Now that the Panthers have been eliminated from the NFC playoffs, it’s time to think about what needs to happen during the offseason to make 2009 just as successful—if not more so—than 2008. Below are some positions that need a look this offseason.
Julius Peppers could be leaving, and while Tyler Brayton made some nice plays this year, he’s more of a run stopper. He had 40 tackles; only 11 behind Peppers—who is a complete beast—and a forced fumble this season to only four sacks.
It’s clear that another pass rusher—maybe two if Peppers leaves—is needed for next year. Despite the fact that the Panthers finished the regular season ranked ninth in the NFL in sacks with 37, there were times when the offensive line hardly got any pressure on the quarterback or couldn’t finish the job when in position to make a play.
The Panthers had the franchise tag on starting left tackle Jordan Gross this season, but the Panthers now need to extend a lucrative, long-term offer to him if they intend to keep him. Paying him a franchise player’s salary in the current economic situation would just be too much to pay for any player’s services for only one year.
In addition, there’s not much depth on the exterior of the offensive line. RT Jeff Otah, a rookie in 2008, has had some injury issues. He missed four games altogether and left early from another and didn’t return.
If Gross leaves, the Panthers will have only backup Frank Omiyale, who has only played in 11 games and started one in his career, and Otah, who will only be entering his second season next year, at tackle.
The Panthers may need a left tackle depending on whether Gross leaves in free agency.
Starting fullback Brad Hoover, who is the unsung hero in Carolina’s top-three NFL running game, is very close to the end of his career. He’s 32, and while that may not seem super old, your body ages faster when you’re always blocking linebackers, defensive backs, and the occasional offensive lineman.
It couldn’t hurt to bring in a younger carbon copy of Hoover via the draft to start learning the offense while Hoover plays his last couple of years.
Jake Delhomme is getting older, and his effectiveness as a passer is suspect. Unless Matt Moore or Brett Basanez distinguishes himself as the quarterback of the future, the Panthers need to acquire a young quarterback who can be brought along slowly and make as seamless of a transition from backup to starter as possible when Delhomme retires.
While Josh McCown is a serviceable backup, he probably still doesn’t know the offense very well. In addition, at his age, guys who go from being a backup to starting usually make the jump because of their experience. McCown doesn’t have that. Plus, if you think Delhomme is an interception machine, McCown is even worse.
It would be best for the Panthers to sacrifice mobility and a cannon arm for accuracy and poise because Delhomme. That way, even if the play calls for the quarterback to try to get the ball to Steve Smith, he will stand a better chance of fitting the ball into tight spaces.
Or he could throw a more catchable ball to other receivers if Smith is covered, and the quarterback knows and accepts it, and throws to someone else.
In addition, when Delhomme messes up, he gets too down on himself. He clasps his hands to his helmet, throws his arms up in frustration, and visibly yells at himself. While this emotional leadership style can be good when the team is ahead, it really dampens the team psyche when behind.
Therefore, it would be better for the Panthers to acquire a poised, accurate quarterback—someone like Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan—as their quarterback of the future
And what better time to begin developing a great quarterback with those attributes than now, when the Panthers’ running offense is as good as it’s ever been. A dangerous running game would take considerable pressure off of the new quarterback and allow him to make plays right away more easily, giving him confidence and preparing him to take the next step in his career.
Ma’ake Kemoeatu’s hulking 6’ 5”, 345-pound frame is an invaluable space eater in the interior of the defensive line in that he requires more than one blocker, which creates opportunities for linebackers to make plays in the running game.
But none of the other DTs are even close to the size of Kemoeatu. It would be nice to have another 330-pound-plus DT lined up beside Kemo to double his effect on the offensive line.
However, finding a good move to make here would be much more of a luxury than an urgent need.
Although the Panthers have a nice receiving duo in Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad, depth is an issue. It’s not exactly good when your running back had almost ten more catches in a season than your third receiver but your running back isn’t known for being a pass catcher.
Unless Dwayne Jarrett emerges into a legitimate player next year (which actually could happen) or DJ Hackett manages to stay off the injury report or inactive list long enough to play in more than a measly nine games, the Panthers need to look to sign a wide receiver somehow.