Carolina Panthers

Fresh off Super Bowl loss, Carolina Panthers must address these 10 areas

Josh Norman breaks up a pass intended for Broncos wide receiver Jordan Norwood during the second quarter of Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Norman is likely to be back with Carolina, either on a long-term deal or through a franchise tag that would pay him $13.5 million.
Josh Norman breaks up a pass intended for Broncos wide receiver Jordan Norwood during the second quarter of Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Norman is likely to be back with Carolina, either on a long-term deal or through a franchise tag that would pay him $13.5 million. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

It’s difficult to recapture the magic from a Super Bowl run.

That means the Carolina Panthers, rebounding from their Super Bowl 50 loss with an eye on Super Bowl LI, have some decisions to make.

NFL free agency officially begins March 9, but Carolina and the other 31 teams can’t wait. They’ll spend the next three-and-a-half weeks trying to position themselves for the 2016 season.

The Panthers are early co-favorites to win Super Bowl LI, at 7-to-1 odds along with the New England Patriots. What happens in the next month will determine whether they can stay there.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep our core together,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said Tuesday. “You’d be an idiot not to. But, again, listen, tough decisions have to be made, and sometimes you make decisions that you’re kind of forced into because of a variety of factors. We’re going to do the best we can to keep this team together. We’ve got a lot of really good young players, and we don’t want to develop players for other teams.”

Here’s a look at 10 players or positions the Panthers will address in some way this offseason, and the expectations at each.

CB Josh Norman

Situation: Norman becomes an unrestricted free agent in March, although it’s possible – maybe even likely – he never gets to test the market. Norman wants to be among the league’s highest-paid corners ($14 million to $15 million a year), and Gettleman made no bones he’s not afraid to use the franchise tag.

If the Panthers and Norman reach an impasse, as they did during negotiations before the season, Norman will join Greg Hardy as the two players tagged by Gettleman since he arrived from New York. Tagging Norman would cost Carolina upwards of $13.5 million for 2016.

Case for keeping: Norman’s been on the slow track to stardom, in part because of his unwillingness to play within the system early in his career, plus Ron Rivera’s admission he might have been too hard on Norman early on.

Norman’s critics (see Hopkins, DeAndre) claim he’s not a true shutdown corner, but one who excelled in the Panthers’ Cover-3 zone coverage. But Norman proved a good fit in the Panthers’ scheme, intercepting four passes early in the season and eliminating half the field in some games as teams avoided him.

Likely to happen: The Panthers use the tag on Norman, buying them at least one more year before deciding whether to lock up a player who turned 28 in December and is prone to emotional swings.

DE Charles Johnson

Situation: Before Cam Newton signed his $103.8 million extension last summer, Charles Johnson had the richest deal in Panthers’ history. That six-year, $78 million contract, signed after the 2011 lockout, is finally nearing its end.

Johnson is set to make $10.75 million in 2016, the last year of the deal. That’s a lot of money for a player who finished with one sack last season while missing nearly half the year while injured.

The Panthers can save $11 million against the salary cap by cutting Johnson.

Case for keeping: Johnson showed during the playoffs that he can still play when healthy. Johnson had a sack in each of the three postseason games and finished with five tackles and a forced fumble against Denver in Super Bowl 50.

But staying healthy could be an issue for a player who turns 30 in July. With Jared Allen expected to retire and Frank Alexander suspended until November, the Panthers need Johnson to start opposite emerging edge-rusher Kony Ealy.

But at what cost?

Likely to happen: The Panthers already are gaining $8.5 million toward the cap at the DE position with the exit of Allen, who will be cut if he decides not to retire. So they don’t necessarily have to release Johnson.

But Gettleman should ask him to re-work his deal and take less money, like he did with left tackle Jordan Gross near the end of his career.

DTs Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei

Situation: The two defensive tackles have been linked since Gettleman used the top two picks on them in 2013 in his first draft with the Panthers. Short, a second-rounder, out-performed Lotulelei (and nearly every other DT in the league) during a breakout 2015 season.

But because Lotulelei was a first-round pick, under the 2011 labor agreement the Panthers will make a decision on his fifth-year option before dealing with Short’s contract.

Case for keeping: There weren’t many interior defenders more disruptive this season than Short, who led the Panthers with 11 sacks and added three forced fumbles. Short has unusual athleticism for someone his size (6-3, 315), and he has a knack for getting into the backfield.

Lotulelei did not have the eye-popping numbers like Short did, but he was a capable run-stuffer who played well down the stretch.

Likely to happen: Gettleman values big-bodied guys in the trenches, so it’s hard to envision him breaking up his DT tandem.

The Panthers have until May to exercise their fifth-year option on Lotulelei (at a cost of roughly $6.5 million for 2017). If they pass, that’s a signal he’s not in their long-term plans.

Short is under contract through 2016. But expect the Panthers to give him a long-term deal before the start of the season.

Wide receivers

Situation: Without Kelvin Benjamin, this group was below average but didn’t play like it in 2015. Benjamin will return healthy for 2016, as will Stephen Hill, whom the Panthers were talking up before he tore his ACL in training camp.

Devin Funchess came on during the second half of his rookie season. Ted Ginn Jr. is locked up for another year. Philly Brown is cheap as a former undrafted rookie and Jerricho Cotchery’s contract just voided.

Case for keeping: Everyone should return other than Cotchery. He’s unsure what his future holds – whether he’ll continue playing, whether he’ll continue playing in Carolina or if Carolina still wants him. He was a veteran presence in the locker room and showed good hands throughout the season up until the Super Bowl.

Likely to happen: Fans will want the Panthers to bring in a splash free agent at this position because it’s flashy, but Gettleman isn’t flashy. The Panthers like what they’re building toward with Benjamin and Funchess, and there would be no need to disrupt that by throwing money at a wide receiver that could be used elsewhere.

The Panthers could bring Cotchery back for his 13th season, but that group isn’t as young as it was two seasons ago. A veteran presence isn’t as important as it was after Carolina split with Steve Smith.

Right tackle

Situation: Mike Remmers had an up-and-down year as Carolina’s offensive line became one of the best in the NFL. It’s not an insult to say he was the weakest part of a very good group. But he was.

Remmers held up well in Week 2 against J.J. Watt, though he had a lot of help. In Carolina’s two losses, Remmers was responsible for three huge plays. Vic Beasley’s strip-sack of Cam Newton in the loss to Atlanta was on Remmers, as were the two Von Miller strip-sacks in the Super Bowl.

Case for keeping: Remmers is a restricted free agent, so keeping him would come cheap. Daryl Williams, Carolina’s fourth-round pick last year, will provide some competition after spending a chunk of the 2015 season injured.

Williams’ ability to slide inside to guard is also attractive.

Likely to happen: Gettleman hasn’t pulled the trigger on an offensive tackle in the first three rounds of any of his first three drafts in Carolina. Maybe it’s time to do it in 2016.

No team, including Carolina, is going to spend a lot of money in free agency on a right tackle. But the way to grow a quality left tackle is to draft one out of college and let him develop on the right side.

Michael Oher won’t forever protect Newton’s blind side with one year remaining on his deal, so drafting a potential successor wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Running backs

Situation: Gettleman described himself as very comfortable with this position after a near-1,000 yard rushing season by Jonathan Stewart and another Pro Bowl year for Mike Tolbert.

Fozzy Whittaker battled injuries again this year like he has since his days at the University of Texas. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne showed some flashes in limited time. And the Panthers kept Brandon Wegher on their 53-man roster despite activating him just once this season.

Stewart has a cap hit of $9.55 million, and Tolbert is set to be a free agent in a month.

Case for keeping: Alhough he has been injured a lot since 2012, Stewart has been very important to Carolina’s running game, which is central to the offense. He would have had 1,000 yards if not for an injury late in the season, and he averaged 82 yards per game in the playoffs the past two postseasons.

Tolbert means a lot to the Panthers. He can pass protect, chip block, catch the ball out of the backfield and run in short-yardage situations. Tolbert is also one of the most well-liked guys in the locker room, and that means something to the Panthers’ brass.

Likely to happen: The free agent who comes to mind first is Matt Forte, who can run the ball well and catch it out of the backfield. He revealed Friday that Chicago won’t bring him back, and he has been one of the most underappreciated backs in the league in recent years. His 11,003 yards from scrimmage since 2009 is the more than 700 yards better than the player in second place.

But Forte will come at a price because other teams will be in the market for him. The Panthers won’t pay for both him and Stewart, so if Stewart stays, Forte won’t be coming to Charlotte.

Tolbert dealt with an injury in 2014 and a somewhat diminished role in 2015, but if the two sides can strike a short-term deal, the Dancing Bear could be back with the Panthers.

Artis-Payne simply wasn’t ready as a rookie. It was telling when the Panthers opted for Whittaker over Artis-Payne in the final two postseason games. He’ll spend the offseason learning more of the offense and getting better in pass protection.

Roman Harper/safety

Situation: Harper’s contract voided last week, although he still has football left in him. He had a much better season than his first with Carolina, and his leadership in the defensive backs room was important to the younger players.

Kurt Coleman has another year on his contract after snagging nine interceptions in the regular season and playoffs. Plus, the Panthers have Tre Boston, who proved a capable backup for Harper this season.

Case for keeping: Harper’s attitude, leadership and run-stopping abilities are all attractive to Carolina. He’s still a step slow sometimes, but the Panthers appreciate what he brings.

Likely to happen: Carolina could sign Harper to another short-term deal or look to bring in an even bigger name in the secondary.

That would be Eric Weddle, who’s set to be an unrestricted free agent in a month. Weddle spent three years with Ron Rivera in San Diego when Rivera was the defensive coordinator, and Rivera likes Weddle’s physical play and versatility at both free and strong safety.

Carolina’s defensive scheme blends the free and strong safety positions, too, making Weddle even more of a fit. Throw in the fact that Weddle might take less money to be on a championship contender after nine years with the Chargers and the five-time All Pro could land in Charlotte.

Quarterback Cam Newton

Situation: Newton is coming off the first MVP season in franchise history. He had a good, not great, game against the Broncos in the Super Bowl, but he got very little help from his No. 1 scoring offense.

This will be a different offseason for Newton. He’s a father now, and he’s going to be spending a chunk of time in California producing a kids show for Nickelodeon.

Likely to happen: Of course the Panthers are going to keep the MVP quarterback they just signed to a contract extension. And of course Newton will still focus on getting better at football in the offseason despite his other commitments.

Last offseason Newton said he wanted to improve his accuracy to get close to 70 percent, but he stayed near his career average of just below 60 percent this season.

He’ll also come back hungry. It will hurt to watch the film from the Super Bowl, but good money says Newton will watch that tape more than anyone else on the team.

Special teams

Situation: Punter Brad Nortman and long-snapper J.J. Jansen are among the Panthers’ 14 unrestricted free agents. Jansen is at the end of a four-year, $3.6 million deal he signed in 2012, and Nortman is hitting free agency for the first time.

Case for keeping: Nortman has averaged 45.2 yards per punt over his first four seasons. He improved on directional kicks after a couple of long returns early in the 2015 season. Nortman was not to blame for Jordan Norwood’s Super Bowl-record 61-yard return.

Jansen hasn’t had a bad snap in six years, a streak that dates to the opener of the 2010 season. Jansen’s snapping ability has never been an issue, but the Panthers might want to go with a younger, cheaper player who is faster in coverage.

Likely to happen: In what might have been a negotiating ploy, the Panthers added CFL punter Swayze Waters last week. Waters kicks and punts, so it was interesting the Panthers listed him as a punter after signing him to a one-year deal.

The Panthers seem to like the chemistry among their specialists. It would be surprising if they don’t re-sign Nortman and Jansen.

Other free agents

Situation: While Norman headlines the team’s list of free agents, there are several players who provided key depth and were good locker-room personalities. That group includes Harper, CB Charles Tillman, Cotchery, Tolbert and special teams ace Joe Webb.

Case for keeping: Since Harper, Cotchery and Tolbert have been addressed elsewhere in this analysis, we’ll look specifically at Tillman and Webb.

Tillman, who turns 35 this month, has sustained season-ending injuries each of the past three years. While he says he wants to rehab his surgically repaired knee before making a decision on his future, it seems unlikely the Panthers would re-sign him.

Webb, the No. 3 quarterback, has been one of the team’s best special teams players, and he gets along well with Newton and backup Derek Anderson. He’s a versatile player who shouldn’t cost too much to bring back.

Likely to happen: Tillman, who said he would only play for the Panthers, instead decides to retire. Webb comes back to Charlotte on a one- to two-year deal.

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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