The Carolina Panthers are now looking toward the offseason. What are the four biggest areas they need to focus on?
With the 33-16 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16, the Carolina Panthers are officially out of playoff contention for the 2016 season.
This year has been a major disappointment for the team and supporting fans. Now the question becomes what areas need addressing during the offseason. The Panthers have a number of issues that need to be looked at to help build this team back into the threat that it’s been the last few seasons.
At the end of the 2015 campaign, many thought that this was the core group needed to bring a NFL title to Charlotte. Yet this team failed to live up to those expectations in a number of ways. Injuries are always a starting point when discussing where a team fell apart and those same issues impacted the Panthers in some areas.
However, there are a lot of problems that came to ahead with Carolina this season which led to their underwhelming performance. These are four areas in which the front office should focus on initially as the offseason starts early for the Carolina Panthers. Solving these problems during the next few months will go a long way in building success for this team next season.
Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers tackle Michael Oher (73) at the line of scrimmage during the first quarter against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi
4. Offensive Line
The Panthers offensive line was a glaring problem throughout the year. Time and time again Cam Newton was forced to scramble out of the pocket and taking nasty hits from opposing defenses. Injuries plagued the front line, forcing the leadership to make replacements and plug holes that didn’t pan out.
Consistency is a major attribute of a successful offensive line and the Panthers did not have that any shred of said consistency this season. A number of the Panthers star offensive linemen were forced off of the field due to injury. Ryan Kalil, Gino Gradkowski, Michael Oher are each a key component to the offensive line that not only protected Newton, but that is a major catalyst to the Carolina run game.
With all of them missing extensive time the Panthers looked for a variety of replacements that did not pan out. Trai Turner is the only player who has served for an extended amount of time on this Panthers’ line and he was moved around to give this unit the best hope of success. It will be interesting to see if the Panthers use more than two picks during the draft to help shore up their strength along the offensive line.
Sep 18, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Daryl Worley (26) breaks up a pass during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the 49ers 46-27. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
3. Defensive Backfield
At the end of the 2015 campaig,n the Carolina Panthers were looking for a way to replace Josh Norman. Norman was one of the leaders within the Panthers’ backfield that consistently harassed opposing quarterbacks. When Charles “Peanut” Tillman walked away to retire, Carolina lost yet another impact player in the backfield. The front office turned to NFL Draft to rebuild the group, but the results of those steps are up for interpretation or still pending at this point in time.
James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez made up the core of new members selected to be a part of the Panthers’ secondary. Worley and Bradberry performed well; amassing 101 tackles, 16 deflections and two interceptions. The Panthers should be concerned about Sanchez being placed on the injured reserve in November, but all in all, this was a strong start for both of these rookies. The opportunity for growth for both of these players is still rising, while a close eye on Sanchez’s development is vital during the off season.
Still, Carolina needs to find an impact player in the backfield. Kurt Coleman continues to be the name to watch on this defensive, but the organization has to find someone to compliment him in order to get this unit back to the status enjoyed during the 2015 season.
Oct 10, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne (34) carries the ball during the third quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium. The Buccaneers won 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
2. Running Backs
Carolina’s running game has long been one of the power weapons used to beat teams into submission. In 2016 the team rushing total was 1,686 with one game left against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Barring a massive output in next Sunday, this will be the first time since 2010 that the Panthers will finish a season with fewer than 2,000 total yards on the ground. That was also the last season before the team introduced Cam Newton as their franchise quarterback.
The Panthers woes on the ground are tied to the lack of consistency with their front line. There were moments of explosiveness when the front line performed like that group has in the past. But they were unable to keep that going for large stints of time. While the Panthers have averaged more than 100 yards per outing to this point (112.4 per game) the running backs haven’t shown the same type of dominance as in the past.
The big question is how the Panthers will address Jonathan Stewart. With one game left he’s earned 759 yards on 198 attempts. Even though this is along the same lines as his previous levels of production, he’s turning 30 before the start of the next season. It’s time for Carolina to prepare for his replacement and it’s hard to see if that individual is currently on the roster. Cameron Artis-Payne’s production dropped this year as he played in only three games after playing in seven in 2015. Questions have been asked if he’s the best option as a long-term solution. If not, expect the Panthers to look towards a move, perhaps through free agency, during the off season.
Sep 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano (9) misses a fifty yard field goal attempt as punter Andy Lee (8) holds in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos defeated the Panthers 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
1. Special Teams
Special teams is yet another area in which the Carolina Panthers struggled in 2016 after years of consistency in the area. Kicking wise, Graham Gano wasn’t at his best. Even though he completed 85.3 percent of field goal attempts and 90.9 perfect of extra point attempts, there were some questions about his performance. Statistically speaking, his numbers are in line with what he’s produced throughout the year, but he did miss some big kicks at key times early in the year which started to shake the confidence surrounding his spot on the team.
Andy Lee emerged as the top option for the Panthers as they looked to replace their Pro Bowl quality punter in the past. He played very well this season and fulfilled that role as asked. He was placed on injured reserve and replaced by Michael Palardy who performed well enough in the reduced role.
The real issue in special teams is that the Panthers lack a “big play” option in the return game. That role used to be filed by Ted Ginn Jr. but the team needs to find another weapon in the return game. Year after year the yardage gained on kick on punt returns is mediocre at best, often forcing the Panthers to play the long game when it comes to the field position battle. The Panthers have a number of options in their wide receiver core to find a player that can better support in this role.