Can the Carolina Panthers Contend for the Super Bowl this Year?

With the Super Bowl kicking off around sunset today (Eastern time), it's easy to forget that the end of that game marks the beginning of the 2015 year for the NFL for all practical purposes. Thirty different teams have been thinking that direction if not for weeks then for a couple of months now.

They'll all get their chances to improve themselves through the draft and many of those have money to spend on free agents regardless of how much the salary cap increases. 

The Carolina Panthers are one of those teams for a change in 2015.

I'm not here to throw out some "mock" this or that or some concrete projections. Grant Hughes just wrote a good piece about each of Carolina's current free agents that you can read here. I'm taking more of a "big picture" view of things.

Assuming the current key guys can stay put, it's reasonable to see a team that could well wind up superior to the Seahawks next season and it's not too far out of possibility if it's gone about just the right way....or the pieces just "fall" a certain way.

I'm sure we all have our different ideas, but here's my own "perfect" scenario:

First comes the free agent signing period. This is where a big group of veterans make their money and sign their big deals. Sure, some are bigger deals than others, but I'm talking about multiple years and multiple millions per year. Doesn't sound like much, but it adds up. The Panthers have immediate future salary concerns, so I'm considering the entire 2015 cap increase (whatever it may be) to be gone along with any cushions we might have financially, and I see the team being able to afford a tier-two type of free agent.

We won't get a star player, but we could get a solid starter who would be an upgrade either at WR, LT, RT, or a safety to pair with Tre' Boston.

Whichever ones we do not get in free agency, I'd like to see go in the first four rounds of the draft.  Three picks in the top four rounds and it wouldn't shock me to see two tackles go in the first three rounds even if it's the second and the third rounds. In fact, I would love to see it because I figure David Gettleman will not reach for position need. 

That said, the back end of the first round is not a very good place to be if you're looking for a starting left tackle. There's a reason the pickin's are slim there; it's the second-most important position in the NFL.

Right tackles are growing in value as well, but not nearly like the blind-side protector. It's possible to find a very good starting right tackle late in the first round, and once in a while after some NFL experience, they can move to the left side without too much worry, unlike the failed Byron Bell experiment. And I told ya so on that from day one.

By the end of next season, if we have only three of those four positions substantially improved but whatever means, we already have strengths in other areas that compete well now head to head or even surpasses the Seattle Seahawks. The problem is they should only improve as well. Imagine them with an explosive receiver that can stay consistent and healthy along with a couple of upgrades along their own pedestrian offensive line. Ouch.

I'll just say if we upgrade to a decent safety, there won't be any weaknesses on the defensive side and in fact both teams were giving up similarly few points per game over the last ten games or so until they met in the playoffs a few weeks ago. 

It's the Carolina offense that could really catch fire by the end of the 2015 season if done right...and it could be far more explosive.

Help at  LT is coming for sure. I just cannot see a second season of Byron Bell, and I'm almost sure we won't start on the left side. He's also a free agent, and if he walks I would think that anyone we put in there will be a good bit better, considering the amount of time and money involved in the search. I say adding one tackle through the draft and the other through free agency makes sense the most so we won't be heading into the draft with even LESS talent than we have there now. It would broadcast to the other 31 teams that we have a glaring need there should we not sign at least some help in free agency. 

If the guy Gettleman or Rivera wants is too expensive, sign a solid RT for $5 million a year and go into the draft either ready to trade away the farm to jump into the top ten (which I seriously doubt Gettleman will do) or just wait for a second-tier LT at the bottom of the first round or perhaps a bit more of a "project" guy with some upside in the third or possibly the fourth. After that, most 1st or 2nd-string tackles on EITHER side will likely be gone with only special teams-types remaining.

The idea isn't to have the best squad on opening day, although that is ideal, but to have the best squad at the end of the season. I have often said about the NFL the phrase I learned as a kid playing golf: "It's not how you drive, but how you arrive."

Unfortunately, I was a very powerful young man and could hit a drive a mile, but my short game was horrible. Thus, the saying.

Last season proved that adage to be true when the team finished "only" 7-8-1 but strongly while none of the others could grab the crown when it was more or less sitting on the floor. A tortoise and hare sort of thing.

Perhaps the team could afford a Jeremy Maclin type of free agent WR for the needed speed-threat, but even he may be out of our price range. We don't know yet, but I still don't see us signing a big-name outsider with contracts looming for Cam and Luke. Either way, we'll know before the draft. 

You never do really know for sure where your gems will come from, but they haven't exactly whiffed on the first two rounds for sure yet. Byron Bell's molasses-like feet won't be hard to improve upon. No offense to Byron...he tries his best. It just takes an elite athlete there to match up with the elite athletes he'll be facing to have a consistent chance, and for Cam to fully develop. I have always said Byron would make a better guard, but he has yet to be tried there.

The good news is that there are only really the three positions on offense that need help, and just making them "NFL average" would be good enough to give the offensive side more consistency in both the run and the pass that it needs to be one of the more formidable and versatile units in the game.

Think of it - a decent line with a big, fast wide receiver. For all we might know, Stephen Hill could burst onto the scene with good fundamentals after a year of reprogramming at our hands. Even if he doesn't pan out, I'd think we might wind up with a better veteran there as it's probably second on the "list" after the left tackle with Mike Remmers taking some of the pressure off with his surprisingly steady play on the right side down the stretch. I just don't want to have to depend on him to keep it up.

I'm actually pretty optimistic for this season. Just four spots total, listed earlier, and we have the benefit of a little bit more room with the cash situation, especially considering the likely departure of Greg Hardy....right now it looks more realistic than not that he leaves but I don't think we missed him as much as we might have if not for Kony Ealy. Ealy's emergence does indeed make the Kraken - and his production, baggage AND likely salary demands - an expendable luxury. 

One sub-note on Hardy: It's quite possible that Gettleman signs him to a one-year "prove it" deal like Grant Hughes proposed in his article on Carolina's free agents, but with the idea of trading him before the deadline to a contender with injuries or a need for a top-flight pass-rusher for a playoff run. With Ealy's presence, we wouldn't miss Hardy quite so much AND he could bring us a second or third-round pick next year. The fact he almost certainly won't be starting up a multi-year huge contract this offseason would mean a team trading for him won't be saddled with a long contract and could either "rent" him for the final 5 or 6 games (plus possible playoffs) or trade for him with the idea of offering him a long contract in the 2015 offseason if he does "prove it." I wouldn't put that past Dave Gettleman as the man plays chess while most fans play checkers.

So, we apparently have some of the NFL's finest in the front offices or we wouldn't have made the playoffs the last two years, let alone win consecutive NFC South titles regardless of record. Ron Rivera teams finish strong, and that's exactly what you want - a team that peaks late in the year as opposed to teams like, say, the Denver Broncos or Miami Dolphins who tend to peak early then fade.

We pretty much all know we need speed at WR, upgrades at both tackles, and another safety. Possibly we could use an upgrade at left guard, but I'm not as certain about that for now. Again, no-names were pressed into duty and played well down the stretch, and we also have a 4th-round pick from two years ago named Edmund Kugbila to figure out. So, there are options there at least on paper.

A fast WR who could actually be depended upon to stretch the field would loosen up the running lanes that much more and add the occasional long scoring reception. I do think Gettleman will try to bring in yet another young running back to the mix in late rounds, and we have a Pro Bowl tight end. The thousand-yard rookie receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, gets a year to work on his dropped passes and hopefully won't fade. At least, there will be too many weapons to worry about on our side of the ball even if one isn't having a good day in a particular game.

As it is, there's Cam's power running for sure, passing perhaps - with protection. A large, tall WR, Pro Bowl TE, and a running back in Jonathan Stewart who finished as strong as anyone did. One more weapon and better play on the edges could really get that offense over the hump and become what it is capable of evolving into.

The key is Cam's development, and that, yet again, points to offensive tackles. Since Cam's entering his final season on his rookie contract that I hinted at above, it would be criminal to not upgrade the line so he can be better protected, take fewer hits, hopefully stay a lot healthier as a result, and the "data" for 2015 would be a lot more clear to consider while in contract negotiations.

NOT helping the line would actually give Cam some leverage of his own to use in contract talks. His agent would correctly point out that the team hasn't given Cam very good pass-protection and it's difficult at best for a young QB to blossom when he's being chased around by multiple defenders in his own backfield. There's that increased possibility of him testing free agency himself if the line remains a mess...and we don't wan't that. It could raise Cam's asking price for one thing and if he walks, it'll set the offense back several years.

So, here's my laundry list:

free agent signing: second-tier LT or a second-tier speed WR

draft: Round one: whichever the team didn't pick up in free agency between the LT and WR. Rounds two and three: a day-one starter at RT and one non-need, "best player available" as Gettleman likes to pick good players that have slid a Kony Ealy last season. Could wind up getting a good RB in here as well since the team has to get younger there. Rounds four and five: a good safety with upside to complement Boston and perhaps another young CB for the nickel corner spot and for development or depth if Josh Norman can't pull himself together with his temper and sloppy ball skills....someone that will press him for playing time might bring the best out of both of them. Rounds six and seven: trade fodder to move up some in the middle rounds, a late-round RB if they don't get one early, a good blocking TE, and/or a special teams return man.

If the team can fill the most urgent needs and add a few situational or supplemental players for depth and special teams, the Carolina Panthers could well be ready to take that big step up and make a very deep playoff run in 2015.

Time will tell.

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