Are the Panthers better now than they were at the end of last season? While top picks Shaq Thompson and Devin Funchess have potential, the answer is not as clear as GM Dave Gettleman would like.
The context has changed—a $104 million contract extension (with a whopping $60 million guaranteed) for Newton made clear that there are no longer any concerns, if there ever were, about his ability to elevate this franchise. But while GM Dave Gettleman made it a priority to lock up Newton long-term, he has continued to play free agency rather close to the vest.
To his credit, Gettleman never promised more. “Last year we were shopping in the dollar store. This year we may be able to move up in class a little bit,” he rather infamously said back in January, before adding, “I said we’re going to move up in class. I didn’t say we’re going to go out and spend big money on a player.”
He hasn't. Gettleman brought in ex-Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin on a one-year, $700,000 deal. Veteran cornerback Charles Tillman signed for one year and $1.75 million. Disappointing offensive tackle Michael Oher actually landed a two-year contract, worth $7 million total, but a $500,000 roster bonus due before 2016 could put him on the chopping block early.
The rest of Carolina's free-agent class included safety Kurt Coleman, receiver/return man Ted Ginn (who returned to the team after a year in Arizona), offensive lineman Jonathan Martin and linebacker Jason Trusnick. Of that group, only Coleman should be considered a real threat to push for a starting job.
Newton's combined 7,600 yards passing and rushing the past two years has come despite little help at receiver, outside of Kelvin Benjamin's surprising Rookie of the Year candidacy. It also has happened in spite of an almost invisible offensive line, so Carolina's choice to wait until the fourth round before addressing its front (with OT Daryl Williams) was met with derision.
Neither Williams nor Oher nor Martin will provide Newton much comfort in the pocket this season. Oher, the projected starter, hardly even looks like an upgrade on former left tackle sieve Byron Bell.
“We did our homework on Michael, and we feel very strongly that he can be an answer for us,” Gettleman said, via Panthers.com. “He'll be inserted at left tackle, and we'll go from there.”
Carolina is coming off back-to-back NFC South titles and it did win a playoff game last season, though both the division crown (won with a 7–8–1 record) and postseason triumph (over Ryan Lindley-led Arizona) probably deserve asterisks. Are the Panthers noticeably better now than they were when last season wrapped? While Thompson and Funchess inject some youth and potential, the answer is not as clear as Gettleman would like.
He made sure Newton would stay put and likely will do the same with standout linebacker Luke Kuechly soon. The rest of the roster remains unfit for the long haul.
Best acquisition: Charles Tillman, CB
Talent-wise, Thompson or Funchess win the prize. However, Tillman steps in as a big-play defender on a roster without a lot of them. He'll need to stay healthy—now 34, Tillman missed 14 games last season with a torn triceps and sat out another eight games in 2013.
If he can stay on the field, Tillman should be entrusted with a starting role. And his mere presence usually equates to more turnovers. During his last full season of action in 2012, Tillman forced a staggering 10 fumbles and picked off three passes, all of which he took back to the house.
He's also familiar with Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who served as Chicago's defensive coordinator from 2004-06; Tillman was a 2003 draft pick by the Bears.
“I think Coach Rivera was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be here,” Tillman told the team's website. “He's a guy that I had a lot of respect for when I was in Chicago. I love his leadership and his qualities as a coach, and he's done a good job with the Panthers.”
Tillman's own leadership was a factor in Carolina pursuing him. He is one of four projected defensive starters in his 30s—Charles Johnson (who turns 30 this month), Thomas Davis and Roman Harper are the others. The remaining seven starters all entered the league in 2012 or later.
Two years removed from his last 16-game season, Tillman is an injury risk. He's also the type of stabilizing, productive defender the Panthers secondary needed.
Biggest loss: Greg Hardy, DE
Does this even count toward 2015? Hardy played all of one game last season before landing on the Commissioner's Exempt List, and he's currently waiting to hear back on his appeal of a 10-game suspension. The Panthers' defense eventually found its footing without Hardy, though it took awhile.
Two of the main catalysts for the late-season surge—Charles Johnson and Mario Addison—both return, as do Wes Horton, Frank Alexander and 2014 second-rounder Kony Ealy. There's depth off the edge, even if this was another spot Gettleman opted to bypass during the off-season. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short make for an enviable defensive tackle tandem, backed by veteran Dwan Edwards.
In other words, the Panthers long ago moved on to life after Hardy, so his departure via free agency should cause minimal ripples.
And yet, completely ignoring his loss is a disingenuous approach. The alleged off-field actions that drew Hardy a season-plus on the shelf were despicable by any measure, but in the far less important world of pass rushing he's a standout talent. The 2013 season was his best as a pro: 15.0 sacks and a Pro Bowl berth.
The Panthers must be happy to be free of the Hardy headache. That said, there's not anyone on the roster capable of taking over like Hardy has shown he can.
Underrated draft pick: Shaq Thompson, LB (round 1, pick No. 25)
Rare is the first-rounder who can be called underrated before seeing a single NFL snap, yet the reaction to the Thompson pick warrants it here. Debate if you must whether or not the Panthers should have addressed another position in the first, but Thompson was a best-player-available choice, and it's hard to argue with the logic.
Is Thompson big enough at 6-foot and 228 pounds to thrive as an linebacker? Does Carolina even have an obvious place to play him in 2015? We'll see on both counts.
What can be said for now is that Thompson was one of the '15 draft class's most intriguing talents, a player who thrived on both sides of the football for Washington and seems to mesh well with an NFL landscape increasingly rewarding multi-faceted prospects.
“He gives us some flexibility,” Rivera said in a post-draft press conference. “That's the way we want to do things. We just got very fast. He's a very physical player.”
A Davis-Kuechly-Thompson linebacking trio is unmatched within the NFC South and deserves to be mentioned among the league's best at the position. How dominant that group can be together depends on Thompson's plug-and-play abilities. Regardless, he warranted a round 1 pick.
Looming question for training camp: Is there any hope for the offensive line?
To swipe a line from The Simpsons' Reverend Lovejoy: “Short answer, ‘yes’ with an ‘if’. Long answer, ‘no’ with a ‘but’.”
Yes, there is hope for the offensive line, if Mike Remmers plays at right tackle as he did down the stretch in 2014, Andrew Norwell and promising second-year guard Trai Turner keep developing and Michael Oher is ... well, not entirely terrible. Newton's athleticism in and out of the pocket can make the line's job easier, and he has three receiving options in Benjamin, Funchess and Greg Olsen that he can trust to win contested passes.
The flip side: No, there should not be any expectation that this line is suddenly going to start knocking defenses back on their heels. The Panthers will cross their fingers and cover their eyes while praying Oher revives his career. Tennessee had a similar hope last season—Oher allowed six sacks, 26 hurries, was a brutal run blocker and finished the year on injured reserve. In his seventh season and on his third team in three years, Oher is running out of chances.
Carolina's also still searching for depth across the board, a year removed from a rash of retirements along the line (Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers) that left the Panthers—and Newton—scrambling.
Williams helps. The rookie could give Remmers a run for his money at right tackle. Nate Chandler, the 2014 starter at right tackle before landing on injured reserve, is back as well. Amini Silatolu, Martin and David Foucault are the other names to watch. Carolina might be OK turning to any of them in a pinch, but all likely would struggle to provide long-term help.
Gettleman trusts his returning candidates along the offensive line. He believes Oher—and to a lesser extent, Martin—can turn his career around. If he is wrong on either count, his $100 million quarterback will pay the price.