As the offseason dust settles and the final holes in the ship hopefully have been plugged with undrafted free agents, the Carolina Panthers initial 90-man roster has taken shape. It’s as bloated as it will get until August when they trim to 75, and then finally to 53 by the month’s close.
So how does Carolina’s 2015 90-man roster stack up against last year’s training camp roster? Will getting to 75 and 53 be a positive or painful process? It’s hard to answer these questions by looking at the current roster alone. Contrasting last season’s 90-man roster will help to provide context and a reference point for the team’s roster integrity and direction moving forward. Here’s a link to the full 2014 and 2015 side-by-side comparison. Below is some initial analysis based on roster composition alone.
A Bigger Mess than We Thought
Last year’s roster was a mess. We tried to sugarcoat it, but as it clearly turned out, there were serious deficiencies in the secondary, the offensive line, and at wide receiver. Worse, the inability to sign any free agents from Carolina’s 2013 season and the decision to part ways with Steve Smith created a roster in transition. The losses were real, and the solutions were untested. Despite winning the NFC South the year before, Carolina was rebuilding foundational elements of the team. Ultimately, the roster lacked talent, stability, depth, pedigree, and identity in certain position groups.
The secondary relied on discarded parts in Thomas DeCoud and Antoine Casone, supported by a mix of old (Roman Harper) and hobbled (Charles Godfrey & Tre Boston) watched by a green rookie (Bene’ Benwikere).
The broken parts have been discarded, and the Panthers coaching staff has finally started to show some confidence in Josh Norman, who looks to be an emerging top-tier corner in the NFL. The young’ns looked strong in their debut, and now enter their second year with confidence and a little experience.
The secondary was a liability last season. Really, it was a liability back in 2013 when the team went 12-4, but a relentless pass-rush and a hard-hitting Mike Mitchell as strong safety masked the deficiencies well enough. It, however, still remains a weaker aspect of the Panthers roster.
Aside from Josh Norman and Bene’ Benwikere, there are real questions surrounding Carolina’s defensive backfield. Roman Harper is a year closer to collecting social security, and Boston hasn’t yet convinced he is the long-term solution at free safety. Similar to last season with DeCoud, few can be comfortable that Kurt Coleman is a solution. He has had some career success and played both free and strong safety, which helps in case those who think Boston is better suited to play strong safety are correct.
Charles Tillman is the wildcard. Although his last two seasons have been cut short by injury, Tillman is a player, and he’s been one for quite some time. Last year, Carolina was hoping that Cason’s 2nd round pedigree could translate in Carolina. Well this season, they’re not hoping Tillman can live up to the billing, but instead can stay healthy enough to fit the billing. Without Tillman, Carolina will have to hope that Teddy Williams a project corner or one of the UDFA can fill in well enough.
Looking back, and knowing the outcome, the Panthers offensive line was nauseating. It lacked depth, competition, and talent. Gettleman has been revered by supporters as a genius, but last year’s offensive line may be his greatest failing as a general manager. Starting Byron Bell at left tackle and Nate Chandler at right tackle, two guys who had absolutely zero experience at these positions, was near criminal.
The good news is that it can’t be worse than last year, and it isn’t. In his second season, Trai Turner should make more of a positive contribution. Andrew Norwell impressed the staff enough that it looks as if he could be a long-term feature at guard, and there is a little more depth and competition at every position except left tackle. Ugghhh, left tackle, makes you feel a little queasy just saying it. Carolina is better, however, at the position, simply because they have two guys who have actually played the position in the NFL before. I’m not saying Michael Oher and Jonathan Martin have played it well, but they’ve actually played it, unlike last year where Gettleman was hoping to shift guys into the spot and see if he could be saved by the Bell. Add Daryl Williams, who people rave about his work ethic and grit on the field, to the mix and there is at least some competition and depth offensive line.
Old, unproven, and unknown, pretty much sums up the group. Aside from Kelvin Benjamin, who no one could be sure of just how good he would be in his rookie debut, the Panthers had a bunch of third-rate receivers who were either past their prime or never good in the first place. Corey “Philly” Brown was the one bright spot outside Benjamin, but even he was more a pleasant surprise than a critical part.
The group is bigger—much bigger—faster, and more talented. Benjamin exceeded expectations and proved he can be a top receiver in the NFL. Carolina then drafted another athletic giant in Devin Funchess, who may have a higher ceiling than Benjamin when it’s all said and done. Ted Ginn is also back, and although I don’t think he’s all that good, he had chemistry with Cam Newton and at least provides a little depth to the group. Jarrett Boykin and Stephen Hill are also a couple of wildcards that few are depending on, but do add size, speed, and potential.
Carolina’s receiver unit lacked identity last season, but has laid the foundation for a clear identity this season—big, strong, athletic, and a matchup nightmare for defensive secondaries. The Panthers have struggled mightily in converting red-zone possessions to touchdowns over the past season. Gettleman’s investment sought to create an identity that rectified this shortcoming. At the very worst, Carolina got bigger, younger, and faster. There are at least guys with the tools to succeed, now they will just need to execute.
Walking into camp last season, Carolina banked on what they thought would be a suffocating pass-rush bookended by Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. Star Lotulelei would swallow up the inside gaps and Kwaan Short would create up the middle pressure, all while McDermott sicced end dogs on ‘em. Hardy only played one game, however, and the Panthers defensive linemen battled injury. Hardy’s absence accelerated rookie Kony Ealy’s role in the defense, but he expectantly struggled to make an early contribution.
The defensive line looks very similar, minus Hardy. Carolina didn’t look to bolster the line through the draft, but looks instead to be placing a lot of faith in some productive veterans in Charles Johnson, Dwan Edwards, and Colin Cole, supported by an emergent group of third year defensive tackles in Lotulelei and Short. The final bookend will likely be a rotation of Kony Ealy, Frank Alexander, and Mario Addison.
Interestingly, what was Carolina’s greatest strength, the defensive line, may just be one of the areas that Carolina lacks the depth to deal with a serious injury to a key player. The good news is that Carolina played with this bunch last season, and Kony Ealy showed some real potential and Short solidified a starting position late in the season.
Another healthy year out of Thomas Davis with Luke Kuechly made this group one of the strongest in the league and greatest assets of the team. There were questions concerning the weakside linebacker spot still. AJ Klein never stood out, except for blowing coverage in the Green Bay game (who didn’t in that massacre though), and Adarius Glanton looked ok, but it never mattered much outside of TD and Kuechly given how much nickel the Panthers played.
Carolina drafted Shaq Thompson in the 1st round. He’s the third piece, one which solidifies Carolina as now having the best linebacker core in the NFL. Thompson will make this defense dynamic because defensive coordinator Sean McDermott can trot him out as a linebacker, but still play the nickel by using him more like strong safety if needed. Carolina can ultimately adjust formations without making significant personnel substitutions.
Another weakness in 2014, Carolina’s stable of backs consisted an aging DeAngelo Williams, an injury prone Jonathan Stewart, and a plump and soon to be injured Mike Tolbert. Aside from lacking youth and explosiveness, the Panthers running back group lacked a future. The writing was on the wall for all of these guys, and Williams departure this offseason only signals it further. Stewart can hardly last a season, and it will be shocking if he is a Panther after 2016 in any capacity more than a rotational player. Fozzie Whitaker, a late camp addition, flashed when given the opportunity, but it’s clear he can’t be a work horse. It was another position group that lacked an identity.
With DeAngelo Williams gone, the Panthers can now move on to developing the next era for Carolina running backs. Yes, questions about Stewart’s durability still linger, but Carolina has taken a strong step forward in developing contingency plan if Stewart becomes sidelined injury in drafting Cameron Artis-Payne. Artis-Payne is a guy who many think can carry the full-time load after Stewarts eventual departure. He’s not the youngest rookie, for he’ll start the season as a 25-yr old back, but he doesn’t have a tremendous amount of wear on the tires either. As a JUCO transfer, he’s been sheltered from some of the wear and tear at 25-year old back would have.
What’s most settling is that Carolina now a stability of vision at running back. There’s a more defined order and expectation to the group than last year. The aging Williams commanded a certain degree of respect and by default was the lead back until another could prove otherwise. It put developing a younger guy in a difficult situation because, while Williams wasn’t dynamic, he understood the nuances of the position and was generally more trusted in pass protections.
Carolina now has a future vision in Stewart as the lead back, Artis-Payne as a rotational back on 1st and 2nd downs to help preserve Stewart, and Fozzie Whitaker more of a third down back that can convert in the passing game more.
Outside of Greg Olsen, who knew? Brandon Williams and his swollen-self courted some attention, but he never contributed much on the field outside throwing a haymaker in defense of Cam Newton in New Orleans. Carolina integrated Ed Dickson into the offensive scheme more at the very end, and they liked what they saw based on the 3-year contract he was awarded during free agency.
There’s really nothing different about this story. Olsen, who also received a new contract, will be the heart of this positional group, and we’ll continue to critique Dickson and speculate about Williams and faun over his abnormally large muscles.
*Quarterback and Kicking Units no noteworthy changes to discuss.
What do we know at this point?
Carolina’s roster has improved significantly from last season. It may not be through the sexy free agent acquisitions or drafting in the manner that the draft prognosticators pre-approved, but it's better. There's more depth, talent, opportunity for competition, and overall organizational vision. Now there are still some significant concerns, but most of these are based on the idea that something will go wrong simply because it can. Injury will always be a problem, and at this point it is impossible to determine if the depth was added at the right positions, the competition will be strong enough, or that any of these guys will play in the way that they are expected. While these questions linger, there are less questions than there were last year, and that is a good thing.
By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn