CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers are in need of leadership and direction on and off the field as they prepare for an uncertain future.
Over the next few weeks and months Panthers owner David Tepper will have some major decisions to make that will directly impact the long-term future of the team he purchased in 2018.
That begins in earnest this week with finding a head coach to replace Ron Rivera, who was fired with four games remaining in the season. There is also the matter of figuring out the quarterback situation and the future of oft-injured Cam Newton. And finally Tepper will need to make a hire on an assistant general manager/vice president of football operations who will aid general manager Marty Hurney in personnel decisions.
“There’s nothing we can really do about it. So, you just kind of sit back and just see how it unfolds," linebacker Luke Kuechly said of the team's future. “I’m sure they’ll make good decisions upstairs and figure it out. For us, we just kind of sit back and wait and see what happens. I know guys will be ready to go.”
The Panthers have already interviewed former Packers coach Mike McCarthy for their vacant head coaching position, and also are expected to talk to several top NFL offensive coordinators, including New England's Josh McDaniels, Kansas City's Eric Bieniemy and Baltimore's Greg Roman. They also plan to interview interim coach Perry Fewell, although he would appear a long shot given the Panthers went 0-4 under him to close the season.
The QB decision is a bit more complicated.
Newton is coming off foot surgery and the Panthers must make a decision whether to trade or release him and save $19 million under next year's salary cap. Much of his future will depend on how well he recovers from surgery, and if the team feels confident he can stay healthy. Kyle Allen and Will Grier both struggled this season in place of Newton, so it's possible the team could draft a quarterback with the seventh overall pick in April.
As for Hurney's aid, that remains up in the air, too.
Other things to know about the Panthers:
James Bradberry has developed into one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and it's time for the former first-round draft pick to cash in. The Panthers must determine whether Bradberry warrants a big long-term contract or if the franchise tag is the appropriate option. The other option would be to allow him to walk in free agency, although that seems highly unlikely for an organization that has spent the better part of a decade searching for a reliable shutdown corner. The team has informed Bradberry to be patient. Carolina re-signed another top defender in linebacker Shaq Thompson before the end of the season.
Greg Olsen is more than just a tight end, he's a player who in many respects defines Panthers football. The tight end has had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, is a major player in the Charlotte community, a two-time Walter Payton Man of the Year finalist, and extremely popular among the fan base. But if the Panthers start a rebuilding project it could signal the end of his career in Carolina. Olsen two weeks ago publicly questioned the direction of the franchise, saying it seemed unclear if it wanted to win or rebuild. He would like to return to the Panthers, but not if it's going to be a complete rebuilding project.
Christian McCaffrey has played more snaps and received more touches than any running back in the NFL over the last two seasons, leading to plenty of questions if the Panthers are overusing him and limiting his long-term future in the league. McCaffrey was the bright spot in an otherwise forgettable season for the Panthers, becoming only the third player in NFL history with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season. McCaffrey doesn't think it's an issue, saying “my body feels good. You’ve always got to count your blessing when you get through a season healthy. I feel good. Body’s fine. No issues.”
Lessening McCaffrey's workload is something the new coach may want to consider.
ADDRESSING RUN DEFENSE
One area that will require attention from Marty Hurney is the run defense. Carolina finished 29th in the league against the run and allowed 31 touchdowns on the ground, tied for the most since the AFL-NFL merger. The Panthers did lose defensive tackle Kawann Short early in the season, which didn't help matters. But a switch to a 3-4 base defense didn't work out.
“To stop the run it’s about shedding blocks, it’s getting off blocks, it’s whipping the guy in front of you and it’s tackling — and we didn’t do that very well,” Fewell said.
The Panthers must find stability on the offensive line, particularly at left tackle, which has been a revolving door since Michael Oher left football with repeated concussions. The Panthers used rookies Greg Little and Dennis Daley and veteran Daryl Williams at that spot this year with mixed results.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
Along with solidifying the quarterback situation, the Panthers need to get better — and stronger — up front in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Carolina has some good pieces on offense with McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, but routinely got beat up front. The same happened up front on defense, where Carolina was routinely blown off the ball. Carolina has solid linebackers in Kuechly and Thompson, but too often opposing offensive linemen got to the second level and took those linebackers out of the play, resulting in big runs.
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