquis Haynes and United Kingdom transplant Efe Obada. But it’s hard to see either player starting or rotating in more than a situational role.
The Panthers need to draft and develop all along the line — but they desperately need fresh legs on the edge to immediately contribute in rotation with Mario Addison.
The Panthers have already seen a little of rookie linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr., and his play has had its ups and downs. They like Carter’s versatility as a player who can cover, and it’s hard not to absorb the lessons of the position in a room with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Shaq Thompson is on injured reserve, but he’s slated to eventually take over Davis’ position, should Davis not return.
Carter shows promise and has the smarts the team loves in Davis, Kuechly and Thompson — but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Panthers use a mid-level pick on a young linebacker in the draft.
Rookie cornerback Donte Jackson has developed as a starter, and the Panthers want to bring in more speed like his.
The Panthers need to solidify depth behind No. 1 corner James Bradberry this offseason, but they could have some on the roster in Kevon Seymour and Ross Cockrell, both of whom are on injured reserve.
The biggest cornerback questions loom at nickel. Do the Panthers stick with veteran Captain Munnerlyn, or do they go younger?
If it’s the latter, Carolina has 2017 fifth-round draft pick Corn Elder on the roster and likely wants to see what he can do at nickel after a troublesome and brief stint backing up Jackson on the outside this year.
Waiting in the wings on the inactive roster is Cole Luke, who spent most of 2017 on injured reserve and was on the practice squad this season.
With so many other needs in the draft, the Panthers likely hope one of those guys steps up at nickel.
Another big question facing the Panthers is what to do at safety.
Veteran Mike Adams is in the last year of his contract, and starter Eric Reid was signed to a one-year deal during the bye week this season.
The Panthers have said they want Reid back, but they might want to bring in some younger legs alongside him. Could that come from rookie third-round pick Rashaan Gaulden?
He has only played about 12 percent of the Panthers’ defensive snaps and is itching for a shot at the starting gig. He might get a chance to play more on Sunday.
“I’m just going to take every rep that I get this week and try to build some kind of resume,” he said Thursday. “Build some kind of job security. Build some kind of confidence.”