I realize this is a smidgen early. No, it's way way early. Panthers GM Dave Gettleman is known for playing chess and in doing so, he is thinking years down the road. I want to look position by position, tying things up at the end for 2016. Here goes for each position group's year-long outlook:
With CaMVP locked up in a long mega-deal, and having one of the most well-regarded backup QBs in the NFL? Grade: A+
This is a good bit more complex. Stewie is approaching the crest of the career hill. No young RBs have appeared yet to make an impact, but it's a very young group yet. I'd have loved to see Derrick Henry back up Jonathan Stewart. Thunder and More Thunder...THAT would have been one brutal offensive unit, and right up Riverboat Ron's alley. Grade: B-
The Panthers have bags of young talent here. Ted Ginn is the only aging vet and he still has the speed to kill...as well as the hands to make you cry. Several young guys are shadow players in the wings for now. They include a physical freak in size and speed as a Proehl Prodigy, a current rookie UFA, and a Byrd who needs to take flight or be buried in the depth chart or worse. With Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury and Devin Funchess rapidly climbing without a ceiling yet in sight, the team has a very deep, young, and talented group. They only lack a consistently reliable deep threat because of Ginn's dropping passes and Philly Brown being a slot guy. Grade: A-
Nobody can complain about Thor's production and durability during his time in Carolina but he can't keep up his high level of play forever. 2016 shouldn't be any different as he still has plenty in the tank, but could use help at his position. The Panthers took Beau Sandland in the 7th round, and his size & speed combination is right on the edge of what's considered a legitimate downfield threat for a TE. While he may or may not threaten for Ed Dickson's backup role this summer, he could well supplant him by November. Longer term, Gettleman needs to start thinking about Olsen's replacement. Grade: B+
Since the OL, unlike the DL, operates as a more coordinated unit, I'll lump 'em together right here. The team needs a true blue-chip prospect to play at left tackle, period. It has been their priority to upgrade, especially after the Byron Bell fiasco, so they signed Michael Oher. Oher is a solid NFL player, but the Super Bowl exposed Oher as Human and Remmers was just awful. I'm really hoping Daryl Williams can wrestle the job from him on the right side, but ultimately, a top-flight left tackle would make this offense complete as the middle of the line is about as good as anyone's. Lack of a lot of proven depth is also of concern. Grade: B
Charles Johnson on the strong side is aging beyond his years mainly due to a lot of playing time and punishment from early on in his career. I think we've seen his best days, but he could surprise us yet. He should at least be solid in any case. It's Kony Ealy that has me excited. If Carolina had won the Super Bowl, Ealy would very likely have been the MVP instead of Miller. While he could be a star or even superstar in the making, he's definitely poised to have a real breakout year in 2016. While the team has a little depth there with the usual suspects, none of them play both the run and the pass well; it's one or the other from a particular guy. Grade: B
This position is as solid for the present and the future as any on the team, if not even more so. The 1-technique has Star Lotulelei with veteran Paul Soliai backing him up. Kawann Short has rookie monster Vernon Butler to terrorize offensive lines in reserve at the 3-technique. Grade: A+
Strongside LB Thomas Davis is as good as they get in the role of the 4-3 OLB. Luke Kuechly is THE BEST AS IT HAS EVER BEEN IN NFL HISTORY at the MLB spot. Second-year pro Shaq Thompson gives the coaches a lot of scheme versatility and a thick playbook. With AJ Klein in reserve and ready to at least play capably if not well at any of the three positions, the team is ready as-is. With Duke rookie UFA Jermey Cash coming in to fight for a roster spot as a backup OLB (heir-apparent to Davis if all works out), the Linebacking corps is the next strongest part of the defense although Kuechly might as well be fitted for a jacket for Canton right now. Grade: A
This is where the Panthers will be vulnerable, especially early on. It's possible they could have all three rookie corners on the field at the same time, as they drafted two big outside guys first, then a nickleback later. The good news is they all have a nose for the football. The bad news is that they're all rookies. Bene' Benwikere is coming off of a broken leg but hopefully will be ready to go full-speed by Opening Day. Beyond him, the kids have some great potential and scheme-fit but even so is overall a thin, green group that must mature quickly. Grade: D
I have been crying over losing Mike Mitchell since back when we were in Salary Cap Hell and he outplayed our purse and moved on to Pittsburgh. Kurt Coleman's seven picks last year helped me forget about him a bit, although Mitchell's physicality was lacking with an over-the-hill Roman Harper at Strong Safety. The NFL changes, however, and Tre' Boston may be making a rebirth at Harper's old spot on the field. I was lukewarm on him at first, then finally was brought around by his play, but then he regressed and let me down. Perhaps now, he's figured the game out and will become an asset, but it's unproven so far. Grade: B
Ted Ginn is dangerous, but hasn't produced many TD returns in Carolina. However, he has had plenty of 15-20 yard returns that set up the offense in pretty good relative field position, and that's really all you can ask of anyone who isn't a rookie named Devin Hester. Coverage units have cut down on allowing big returns, but haven't eliminated them. Still a work in progress and the weakest area by far of the three main groups. Grade: C+
No team is without weaknesses, even the Carolina Panthers. The incumbent offensive tackles, while adequate in many respects, were exposed in Super Bowl 50 against top-flight competition and upgrading one OT position with a Blue Goose should finally be Gettleman's top priority. Perhaps he can weave a little magic with his excess salary cap money, re-negotiate someone's contract to heavily FRONT-load it, save money on the back end, and keep, say Kawann Short signed and happy while freeing up more money for 2017-2019, then work a deal whether in free agency or via trading up in the draft and take a young tackle into the fold for those outside speed rushers as well as driving run blocks.
My ideas of needs right now are mainly that OT, depth at both OT and DE, and how the defensive backfield pans out is anybody's guess right now. Things look promising, but one mistake can cost you six points. Fortunately, Carolina's scheme is more zone, so while having Josh Norman around would have really been nice, may not be the disaster a few fear. Signing Short actually became less important to a degree as Butler appears to be even more of a beast than Short was at the same points in their careers, but Kawann played himself into some money and fills a crucial role. He deserves to be paid, but will it be in Charlotte?
The problem here is if we DO sign Kawann long-term, then what about Butler? I think that's a question going over Gettleman's mind as much as anything because there's not enough data on Butler to know the answers to that yet but with a good camp, he could make things VERY interesting.
As it looks now for the 2017 draft, I'm trading my 2nd and 4th plus my late-round first up into the top 12 or so to get perhaps that really good prospect that's sliding, or even get that guy you really want, however it falls. But Gettleman's not going to overpay for anything. He may not get a bargain if he really goes shopping for a Blue Goose OT, but he'll walk away if the price is too steep. He hasn't been able to solve the issue yet and will try to gloss over it claiming Oher's the answer, but he also claimed Byron Bell was too. Time to put up or shut up on this one, Dave.
That aside, the team should be looking for a Derrick Henry-like RB in the 2017 draft, or at least spending a higher pick on one hopefully to be Stewie's heir-apparent. This is where Gettleman hasn't been successful -- getting productive young talent through the draft or RUFA at the RB position. Kenjon Barner, Fozzie Whittaker, Brandon Wegher, and even Cameron Artis-Payne have yet to prove they can shoulder a load let alone carry the running game. When you consider Tyler Gaffney, another late-round pick lost that the New England Deflatriots snarked through waivers when he got injured, the team has spent a lot of later picks on RBs who haven't produced for whatever reason.
It's time to invest in the RB position. If you're going to be a running team, spending 5th, 6th, and multiple 7th-round picks isn't going to be the answer unless you get incredibly lucky. Some say you shouldn't take an RB in the first round at all and to that, I say stop being silly. If a Bo Jackson or an Adrian Peterson or Todd Gurley shows up, YOU GRAB HIM!!!
I think with measurable help in production at RB, an upgrade over Remmers (whether it's Williams or someone else), and a safety to pair with Coleman to be sort of an "Enforcer" guy that I miss in Mike Mitchell, the Panthers would truly be an even scarier team than they already are because of the fact that there would be zero glaring weaknesses.
Good luck in creating mismatches then!
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