Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, December 30, 2018 6:44 pm

Another disappointing Panthers season. Again.

Filed under: Panthers — Lex @ 6:44 pm
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I was concerned enough about the Panthers, despite all the new offensive weapons and a new offensive coordinator who seemed to know how to use them, to predict that they’d go 8-8 or 9-7 and miss the playoffs.

Welp, they finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs, and it might have been 6-10 if the Saints, with home field clinched through the playoffs and nothing left to play for, hadn’t sat most of their starters.

What follows are areas of improvement. Except where noted, my suggestions do not take into account whose contracts are up or what effect my suggestions would have on the salary cap, so accompany them with the appropriate amount of salt.

Where to start? With the Panthers, the conversation always starts with Cam Newton. Newton looked good through nine weeks and was headed toward a career high in completion percentage, then took a hard throwing-shoulder hit in Week 10 against Pittsburgh that ended up hampering him badly for the rest of the season. In Week 15 at home against New Orleans on Monday Night Football, he ended up bouncing a pass four yards in front of a crossing receiver who was only about eight yards deep. That ended up being his last game of the season, but everyone in the stadium or watching on TV knew that he should have been pulled well before then. At this point, we don’t know whether he needs shoulder surgery or just rest. But his recovery will determine the Panthers’ offensive fortunes in 2019, and it’s not clear that the team has a Plan B. This year’s draft might be time for the team, who will have a relatively high pick, to find an heir apparent for QB1.

Now, then, the offensive line. It didn’t give up up a lot of sacks this season — slightly less than two per game — but that stat was misleading: Panthers QBs got hit hard and often. Cam Newton took a shot in the Steelers game in Week 10 that hampered him the rest of the season until he was finally benched before Week 16. Taylor Heinicke lasted one game before being knocked out, and then Kyle Allen got knocked out today, with Garrett Gilbert, who spent seven weeks out of the league this year, finishing the fourth quarter. If HE had been knocked out, the Panthers’ emergency quarterback would have been Christian McCaffrey, and ain’t nobody in Panther Nation would’ve been looking forward to exposing the franchise running back to that kind of damage.

Next year, former Pro Bowler Trai Turner returns at right guard and Darryl Williams presumably returns from his injury at right tackle. And when your RB1 goes for more than 1,000 yards rushing plus 800+ yards receiving, it’s hard to argue with the run-blocking. But the whole line needs to get better at pass-blocking, and the team must, repeat, MUST find a left tackle to protect Cam Newton at a level he hasn’t had since 2015.

At tight end, I love Gregg Olsen, and more importantly, so does Cam. He’s a Pro Bowler, so what’s not to love? But Olsen has missed significant playing time for two straight years now with foot problems, he cost $7.95 million against the cap in 2018, and he’s under contract for two more seasons. I’m not saying the team should let him go. But I am saying that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we did: Rookie Ian Thomas has played well as a receiver no matter who was in at QB – he and Cam appeared to be developing a rapport comparable to that of Newton and Olsen – and I didn’t see him miss many blocks. If Olsen can no longer play, or doesn’t appear to be worth the risk given the cost, Thomas could step in.

More stuff, and more encouraging stuff, about the offense later.

On defense, the Panthers historically have prided themselves on a run-stuffing line that gets a lot of pressure on opposing QBs. DT Kawann Short, who signed a big new contract in 2017, cost a whopping $17 million in 2018 but didn’t play up to that level, just getting three sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss. 2016 first-round draft pick Vernon Butler not only isn’t starting at DT, he ended up being a healthy scratch a few times this year. So while he has two more years left on his contract (plus an option year), I wouldn’t be surprised to see him gone. The other current starter at DT, Dontari Poe, has never had more than 4.5 sacks or five tackles for loss in any year (both in 2013). He was signed before the 2018 season to a three-year contract, a move that likely will get some front-office scrutiny this winter.

At defensive end, future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers just completed his 17th season. No one would blame him for wanting to retire. But some folks in Panthers Nation might be quietly hoping for it. He’s still incredibly athletic, but he has lost a step, which is a problem across this defense. He had four sacks, down from 11 in 2017. An honorable retirement, with a celebration of his remarkable career and contributions to the franchise, strikes me as the best option all around.

At the other end, Mario Addison had a decent year with eight sacks. He’s 31 and will be in a contract year in 2019, so he’s likely to be highly motivated to perform well again.

One disappointment: DE Efe Obada, the Nigerian native assigned to the Panthers by the league’s International Player Pathway program. He stuck with a 52-man roster this year for the first time since entering the league in 2015, but after a promising early start, he faded. His is a feel-good story, but as much as the Panthers rotate DEs, he needs to be more productive.

At linebacker, Luke Kuechly remains arguably the best in the league in the middle. Thomas Davis was supposed to make this his last year, although he reportedly was reconsidering after missing the first four games of the season on a PED suspension. TD has been a huge part of this team for a long team, but he has lost a step in pass coverage, and it showed clearly this season. Like Peppers, I think he should enjoy an honorable retirement and allow youth to be served. At the other end, Shaq Thompson has played well in spurts, although as much time as the D spent in nickel coverage, it has been hard to tell.

Speaking of nickel, Captain Munnerlyn has been involved in many big games in Charlotte, but, like Davis, he has lost a step and gave up some big plays this year. He needs to be replaced.

At corner, Donte Jackson shows signs of becoming the cover ace that James Bradberry was supposed to be but hasn’t been. Bradberry, whom a lot of observers were surprised to see go as high as the second round of the 2016 draft, simply hasn’t been dependable: He has five interceptions in three years and had only one in 2018. He’s in a contract year in 2019, but with Jackson showing signs of solidity, I don’t know that cutting Bradberry and drafting his successor might not be a bad idea.

At safety, Eric Reid has said he’d like to return in 2019, and he has made a case with 47 tackles, a sack and a pick in 12 games. But Mike Adams, God bless him, is past his sell-buy date after 15 years in the league, and I think Rashaan Gaulden and some new blood all need to compete with Reid and let the cream rise to the top. (Colin Jones, nominally a safety, is a mainstay on special teams and is near-certain to return in that role.)

Overall, the big news on this Panthers defense in 2018 was that coordinator Eric Washington, who had moved up through the team’s coaching ranks, proved inadequate in his new role. Head coach Ron Rivera, a former DC himself, took over the team’s defensive play calling late in the season and fired two defensive assistants. It remains to be seen whether Rivera will call the signals again in 2019 or whether the team will hire a new coordinator. At all three levels, the defense needs an injection of speed, which will be necessary for the essential task of cutting the number of big plays it gives up.

Special teams had an OK year. Punter Michael Palardi averaged in the middle of the pack in both gross and net punt yardage, a shade over 45 yards per punt with a long of 59 and about 40% of his punts inside the opponents’ 20.

Place kicker Graham Gano injured his knee late in the year, by which time he had made 14 of 16 field-goal attempts with a long of 63, one short of the league record. Assuming the injury is no worse than has been announced to date, he’ll still be the kicker in 2019, although the team might bring one or two others into camp to challenge him and for a look-see.

The return game is an area in which the Panthers could step up. Kenjon Barner didn’t scare anyone, and there are several faster players on this team. WR DJ Moore took a punt in today’s final game, and that might be something to look into doing more of in 2019.

Now, back to the offense: If all the starters are healthy and the Panthers can fix the O-line problems in the offseason, the 2019 Panthers offense should be near the top of the league in offensive production. With a Pro Bowl quarterback in Newton, outstanding receivers in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel and slot man Jarius Wright (Devin Funchess, whose contract is up, is going to want WR1 money and likely will be leaving the team), a reliable weapon at TE in either Greg Olsen or Ian Thomas, and an all-purpose threat in RB Christian McCaffrey — and an offensive coordinator in Norv Turner who seems to know how to use all these weapons — the Panthers ought to be hanging 30+ points a game on opponents. Much less, assuming a decent O-line, could only be considered a disappointment. As for defense, it needs fixes from coordinator on down, and it must get faster at all three levels.

If all these things happen, the Panthers should be highly competitive. But seldom has the team done everything it has needed to do in the off-season, and that’s one big reason why the franchise has never had consecutive winning seasons. And Marty Hurney’s history as general manager does not inspire confidence. It’s bad enough that this team didn’t win; aggravating the problem by getting the team into another salary-cap hole would ensure mediocrity for years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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