Carolina Panthers: 5 Moves Among the Best and Worst of Panthers Offseason
As the Carolina Panthers enter their first OTAs (Official Team Activities) since 2012 and coach Ron Rivera's first full offseason with the team—remember the 136-day NFL lockout of 2011?—they do so with a team that has improved in some areas and maintained the status quo in others, thanks to a handful of curious offseason front-office decisions.
The Panthers focused on a bevy of long- and short-term needs in the 2012 NFL Draft, and a pre-draft series of free-agent moves and trades focused on deepening the Panthers offense and improving their abysmal special teams.
Have the Carolina Panthers Arrived?
In the first half of a two-part Q&A with the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person, Coach Rivera says that he is optimistic about the Panthers prospects but he does not feel that they have "arrived" just yet.
Whether the Panthers have arrived is both relative and subjective at this point and depends upon one's definition of arrival—i.e., playing competitively vs. winning a set number of games or reaching the playoffs vs. winning the Super Bowl.
No matter, the final verdict will be determined on the field this season and in the seasons to come, but as long as the Panthers reflect Coach Rivera's blue-collar work ethic and constant emphasis on growth and improvement, they will have a legitimate shot at winning their division and making a run in the playoffs.
So You're Saying There's a Chance
Just as the Carolina Panthers were 6-10 last season, the San Francisco 49ers (13-3, NFC West champs in 2011) and Detroit Lions (10-6, NFC North wild card in 2011) each won six games in 2010 before making giant strides in 2011.
And speaking of giant strides, the New York Giants barely made the 2012 NFL Playoffs after finishing last season with a 9-7 record before going on an epic Super Bowl-winning run by defeating the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, the 49ers and New England Patriots.
Little wonder Rivera cannot help but feel optimistic about his team's chances so long as they keep the motivational carrot in sight at all times.
Here is a look at a handful of offseason front-office moves that could either help or hinder the Panthers development into a contender in 2012.
Best Move: Drafting Luke Kuechly
With their first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers surprised most draft pundits by selecting Luke Kuechly in the first round.
Kuechly, an All-American linebacker from Boston College and one of the greatest volume tacklers in NCAA history, was the best player on the board at No. 9 overall, but he does not address the Panthers most pressing positional upgrade needs at defensive tackle and cornerback.
Instead, he deepens the pool of talented linebackers already on the Panthers roster and gives Carolina one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL, as long as everyone stays healthy.
Though the Panthers may have greater needs to fill than the linebacker position this offseason, securing a player like Kuechly—who has the instincts and range to be the next Brian Urlacher—is a move that will pay dividends to the Panthers for the next eight to ten years.
Outlook: Personally, I cannot wait to see the Panthers switch out of their base 4-3 defense and into a four-linebacker look with Kuechly and Jon Beason playing on the inside and James Anderson and Thomas Davis manning the outside backer positions.
Worst Move: Ignoring Defensive Tackle Position
Ron Edwards, Terrell McClain, Sione Fua, Andre Neblett and Frank Kearse are the top five players on the interior of the Carolina Panthers defensive line heading into the 2012 season.
Surprisingly, those are the same five guys who would have headed the same list at the end of the 2011 season.
Most NFL Draft pundits, scouts and talking heads thought the Panthers would select a defensive tackle in the first two rounds of this year's draft to solidify what most believed to be Carolina's weakest position.
Only time will tell whether the Panthers have the players they need out of this young group led by the veteran Edwards, but Rivera seems to think they are better equipped at this position than most outsiders would attest.
As Rivera told the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person in an exclusive two-part interview, a lack of on-field communication stemming from the loss of middle linebacker and defensive captain, Jon Beason, in the first game of the season had a lot to do with Carolina's porous play up the middle in 2011.
With the Panthers first minicamp in the books and the team's first official OTAs since 2010 about to get underway, there is still plenty of time for the Panthers to pick up another veteran tackle before the season begins.
Outlook: Rivera sees the potential for growth and development out of his young defensive tackles, but until that is proven on the field, we will continue to question whether the Panthers made the right move by not addressing the position in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Best Move: Upgrading Special Teams
The Carolina Panthers had the worst special teams in the NFL in 2011, and they are determined to not repeat that distinction in 2012.
The Panthers have upgraded their special teams this offseason through the draft and free agent acquisitions after head coach Ron Rivera made special teams improvement a priority this offseason.
The addition of guys like former Vikings linebacker Kenny Onatolu, ex-Ravens safety Haruki Nakamura and former Chargers fullback Mike Tolbert—each of whom was among his former team's leaders in special teams tackles the past few seasons—should solidify a punt coverage unit that gave up three returns for touchdowns in 2011.
As Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the Charlotte Observer's Joe Person:
“What [Panthers' GM] Marty [Hurney] did, going out and looking at certain free agents, one of the questions that he always wanted to ask was, ‘What can he do for us on special teams?’
You look at some of the moves we made, bringing Kenny in from Minnesota. Bringing in Haruki from Baltimore. These are guys that have a (special teams) background. Then bringing in Michael Tolbert.
So you’re talking about three guys that have all played special teams that also do some things for you on regular downs. That showed that was an emphasis.”
The Panthers also upgraded the punt return position by selecting Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft to replace Armanti Edwards.
As a smallish player at 5'9" and 181 pounds, Adams could see his early career unfold similarly to the Panthers All-Pro receiver, Steve Smith, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie despite catching just ten passes.
Smitty did, however, return two kickoffs and a punt for scores during his rookie campaign.
Outlook: The Panthers can only get better on special teams this offseason. With the renewed emphasis Coach Rivera has placed on special teams, the Panthers units should at least improve to mid-grade status, and Adams could become Carolina's rookie of the year.
Worst Move: Releasing Punter Jason Baker
Any time a team releases a veteran punter with a successful track record and then drafts a rookie to take his place, there is going to be some head scratching.
In the case of the Carolina Panthers releasing 11-year veteran Jason Baker, general manager Marty Hurney did so for salary-cap reasons as Baker was set to earn $1.55 million, and he would have counted for nearly $2 million against the cap.
To fill the Baker void, the Panthers drafted Wisconsin's Brad Nortman in the sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft, and they signed veteran punter Nick Harris, who played for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season.
Baker is coming off of his worst season as a Panther in which he netted an NFL-low 34.1 yards per punt, though his numbers were not helped by Carolina's shoddy punt coverage that allowed a league-high three returns for touchdowns.
Outlook: The Panthers will likely be fine with either Nortman or Harris, though a long-term successful punter is a sought-after commodity in the NFL, and Baker had been one of the NFL's better kickers since he first arrived in Charlotte in 2005.
Best Move: Picking Up Mike Tolbert
The Panthers added depth and versatility to their already talented backfield this offseason by acquiring fullback Mike Tolbert from the San Diego Chargers.
Tolbert is a proven runner and a great receiver out of the backfield who could start as a tailback for many NFL teams, though he will play a different role for the Panthers with "Double-Trouble" teammates Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams double-teaming the position in Carolina.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who knows Tolbert from his days coaching the Chargers defense, told the Charlotte Observer that the Panthers will use Tolbert as a play-making fullback, and his versatility and athleticism will make him a tough matchup for opposing defenses trying to figure out where he will line up.
“If you look at what happened last year with our offense, we didn’t have a pure, true fullback in terms of a guy that has the ability to not just block, but go out into the routes, run the flat route and catch the ball, run the pivot route and catch the ball, pass protect on a consistent basis."—Ron Rivera on Mike Tolbert
By acquiring Mike Tolbert, the Panthers give Cam Newton another weapon and add depth to one of the best backfields in the NFL.
Outlook: Tolbert gives the Panthers another weapon coming out of the backfield, and he could replace Jonathan Stewart down the road if the Panthers do not re-sign Stewart in his free-agency year after the 2012 season.
Bonus Slide: What About the Panthers' Cornerback Situation?
The Carolina Panthers No. 2 cornerback position is among the most wide-open and least addressed positions on the team this offseason.
The Panthers are still waiting to see what they have in Darius Butler and Brandon Hogan, each of whom can, and should, challenge last season's starting No. 2 cornerback, Captain Munnerlyn, for the starting position across from Chris Gamble.
Many expected the Panthers to go after a talented young corner early in the 2012 NFL Draft after they declined the opportunity to pursue a veteran like Asante Samuel in free agency.
Instead, the Panthers waited for Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman to fall to them at the 143rd overall selection in the fifth round of the draft.
They may have plucked a diamond out of the rough.
Granted, Norman is a rough diamond who will have to adjust to the size, speed and skill of NFL players after playing in the FCS (I-AA) Southern Conference. Having said that, he did hold his own individually in blowout losses against the SEC's Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators.
Outlook: As many as four different players currently have a shot at the Panthers No. 2 cornerback position.
My money is on Hogan to win the starting job over Norman, with Munnerlyn and Butler playing the nickel and dime positions.
The Panthers passing defense will be in trouble once again if Munnerlyn, the worst cover cornerback in the NFL in 2011, retains his starting position.