State of the (Panthers) Nation

Big changes coming in Carolina

Result: Missed Playoffs

2019 Regular season record: 5-11

2019 Scoring Offensive Rank: 20th 21.2 PPG 

2019 Scoring Defensive Rank: 31st 29.4 PPG

2020 Draft First Round Pick: 7

Coach: Matt Rhule

The Offseason Scenario:

2020 will be a completely different look for the Panthers, and that might not be a bad thing.  With Cam Newton never really healthy, Carolina was outside the top half of the NFL offensively in 2019.  That’s not even the bad news, as they were much, much worse on defense. Scenarios like these get coaches fired, and predictably, this was the end of Ron Rivera’s tenure in Carolina.  It didn’t take him long to find a new gig though, he’s already taken the reins in Washington.

Carolina also lost defensive signal caller Luke Kuechly to retirement, and parted ways with their franchise QB and face of the franchise, as Cam Newton was cut outright. 

As the Panthers rebuild, who is the coach that will guide them into the next decade? If you don’t follow college football, you might not know Matt Rhule’s name, but he’s been good rebuilding teams at the NCAA level. And I mean, like, really good. He took perennial doormat Temple to a Bowl game in only his second year, before being tapped to rebuild a Baylor program that was in a seriously horrific place after the sexual assault scandal a few seasons ago. 

After a down year, Rhule had Baylor back in a Bowl game, and by year three, the Bears were competing for a Big-12 title and playing in the Sugar Bowl. In the professional ranks, Rhule did have a short stint under Tom Coughlin as an Assistant Offensive Line coach, so it’s not like he’s a completely unknown quantity at the NFL level.  

Free Agent Frenzy:

Rhule will need to rebuild from the ground up in Carolina and may have hit the free agent lottery for at least one piece of the puzzle.  Teddy Bridgewater was spectacular as a fill in for New Orleans last season and given his age and success in both Minnesota and with the Saints, was one of the most intriguing quarterbacks in free agency.  Sure, he’s not Tom Brady, but he’s also only twenty-seven years old, and were it not for the catastrophic injury in 2015, he’d more than likely still be the Vikings starter.

Bridgewater posted career highs in completion percentage (67.9) and passer rating (99.1) in 2019, as well as his career best TD/INT ratio (9/2) as a starter for five games for the Saints.  Call me optimistic, but I predict Bridgewater will bring everything Carolina expects and more to the table in 2020. He’ll be aided by a new armada of wide receivers, including Pharoah Cooper, Robby Anderson and Seth Roberts.

To tighten down one of the worst defenses in the league, the Panthers have brought in some new faces, including safeties Tre Boston and Juston Burris and DE Stephen Weatherly.  Boston actually isn’t a new face, he played in Carolina from 2014-2016 before stints with the Chargers and Cardinals. It’s a relatively economical rebuild thus far, and the Panthers still have about $9 million to play with under the cap.  

Seriously Premature Draft Hunches:

Carolina hasn’t made many moves the past few years, so they have their full complement of draft picks in 2020, one selection in each round, starting with the number seven pick overall. 

Some folks think that Carolina might be in the market for Tua, but having brought in Bridgewater and retained Kyle Allen, I think that that room is full. The Panthers should focus on defense, defense, defense in this draft, though some help along the offensive line in the later rounds wouldn’t hurt. 

I see the need for a powerhouse defensive lineman or edge rusher as the biggest need, followed by a savvy linebacker to fill in the monstrously large hole left by Luke Kuechly’s surprising retirement. I’d love to see Carolina pick up a player like Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos, a true defensive end that can get to the quarterback, but also penetrate and make tackles for loss on rushing plays. 

If Carolina goes for a linebacker at number seven overall, they’ll have a few potential stars to choose from. That could mean Isiah Simmons, the ACC DPOY who led Clemson’s defense all the way to the NCAA Championship game, or possibly Patrick Queen, whose LSU Tigers beat Clemson for the national title. Both would be foundational pieces for a Carolina team whose defense, let’s be honest, has nowhere to go but up.    

For more thoughts and opinions from Tom, check out his author page.

Image Source: AP Images

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