The 2019 season was tumultuous for the Carolina Panthers almost from the start. When Cam Newton went down with a Lisfranc injury after Week 2, the team's chances at a playoff run were shot, even if Kyle Allen kept that illusion alive for a few more weeks.
The Panthers lost their final eight games — outscored 266-131 — just one year after they lost seven of their last eight. That spelled the end of a generally successful nine-year run as head coach for Ron Rivera, who parted with the team on amicable terms.
Carolina has been in need of a reboot with a recent change in ownership and back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2012-13. The question becomes: How much more change is necessary?
Owner David Tepper got his guy when he secured Baylor head coach Matt Rhule on a seven-year deal worth up to $70 million, which answered perhaps the biggest question of the offseason. But plenty remains unsettled.
Will Rhule bring more talented coaches from the college ranks with him to the NFL? The Panthers' offensive coordinator may play a large role in determining Cam Newton's future fit with the team. In what direction will they go to fill their assistant general manager role, and will GM Marty Hurney be around for much longer?
The Panthers have the draft capital to improve greatly this offseason with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft and all of their picks on hand. Given that they have needs across the board and no one massive weakness, they could stand to benefit from trading down to accumulate more picks. Perhaps an anxious team will feel the need to trade up to grab Oregon's Justin Herbert — assuming the Panthers don't want him themselves.
Carolina may need to address its problems through the draft too since they only have $40.6 million in cap space, 21rd in the league according to Over The Cap. The team could clear $19.1 million by getting rid of Newton or $8 million by moving on from veteran tight end Greg Olsen, which leads us into the first burning question of the offseason.
1. What will the team do with Cam Newton?
After he led the Panthers to a 16-1 start in an MVP 2015 season, it would have been hard to believe that the Panthers would consider dumping Newton so soon. Yet here we are, at a crossroads for the franchise.
Newton is a player with rare talent and game-breaking ability, but he hasn't been the same since that 2015 campaign. Not only is he rushing less, but his passing numbers are down significantly. His yards per attempt dropped below seven in 2016 and '17, and a shoulder injury kept him from being able to throw more than 15 yards downfield in 2018. That injury seemed to persist into 2019 until the foot injury ended his season.
The Panthers' problem is that they don't have another viable solution. Kyle Allen and rookie third-rounder Will Grier don't appear to be quality starters at this point, although Grier may one day reach that level down the road. Newton is by far the best option on roster, but his health going forward will seemingly always be an issue.
Newton's $21.1 million cap hit is extremely reasonable for a starting quarterback — let alone an above-average one. Kirk Cousins ($31 million), Ben Roethlisberger ($33.5 million), and Jared Goff ($36 million) will all be making $10 million more than Newton, so the Panthers may trade him for draft picks but has no good reason to cut him.
But the question of Newton's future isn't just whether to trade him or keep him; it's also about what the Panthers will do about his next contract. If they don't extend him soon and he returns to near his MVP form, they may have to pay him a record deal. But if they give him a big deal now and he doesn't stay healthy — or, worse yet, is bad — they're stuck with an albatross of a contract.
This seems like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, but there are worse places to be in the NFL. Like the decades before Newton's arrival in Charlotte when the quarterback situation was a wasteland. The Cowboys may dread giving Dak Prescott a contract with guaranteed money in the nine-figure territory, but that's better than rolling with Andy Dalton next year.
2. What will the defensive front seven look like?
The Panthers switched to a 3-4 defense during Ron Rivera's last year at the helm for the first time this century. They still used four-man fronts plenty throughout the season, but it caused a ripple effect with Mario Addison moving to outside linebacker, Shaq Thompson moving inside, and several long-time tackles moving to end.
That change may not last, though, since Matt Rhule has not committed to what kind of defense he wants to run. In his introductory press conference, he said that he "leans" towards a base 4-3 defense, but he hasn't announced a change.
The makeup of the defensive coaching staff could tell a lot too, as the team is expected to hire Rhule's defensive coordinator from Baylor and Temple, Phil Snow, and Colts defensive line coach Mike Phair will reportedly join the staff. Both come from 4-3 backgrounds, which gives a pretty good hint as to where they could go.
The type of defense the Panthers run will impact which free agents they pursue, as well. Addison could be in for a big payday after registering at least nine sacks for the fourth straight season (Chandler Jones is the only other player to do so), but his positional future is unclear. Veterans Gerald McCoy and Bruce Irvin are also set to hit free agency after signing one-year deals, and they had mixed results in the 3-4 scheme.
The Panthers also have to contend with the surprise retirement of Luke Kuechly, who played in seven Pro Bowls during his eight bright seasons in the league. Could he be replaced by Thompson at the Mike, or would Thompson — who just got a four-year, $54 million deal — slide back to the outside? Carolina will have more money than expected to play with in free agency, as Kuechly had a $15.5 million cap hit for 2020.
The one thing that is certain is that the Panthers can't keep the status quo. When McCoy and Dontari Poe went down with injuries last season, the team's run defense crumbled, and a talented linebacking corps couldn't keep up. This unit could use help, even beyond the expected improvement of 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns.
3. Can the team address the offensive line?
Pass protection has never been a strength for the Panthers. Since 2009, they've only ranked in the top half of the league in adjusted sack rate once — 11th in 2018. This season, they fell to 28th at an 8.6 percent clip, their worst season since finishing second-to-last in 2010.
Yes, injuries were part of the reason for the struggles. Starting left guard Greg Van Roten missed the final five games of the season with a foot injury, while rookie second-rounder Greg Little was limited to four games because of concussions and ankle injuries. But the team will need more improvement than just a return to health.
Tackle has been a nearly impossible position to fill since Jordan Gross' retirement after the 2014 season. They tried fixing it through free agency with Matt Kalil, but he was a massive flop with a five-year, $55 million contract three years ago. That mistake may scare the Panthers off from trying to sign a big-name tackle, even if they had the money to bring one in.
Keeping Newton — or whoever starts at quarterback — upright will be of the highest importance next season. The team would rather use All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey for screens than pass protection, and they can't afford any more injuries to their signal-caller.
It seems unlikely that Georgia's Andrew Thomas will make it to them at the seventh pick, so there may not be a tackle worth taking so high unless they want to reach for Alabama's Jedrick Wills Jr. or move down in the draft. There's no question the Panthers need to upgrade on their line, it's just a matter of how they can most effectively do so.
(Top photo by Brandon Todd, courtesy of panthers.com)