Carolina Panthers' State of Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason

Charles EdwardsContributor IFebruary 3, 2014

Carolina Panthers' State of Franchise at the Start of the 2014 Offseason

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    The state of the Carolina Panthers franchise is strong and looking up.

    After compiling a successful winning season that saw the Panthers clinch the NFC South title and make their first postseason appearance in five years, it can be said that things in Carolina are looking up. The team has kept improving in each year of coach Ron Rivera's tenure and it is a couple of key pieces away from being one of the youngest and most talented teams in the NFL.

    There are many aspects of the franchise that must be looked at here as the team moves forward.

    One winning season, a dynasty does not make. There is still plenty of work to do as Carolina exits the 2013 campaign and gears up for the next season. From re-signing key free agents to building a productive draft, there is a lot of work to be done by Dave Gettleman's staff in the front office to allow the Panthers to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

    The next next few slides will break down the team in various aspects by looking at the present situation and projecting ahead to the future.

    Stats and rankings provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN.com and NFL.com.  Rookie prospect information and draft projections provided by CBSSports.com.

Season in Review

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    2013 Record: 12-4 (5-1 NFC South)

    Total Offense Ranking: 26th Overall (316.8 yards per game/22.9 points per game)

    Total Defense Ranking: Second Overall (301.2 yards per game/15.1 points per game)

    Regular Season

    After a 1-3 start, it appeared the Carolina Panthers were headed for another disappointing season. However, that all changed after their loss following the bye week.

    Carolina claimed its first division title and postseason berth since 2008 with a stellar run that included a franchise-best eight-game winning streak. Its only loss following that impressive streak was at New Orleans and it seemed the Panthers would have to fight for a wild-card spot. However, a home win against the visiting New York Jets and a clutch victory in a rematch with New Orleans in Week 16 helped pave the way for Carolina's division hopes as it closed out the season in Atlanta where it swept the season series and wrapped up the title and the second seed in the NFC.

    Quarterback Cam Newton played well in his third season and saw mild improvement in his overall performance. He increased both his completion percentage and touchdown total, while throwing for at least 3,300 yards for the third year in a row. While the latter is a noticeable drop in production, he made better decisions and helped engineer four come-from-behind wins.

    The Panthers failed again to have a 1,000-yard rusher even though DeAngelo Williams carried the ball over 200 times. Much of his success can be attributed to the fact he was the team's feature back for much of the season with Jonathan Stewart out with an injury. His touchdown total was extremely low, but that is mostly due to Mike Tolbert's role inside the red zone, as he scored five touchdowns on the ground.

    Carolina did not have a 1,000-yard receiver either. While the team continues its search for a receiver to take the focus off of Steve Smith, it had to make do with a patchwork group of guys who may qualify as a third receiver on most teams. Contributions by Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. can't be overlooked. LaFell had 627 receiving yards and five touchdowns and Ginn put together his best season in five years with 556 receiving yards and five scores of his own.

    What made the Panthers a contender in 2013 was the strength of its defense. Led by Luke Kuechly, the front seven made life miserable for opposing offenses and their quarterbacks. Carolina would go on to lead the league in sacks with 60.0. Defensive end Greg Hardy led the team in that category with 15.0.

    The secondary was the biggest question mark entering the season and despite having a lot of youth and first-year players, the unit did all right for the most part. The biggest surprises came in the form of undrafted free agents Robert Lester and Melvin White; while veteran free agents Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell came in and did a commendable job of keeping the unit intact.

     

    Postseason

    It could be argued that the bye week played a role in taking away much of the Panthers' momentum as they entered the divisional round of the playoffs in a rematch with the San Francisco 49ers. A close, physical and arguably controversial first half gave way to a second half that saw the Niners run away with the game and advance to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle.

    A successful season ended on a rather disappointing note, but it presented both the organization and its fans with a renewed feeling of optimism moving ahead.

     

    Team Leaders

    Offense

    Passing: Cam Newton: 292/473 3379 24/13 88.8

    Rushing: DeAngelo Williams: 201 Attempts 843 yards and three touchdowns

    Receiving: Greg Olsen: 73 Receptions 816 yards and six touchdowns

     

    Defense

    Tackles: Luke Kuechly: 156 (93 solo)

    Sacks: Greg Hardy: 15.0

    Interceptions: Luke Kuechly and Mike Mitchell each had four.

     

Salary-Cap Situation

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers' salary-cap situation is less than desirable as the team may find it difficult to retain the services of all of its key players. There is no question that Dave Gettleman and his staff will be doing all they can to crunch the numbers to find a solution that could help them in the short term, but as of now nothing is certain.

    What is certain, Carolina would like to get Cam Newton signed to an extension as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that could mean the end of the Greg Hardy era in Carolina after he put together back-to-back seasons of double-digit sacks. Hardy isn't opposed to the franchise tag, but the expected cost for one year of his services could hover around the $12 million mark—a figure that may be too high for Gettleman to even consider placing the tag on Hardy.

    Currently, the Panthers have $11.2 million of cap space, and according to the Charlotte Observer, that figure will change upon the start of the new league year this month.

    Fans should accept the fact that Carolina will not be throwing large sums of cash at some of this year's top free agents. Instead, it will probably opt on focusing on keeping some key players that are hitting the market this year and repeat last year's strategy of signing solid veterans to one-year contracts while building through the draft.

    Gettleman may have a plan in motion and is already looking ahead with hopes to avoid the salary cap hamstringing the team down the road.

    Gettleman says the #Panthers hope to be out of the salary cap issue in two years.

    — Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) January 14, 2014

    Nothing is set in stone, but it is advisable to Panthers fans not to get their hopes up at least for this season.

     

Impending Free Agents

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    A recent article broke down the Carolina Panthers unrestricted free agents and the probability they will return to the team in 2014. There are three notable names that fans will be watching as another year or two in Panther blue and black would be welcomed tremendously.

    Greg Hardy, Jordan Gross and Captain Munnerlyn headline the crop of Carolina free agents that the team will need to try and re-sign when the free-agency period begins in March. All three have made it clear they would like to return to the Panthers next year and as much as the Carolina front office would like to accommodate them, the aforementioned salary cap will probably limit what it can do financially as it will have to focus on the greater good of the team.

    Jordan Gross still saying he'll play for Panthers or retire http://t.co/4IxB99bxdu

    — ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) January 13, 2014

    Gross is contemplating retirement and has made it clear he will not play for another team other than the Panthers. It seems reasonable he can be brought back on a short deal that is both fair and financially conservative. Having the Pro Bowl left tackle back for another season or two can go a long way in mentoring a replacement and allow the Panthers to have a seamless transition from the old guard to the new.

    Munnerlyn should have better success in the free-agent market this time around. Last year, he was unable to find anyone to sign him and he re-signed with Carolina on a one-year deal. His 77 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions should make him more attractive in 2014.

    However, Munnerlyn has stated he would like to sign a long-term deal with the Panthers and if the two sides can come together on the terms, that may very well happen. However, the matter of the salary cap needs to be taken into consideration and it shouldn't surprise anyone if the Captain signs somewhere else.

    Perhaps the most intriguing free agent coming out of Carolina is Hardy. There is no denying he deserves a big pay day after putting together two consecutive seasons where he recorded at least 11.0 sacks. The man affectionately known as The Kraken has become a fan favorite over the past couple of seasons and his interviews have become nearly as entertaining as his on-field production.

    As mentioned before, Hardy has no issue with being handed the franchise tag. He understands the Panthers are limited in funds and is willing to work with the front office. Whether or not Carolina decides to pay him around $12 million under the franchise tag has yet to be determined. Right now, both sides are playing the waiting game, per Nate Bouda of NFL Trade Rumors.

    They are still working on their cap situation as I understand,” Hardy said, via Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer. “We’re playing the waiting game right now…. If they can afford me, man, I’d love to be there. That’s my team. My family. We got a good thing going right now.

    Carolina does not want to lose Hardy, but in the interest of business, it may have to let him walk if it's unable to afford him either through the franchise tag or a long-term deal.

Coaching Staff

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    Coaching Staff

    Head Coach: Ron Rivera

    Offensive Coordinator: Mike Shula

    Defensive Coordinator: Sean McDermott

    Special Teams: Richard Rodgers

    Asst. Special Teams: Bruce DeHaven

    Quarterbacks: Ken Dorsey

    Wide Receivers: Ricky Proehl

    Asst. Wide Receivers: Lance Taylor

    Running Backs: Jim Skipper

    Offensive Line: John Matsko

    Tight Ends: Pete Hoener

    Defensive Line: Eric Washington

    Asst. Defensive Line: Sam Mills III

    Linebackers: Al Holcomb

    Secondary: Steve Wilks

    Strength and Conditioning: Joe Kenn

    Asst. Strength and Conditioning: Jason Benguche

     

    Overview

    As of now, the Carolina Panthers seem to have an intact coaching staff that is in no danger of regressing or have any new coordinators coming into the fold that would force the players to learn new schemes. Ron Rivera's third season was a great one as he entered the year on the hot seat and came out of it with an extension.

    Early season losses to Seattle and Buffalo prompted Rivera to make a change in coaching style and Riverboat Ron was born. His aggressive play-calling on fourth-down situations led to the turnaround in Carolina and helped get it to the playoffs. Rivera's gambling style proved invaluable in Week 16 when he opted to punt to New Orleans with less than two minutes remaining.

    Carolina's defense forced a 3-and-out, setting up the offense with one last chance to score with 55 seconds remaining on the clock. A 37-yard reception by Ted Ginn Jr. and a 14-yard completion to Greg Olsen two plays later set up the most clutch play of the Panthers' season.

    With the ball set up at the New Orleans 14, Cam Newton found the seldom-used Domenik Hixon on the left side of the end zone and hit him with the game-winning touchdown. The win would put Carolina in the driver's seat en rout to its fifth division title.

    Of course, Rivera couldn't have enjoyed the level of success he did without help from his defense.

    Sean McDermott got some great production out of his defensive unit, and the front seven became one of the best in the league. It finished the season with a league-leading 60.0 sacks and ranked only second behind NFC champion Seattle in total defense.

    Had it not been for the dominating success of the defense, Carolina's season may have ended differently. The defense was instrumental in wins over San Francisco (Week 10), New England (Week 11) and New Orleans (Week 16).

    McDermott's players have embraced his coaching philosophy and have emerged as one of the most dangerous units in the league. Depending on how the offseason unfolds and whether or not the secondary is upgraded (and perhaps the future of Greg Hardy), his unit should remain a top-five defense.

    The one coach who seemed to rub fans the wrong way was Mike Shula. His conservative style of play-calling paled in comparison to his predecessor, but it should be noted that Newton became a better quarterback because of it. True, the offense's 26th overall ranking leaves much to be desired and depending on how the unit is addressed in the offseason, there is reason to believe it can improve.

    Carolina's ultimate goal for its offense is to put it on par with its defense; a top-five unit that can make plays, is opportunistic and doesn't make too many mistakes. This will allow the team to not rely on just one unit to keep it in games and could make it a strong contender in both its division and the conference.

    It's possible. The Panthers are only two season removed from having a top offense and they have the personnel to get the job done.

    Shula may have to take a page from his boss' playbook and change up his style if he wants to change his image as an offensive coordinator. His players have the system down; now it is time to open things up and keep opponents guessing.

    Moving forward, it would appear Carolina will retain all of its staff.  McDermott did interview for a head coach vacancy, but all the positions have been filled.  That being said, the Panthers have a solid group of coaches in place and that bodes well for them as they prepare for the 2014 season.

     

Draft Preview

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    Chris Chambers/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers have needs at wide receiver, offensive tackle and in the secondary.  Depending on how the offseason unfolds with the team's free agents, targeting a defensive end may become a need as well. However, it seems as though the initial focus will be on the offense.

    The possible departure of Jordan Gross calls for an immediate replacement, but the lack of another playmaking wide receiver screams for an upgrade at the position. There are several viable candidates that could be the Carolina Panthers' first pick, but it will either come down to greatest need or best player available.

    A recent article broke down what the Panthers' initial big board may look like. There are many scenarios that can take place on draft day and it wouldn't be surprising to see the first three players taken fill a crucial team need.

    The following is a breakdown of the top players at each position Carolina will most likely target before the draft.

     

    Wide Receiver

    Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) – Perhaps the best late-first-round receiver in the draft. If he is on the board when the Panthers are on the clock, the smart money says they waste no time picking him up.

    Allen Robinson (Penn State) – Another solid option if Benjamin is off the board and Carolina is targeting a wide receiver as its first pick.

    Brandin Cooks (Oregon State) – He is the first player taken by the Panthers is a few drafts; notably Mel Kiper's recent mock draft (subscription required) and Matt Miller's mock draft. His size and speed suggest a younger version of Steve Smith, but Carolina would probably want to see about drafting a receiver with size first.

    Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) – He is another strong candidate that could be taken if Benjamin is off the board. Matthews has good size and he has the kind of playmaking ability that could free up Steve Smith and Greg Olsen. He presents a solid first-round selection as he may not be around late in Round 2.

    Mike Davis (Texas) – Assuming the Panthers hold off on drafting a wide receiver until the third round, they could find themselves in a position to take Davis. He has the height to be a good receiver in the league but may need to bulk up his frame to compete with opposing defensive backs on jump balls.

     

    Offensive Line

    Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) – One of two offensive tackles that could be the heir-apparent to Jordan Gross. He has great size and is quick off the snap. His background with a perennial contender in college should motivate him to be as successful at the professional level.

    Morgan Moses (Virginia) – Moses' contributions helped the Cavaliers have their first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004. That could help the Carolina running game and keep Cam Newton from having to be called upon to make plays. Slightly bigger than Kouanddijo, Moses could be a top candidate to go to the Panthers at the 28th pick.

    Cyril Richardson (Baylor) – Another first-round option is the big man from Baylor. Richardson has experience with blocking for mobile quarterbacks and that could benefit the Panthers on the interior. However, tackle is a more pressing need and unless Richardson is the best player available, he should go somewhere else.

    Anthony Steen (Alabama) – Another member of the Crimson Tide, Steen could be a solid mid-round selection to shore up the inside of the offensive line if the Panthers are comfortable with their previous picks. If he is taken by the Panthers in the fourth round, it should be considered a steal and the offensive line could be vastly improved after four rounds.

     

    Secondary

    Jason Verrett (TCU) – The need to improve on the outside of the secondary could result in a cornerback being taken in the first two rounds. Verrett could be an option, but as the Panthers' first choice, it seems unlikely.

    Loucheiz Purifoy (Florida) – Taking a cornerback in the second round seems more reasonable and even more so if Purifoy is the best player on the board. There is a chance he could drop low into the third round and if he does, he becomes a no-brainer selection for a team needing a possible replacement for Captain Munnerlyn.

    Keith McGill (Utah) – If Purifoy isn't available in the third round, McGill is as good an option as they come. He has really good size for a cornerback and that will allow him to get physical with receivers on the outside.

    Deone Buchannon (Washington State) – If Carolina is to take Buchannon, it may do so in Round 2. He could go either in that round or early in the third. He has good size for the safety position and is the kind of player to make receivers pay up the middle.

    Calvin Pryor (Louisville) – Another physical safety, Pryor is regarded as a late first rounder and may not be in the Panthers' plans unless he somehow falls. What separates Pryor and Buchannon from the other defensive backs listed here is the importance of the safety position. Charles Godfrey and Robert Lester both look to return as starters or key players in the secondary in 2014. Re-signing Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell could allow the Panthers to look elsewhere on draft day.

     

    There are plenty of other players that can be listed here, but these are the ones who could gain some early attention as the combine and pro days draw closer. The players Carolina will lose in free agency could reshape their big board and make one position more important than another.

Bonus: Memorable Moments

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    The Carolina Panthers weren't without their share of memorable moments during the 2013 season. From playing in front of national audiences on Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights to amusing interviews, this year's team had no shortage of entertaining and everlasting memories that will be entrenched into Carolina lore for years to come.

     

    1. Steve Smith tells Aqib Talib to “Ice up, son!” The video says it all.

    2. Carolina and St. Louis get physical. This Panthers home game saw an interdivision matchup that was more chippy than many expected. The game was defined by numerous unsportsmanlike penalties and saw the Rams' Chris Long ejected. This was a pivotal moment during the season as it strengthened the team as a whole and proved that it had each other's back.

    3. Carolina upsets New England on controversial Monday Night Football game. Yes, Luke Kuechly was the center of attention of what appeared to be a pass interference/defensive holding penalty that could have given the Patriots another chance at the win. However, the flag was picked up and the Panthers went on to win the game. The ensuing fallout from the controversy was the subject matter of many sports shows for the next few days.

    4. Carolina cements itself as legitimate contenders after defeating San Francisco in Week 10. It took clutch defense and a big 27-yard run by DeAngelo Williams to secure the win at Candlestick Park. The game was a low scoring 10-9 affair, but the end result proved the Panthers could hang with the best.

    5. Riverboat Ron is born. Perhaps his emergence came during the road game at Minnesota in Week 6. Following a loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Rivera threw caution to the wind (along with the conventional coaches playbook) and went for it not once, but twice on fourth down during his team's opening drive. The gambles paid off as Carolina would score and go on to route the Vikings 35-10.

    6. Greg Hardy's interview in which he "dominates his breakfast." This was perhaps the most amusing sound byte from Hardy all season long. Following his epic four-sack game in the season finale at Atlanta, Hardy entered the realm of one of the most quotable lines of the 2013 season.

    7. The Panthers upset the Saints in Week 16.  Cam Newton showed why he can be one of the best in the league by taking his team 65 yards down the field in under a minute to win the game.

    8. Captain Munnerlyn's two interceptions become touchdowns.  It's impressive when a defensive back can take both of his picks all the way back for a score.

    9. DeAngelo Williams scores on a 70-yard wheel route against the New York Jets.  Did anyone really see that coming?

    10. The Carolina Panthers' eight-game winning streak.

     

    Honorable mention: Carolina's breakdown celebration following a win.  "Two claps and a Nature Boy/Ric Flair!" Unfortunately, Charlotte's favorite son turned heel on the home team and sided with the 49ers at the start of the playoffs.