The 2020 NFL offseason was unlike any other, though most similar to a lockout season, it wasn’t entirely unprecedented. Introducing a new coaching system and a quarterback as the Carolina Panthers did was no cakewalk regardless. That they finished the season 5-11 while also losing All-Pro Christian McCaffrey was mildly impressive. The second year of the post-Cam Newton era should look different with McCaffrey coming back, and Teddy Bridgewater already knowing the offense. Carolina entered the offseason with limited cap space but hustled to make some. In recent weeks, the team released five players and restructured another player’s deal, landing $29.7 million below the cap. There’s been speculation that room was created to allow for acquiring Deshaun Watson, but could address so much more.
Pending Free Agents
Despite having one of the 10 worst records of the season, the Panthers were close in a number of games. Offensively and defensively they ranked near the middle of the league while missing the versatile McCaffrey on offense. With the highest-paid running back set to return, free agency may severely impact the offensive line that blocks for him. Unless the team plans to trot out a new line outside of center Matt Paradis, they can’t let them all walk.
In fact, all of the other four starters along the line are set to enter free agency, though Russell Okung didn’t play most of the season. While McCaffrey’s talents can cover up for some weak-links along the line, a mostly new unit might be tough. Of course, the Panthers have other areas to address in free agency as well, so not everyone may return. It’s a tough offseason for first-year general manager Scott Fitterer.
Russell Okung, Left Tackle
Okung has a pair of pro-bowls to his name, but those are few and far between. At 33 years old, he has played all 16 games in a season just once (2016), though he’s started every appearance. Health looks like a factor for concern of late, as he’s played just 13 games the last two seasons. Unless Okung is ready to reduce his pay significantly based on recent availability, it’s likely Carolina doesn’t bring him back. The Panthers have former second-round pick Greg Little in the wings, and it may be time to press his development.
Taylor Moton, Right Tackle
Since being selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Moton has played all 64 games for Carolina. He’s started 48 straight games, playing 100 percent of offensive snaps in 2018 and 2020, and 99 percent in 2019. Coming off of his rookie deal, Moton’s going to cash in for showing up, and likely the Panthers pay him or tag him.
Curtis Samuel, Wide Receiver
Drafted 24 spots ahead of Moton in 2017, the Panther’s first second-round pick that year was Samuel, who is also at the end of his rookie deal. Samuel’s stats took a hit across in games started, targets and touchdowns, but he seemed to do more with less. The most impressive stat was his 79.4 percent catch percentage, contrasting greatly from his career average of 63 percent. The increase in catch percentage also helped him increase his yardage by 230 yards over 2019, totaling 851 yards. It should be enough for Carolina to re-sign him and see if he can repeat that reliability.
Chris Reed, Right Guard
Listed on OverTheCap.com as a right guard, Reed’s first season as a starter was at left guard for Carolina. After missing the first two weeks on the COVID-19 list, Reed started the next 14 games. Not only did he start, but he played 86.5 percent of offensive snaps, again providing consistency. Reed and the Panthers likely want to work something out to keep him in Carolina, his third team in three seasons. His situation should also mean an affordable contract for the team.
John Miller, Right Guard
Miller struggled with penalties at times in 2020, and 15 holding penalties in six seasons is a bit much. That said, Miller is like Reed, in that he found himself on this third team in as many years with Carolina last season. A consistent starter when he’s on the field, the Panthers may let him walk and draft his replacement. Between Paradis and Moton is a comfortable place to develop a rookie.
Potential Cap Casualties
With a new general manager, it can be difficult to predict what they’re going to do. That’s no longer the case for Fitterer after he started trimming the salary cap hit almost immediately. His approach has had a positive impact without losing talent, increasing the team’s cap space to almost $30 million. If the team participates in any quarterback free agency this offseason, the spending money can dry up quickly. In the case that it does, Fitterer may start trimming more contracts to still address other roster issues. As it looks, it could turn into open season on the roster.
Robby Anderson, WR ($8 Million Saved)
It’d be odd to see the Panthers cut Anderson for cap space, given the team’s struggles to find quality receivers. In his first season with the team, Anderson had his first 1,000-yard season and saw his most targets. He did his part though, increasing his catch percentage by 16 points, to 69 percent, which likely drew more targets. The stats should be enough to save his job, but with a talented receiver draft class, a cut could be strictly business.
Juston Burris, SAF ($2.4 Million Saved)
How Burris was a starting safety for the Panthers makes little sense. Opponents completed 70 percent of passes when targeting him, scoring three touchdowns. He didn’t even make up for it with hard-hitting, combining on 53 tackles in 14 games. Safety is one area that Carolina could improve in through free agency, and dropping Burris makes sense.
Donte Jackson, CB ($2.4 Million Saved)
Cornerbacks at this price level with stats like Jackson aren’t a bad value, but they can be replaced. Jackson missed 24 percent of his tackles in 2020, the highest of his career, which has climbed each season. Against the pass, it was his best season across the board. With better cornerbacks available in free agency and the team’s willingness to cut even-par performers, Jackson could be next.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
The amount of close games that the Panthers played in in 2020 shows that the offense can hang in games. The defense is what was really lacking, failing to make big plays or give the offense a chance to turn the tide. It’s been a year since Luke Kuechly retired, and Carolina’s defense needs an injection of experience that can’t be drafted. If they don’t go all-in on a free agent quarterback, they could be players on the market.
Derek Wolfe, DL, Baltimore Ravens
Wolfe almost seemed to get lost in the Ravens’ defense last season, posting just one sack (career-low). 2020 also marked the first time in his career that Wolfe wasn’t a regular starter. With Kawann Short’s release this offseason, Wolfe could benefit from a bigger role. Conversely, Carolina would love to see Wolfe back in 2019 form when he totaled seven sacks and 12 quarterback hits.
Christian Kirksey, LB, Green Bay Packers
After spending his whole career in Cleveland, Kirksey looked rejuvenated with the Packers in 2020. After struggling to stay on the field in 2018 and 2019, Kirksey played and started 11 games, and was all over the field. He’s a locker room guy who can still lead between the lines, and the Panthers post-Kuechley could use that. Entering his eighth season, Kirksey isn’t an expensive player, maybe $4-6 million per year.
Mohamed Sanu, WR, Detroit Lions
With D.J. Moore on the rise, and Anderson still under contract, Sanu would complement the receiver corps. With a blend of size and consistent hands, Sanu can play behind the others and add depth. He would also provide a solid target to move the chains. Past his prime, Sanu has played for four teams the last two seasons. Demand isn’t high, and with solid stats, there’s a deal to be had.
Tashaun Gipson, SAF, Chicago Bears
A budget selection to address the safety position would be Gipson who also provides secondary flexibility at either safety role. A weekly starter, Gipson does allow teams to complete passes at a 63 percent rate, but his ability to intercept passes keeps them wary. A sure tackler and decent pass defender, Gipson would be a good fit, while still leaving space for other signings.
Previewing the Draft
Carolina currently enters the NFL Draft with all of their own picks, and their second consecutive year picking in the top 10. Historically the team has done well with top 10 picks, finding Kuechly, McCaffrey, Newton, and last year’s selection Derrick Brown early on draft night. With a track record like that, the Panthers would be wise to keep the pick. With experience on the offensive side of the ball, and by addressing defense in free agency, Carolina can draft for the future offensively.
Round 1, Pick 8: Wide Receiver
Some might want the Panthers to go quarterback here, but Bridgewater is under contract for two years yet. Furthermore, he showed what he could do with receivers in New Orleans and Minnesota. The talk is that the receivers on top of this class are something else, so picking one up now makes sense. If the season falls flat, Bridgewater can be cut next season and the team can find someone else. Whoever that person is would be appreciative of having a receiver from this talented class though.
Round 2, Pick 40: Left Tackle
There are question marks about Little if he has to be the starting left tackle if Okung doesn’t return. Drafting insurance here behind Little makes sense to make sure whoever is under center is protected.
Round 3, Pick 73: Tight End
Greg Olsen was really something else when he was in Carolina, and Bridgewater might appreciate a receiving tight end. Chris Manhertz, the primary starter, is more of a blocker, and Ian Thomas just isn’t showing it. Olsen was a first-round pick of course, but value tight ends are found in this area.
Early 2021 Expectations
The Panthers were competitively in nearly every game they played this season. Carolina has a lot to build off of if they don’t try to blow it up too much. The potential is there with the receivers, and Bridgewater has a full season as the starter. The job didn’t look too big for Coach Rhule in his first season, and a full offseason should only help more. High-expectation is a wild card spot. A reasonable expectation, with the amount of talent present, is to still be “in the hunt” in the final weeks of the season.
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