The NFL annual meetings ended this week with a decision to expand the league’s replay system, a change that brought a united front of support from the Carolina Panthers.
During the 2019 season, offensive and defensive pass interference calls and non-calls can be reviewed via replay. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was a member of the competition committee that drafted the proposal; Dave Tepper was among the 31 owners who voted to put it in place.
While momentous, that vote was far from the only item on the agenda for the Panthers’ contingent in Phoenix, which included Tepper, Rivera, general manager Marty Hurney, team president Tom Glick and chief financial officer Kristi Coleman, among others.
Here are 10 other things I learned about the Panthers from the league’s meetings:
▪ Multiple NFL officials spoke highly of the energy Tepper and Glick carried throughout meetings on league matters and beyond.
“These guys are going to do some great stuff,” said Renie Anderson, the NFL’s chief revenue officer and executive vice president of NFL partnerships. “There’s a lot of momentum, and a lot of excitement there.”
▪ As Tepper and his staff participated in meetings on Tuesday, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed a bill that would give the Panthers roughly $115 million in tax breaks over the next 15 years. Officials from the state have ramped up talks with Tepper and the Panthers in recent weeks, while drafting legislation that would provide incentives, in hopes of persuading the organization to move its headquarters and permanent practice facility to the Rock Hill area.
Tepper re-emphasized his goals of pursuing team projects in both states with a regional impact in mind.
“We’re a two-state team,” he said. “I view it as a whole region. I know that different people view it as ‘this place’ or ‘that place’. To me, it’s not. It’s the development of the whole region, trying to make something bigger and better through both states. And we’ll be involved in different ventures in both states for a long time.”
▪ On the football side, Hurney sat with a small group of local media and the Panthers’ team site to provide updates on the team’s progress through free agency and the upcoming draft.
Hurney said only about 40-50 percent of the team’s plan for 2019 had been completed through free agency, but the major moves so far — adding center Matt Paradis, tackle Daryl Williams and defensive end Bruce Irvin — sets Carolina up to target the “best player available” with the 16th pick in the upcoming draft.
Hurney repeated several times that the team “is not done” rebuilding both lines, so even though he signed offensive and defensive linemen, both positions are still in play at No. 16.
▪ Rivera said that second-year defensive back Rashaan Gaulden will get a chance to compete at nickel with third-year cornerback Corn Elder this spring and summer. Gaulden and Elder were both very talented nickels in college, but Gaulden spent the 2018 season relearning the safety position.
Nickel has been a team need for either free agency or the draft — and Carolina hasn’t picked up a nickel in free agency, making drafting one a likelier option.
If Gaulden wins the nickel job, he won’t be able to play safety (the Panthers are in nickel more than most other NFL teams). So that would make safety a higher draft priority.
▪ As the Panthers defense shifts toward becoming more hybrid and multiple — mixing three- and four-man fronts — Irvin will be an asset because of his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker.
Plus, the shift gives the Panthers a lot more flexibility in the draft and widens the prospect pool.
“One of the benefits of this is with the way colleges are playing offensively and then the translation defensively, finding those 6-foot-5, 275-pound pass rushers is hard,” said Hurney. “So I think that it opens up the pool as far as guys who play those sorts of roles, who can drop in coverage and rush off the edge and can play the five-technique and move into a three-technique.”
▪ Carolina has ample reason to be optimistic about quarterback Cam Newton, who Rivera said continues to make positive progress as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He did not want to offer a timetable for Newton’s recovery, but if he continues to rehab well he will likely be throwing by training camp — the schedule the team hoped for when he had the procedure in February.
But they aren’t being naive. Rivera added that all scenarios have been discussed with Newton and the team’s medical staff, including those in which recovery doesn’t go as planned.
▪ Rivera heaped praise on backup defensive tackle Kyle Love, who is an important cog in the rotation of Carolina’s defensive line — but also a free agent.
If Love doesn’t re-sign in Carolina, depth on the interior of the defensive line becomes a real concern. What’s next? Usually by the end of the second week of free agency, players who try to test the market — but don’t find the contract they seek — could be more likely to return. Love is no exception.
▪ Carolina currently has only $3.3 million in salary cap space, with a $7.5 million bump coming on July 2 because of the release of left tackle Matt Kalil.
Hurney said if the Panthers need to make a little more room available, the team “has a plan,” but he did not elaborate. Strategies could include restructuring current contracts or even releasing players without guaranteed money.
Without Kalil, the most uncertain position on the Panthers’ offense is left tackle. Hurney indicated the team is keeping its options open there with possible fill-ins including right tackles Taylor Moton or Daryl Williams — though Moton seems to be the better option.
And of course, we can’t rule another option arriving in Carolina via the draft.
▪ Carolina recently hired its first-ever chief marketing officer, Meredith Starkey, who will look to expand sponsorships at a level the organization had not reached for in the past.
“Within the new ownership group, they’ve been really aggressive in integrating the business side while making sure it makes sense for the fans and consumers in an authentic way,” said the NFL’s Anderson. “I think you’re going to see the Panthers do some really fun and exciting things that involve unique experiences that can be leveraged locally with local businesses. The Panthers also have relationships with a variety of national partners, too. So you’ll see the Panthers continue to be leveraged nationally, as well as locally within the market.”
Anderson added that she got the impression the Panthers were striving to “bring the game day experience to life” in a way fans had not seen before.
▪ The league already uses social media on national and team levels to promote content and products, and drive engagement. But interestingly, the idea of incorporating “social media influencers” outside the realm of players, coaches, teams or league accounts was floated at the “Focus on the Future” panel.