The general consensus was that the Carolina Panthers would be a Super Bowl Contender in 2016. At this point in the season, that is all but said and over with. But how can the Panthers refocus in 2017?
February 7, 2016. The Panthers take the field in Super Bowl 50 as an overwhelming favorite. Four hours later, they sit in the locker room, heads hung as they failed to bring home the first Super Bowl in Franchise history.
Every year, one team gets the honor of working hard enough all year for a chance at the coveted hardware. Only they were left wondering what more they could have done after conceding defeat.
Last season, it was the Carolina Panthers, led by the MVP QB Cam Newton, a ferocious run/aerial attack, and one of the NFL’s best defenses. Most experts saw a team poised to bring back almost every critical starter, and a team to be reckoned with the following season.
That’s when a combination of management and the “Super Bowl Hangover” began to take effect. Immediately after the season-crushing loss, Cam was visibly, (and audibly) tuned out.
A mere month after the game, the players and staff were already being asked about how they could get back to the Super Bowl the following season.
How could they recreate the 2015 season?
Cam Newton was probably the one at the center of it all, as he usually is. His answer to recreating the Super Bowl season almost always was “Last season is last season. This is a new season, and we’re focused on what’s ahead of us.”
That’s the right mentality, it’s the right way to say it to the media. It’s another thing to put the same success on the field, without having memories of what happened just a couple of months ago.
Well, even after discussing all of this, you could come back at me and say, plenty of teams have returned to the Super Bowl in back to back years, it isn’t impossible.
And you would be correct. The Packers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Vikings, Steelers, Broncos, 49ers, Bills, Patriots, and Seahawks have all done it.
What most of these teams didn’t deal with were big changes in the off-season. Heading into the 2016 summer, the Panthers were ready to bring back most of their starting players. Losing some pieces to the secondary, but adding back Kelvin Benjamin on offense.
Don’t forget, the Panthers had Josh Norman, a proven shutdown corner in the scheme that the Panthers run. The entire offensive line would be back, and a year improved.
How could you look at this team coming off a 17-2 season and not thing they could find themselves back in the big game?
Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman (24) reacts in the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Well, some changes are still under the skin of some Panthers fans, none bigger than the release of Josh Norman. It was known among everyone in the NFL and outside of it that the Panthers and Josh Norman spent months in negotiation.
After long deliberation, a deal did not seem to be on the horizon, so the Panthers decided to release Norman.
Gettleman had made up his mind, and Norman hit the free market, eventually being signed to a 5-year, $75 million contract in Washington. A deal that the Panthers never would have made.
The Panthers needed help in the secondary, and many people thought they needed help in an Offensive Tackle, after allowing Von Miller to steal a Super Bowl from them single-handed.
However, with their first round pick, Gettleman opted to select a DT, a position of great strength for the Panthers. He then selected CB’s in rounds, 2, 3, & 5.
After the draft, Panthers fans were a little worried, but optimistic that the makeshift secondary would hold up. Fast-forward to present time and they have not held up even close to where they were last year.
That’s not all. The defensive front 4 hasn’t been the same, not generating the same amount of pressure as the previous season. On the other side of the football, the offensive line was once again not holding up, leaving little time for Cam to throw the football.
A huge part of the Carolina offense, running the football, has not been able to be done effectively. One season after recording 100 yards rushing in every football game, the Panthers haven’t been able to recreate that at all this season.
Granted, the Panthers are dealing with massive injury problems. But nothing has gone right. After a season ago where the Panthers came out on top of almost every close battle, this season has been the opposite. The Panthers have lost almost every game in which the final score was decided by 3 points or less. (2-5)
This season has been hard to watch for Panthers fans, as a repeat trip was felt to be in the cards. Many people think that Gettleman stripped the Panthers of a chance to recreate that magic, and they may be right.
That being said, Dave Gettleman will be working this offseason to right the ship to bring the Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers the players they need to be successful once again.
I think the Panthers need to do the following three things in order to be back in the conversation to earn a trip to Super Bowl LII.
Add to the Offensive Line through Free Agency
As I said earlier, the Panthers are a better team when they run the football. They also are a better team when they have healthy players across the line. They haven’t been great in giving Cam time in the pocket either, as well as allowing sacks.
It could be argued that the Panthers could upgrade at three positions across the line, but if Michael Oher is healthy, I think he keeps his spot. Andrew Norwell has been okay this year after a good season last year, but he and Mike Remmers could be upgraded upon.
The 2017 NFL Draft doesn’t look to be crowded with NFL ready OT’s, so the Panthers could make some noise in Free Agency by signing an experienced OT.
Two names to keep an eye on are Matt Kalil for Minnesota, (yes brother of Ryan Kalil, current C for the Panthers) and Byron Bell with the Titans. Both are young players that the Panthers could use.
2. Draft a Running Back in the 1st or 2nd round
There is a key here in what I’m saying. The Panthers need to run the football effectively. I’m not saying get rid of Jonathan Stewart, he has his place as the power running back. But anyone can tell that he’s lost his quick cutting ability and doesn’t have top end speed.
The Panthers are eyeing a top 8 pick in the upcoming draft. That means they could take a shot at Leonard Fournette out of LSU, or Dalvin Cook of FSU. I think either one could be a great addition to a team looking to run the football.
Nov 19, 2016; Syracuse, NY, USA; Florida State Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook (4) looks to avoid a tackle by Syracuse Orange defensive back Daivon Ellison (19) during the third quarter of a game at the Carrier Dome. Florida State won 45-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
I can already hear the cries of “We don’t need a running back, we have other needs!” But look no further than a team who took a running back last year when people thought they had other more important needs.
The Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott instead of a DE or a Linebacker, both of which people thought they needed. Taking Zeke was the best move they could have made. They are red hot, the offense is clicking, and they don’t look to slow down.
If the Panthers elect to go a different route with the top 10 pick, there’s a few good options available in the 2nd round. Potentially Christian McCaffrey, Dont’a Foreman, and Nick Chubb could all be 2nd round selections.
3. Early draft DE addition in Round 1/2, fill up later end with CB, Safety, WR.
Looking at the Panthers, you can see that they need help, and if anything more able bodies in the secondary. They were bitten by the injury bug this year and need assistance. First however, upgrading the pass rush helps the secondary.
The 2017 draft is defensive-end-heavy, so they could get a talented player with the 1st or 2nd rd pick. With the first pick, Derek Barnett looks to be a good option. If a 2nd, Demarcus Walker would be a fantastic pickup, after all, he is leading the NCAA in sacks.
The Panthers could use another cornerback for depth and to push to two young cornerbacks as well. A safety is needed because it’s unlikely the Panthers keep Michael Griffin, and they need another player to develop in the position.
Lastly, I want to call out a specific player I think would be a great fit. WR Ryan Switzer out of UNC could be a great late round addition. The Panthers don’t have a shifty route running slot receiver to give Cam a quick option in certain scenarios.
Switzer is a very quick, smart route runner, that often leaves his defenders searching for him after his first step. He would be a perfect add for the Panthers.
These are my viewpoints as to how the Panthers can get back on their way to bringing back a Super Bowl after a disappointing loss last season. The talent is there, the fan base is there, and they have the pieces in key areas to make a run in the next couple of seasons.
It’s time to forget about “last season” and start talking about next season.
If the fan base, the staff, and most importantly the players can jump the hurdle that this season has been and regroup heading into 2017 with a new mentality, things could really start to change for the Carolina Panthers.