- The Panthers have now checked off all but one box from an off-season checklist intended to position them to return to the level that had them playing for a Super Bowl two seasons ago.
You’ve probably seen Kawann Short go by the nickname “KK” and not know what it means. His middle name is Arcell, so that’s not what the second K stands for.
When he first came to Charlotte, I asked him about the origin of his nickname, which he’s gone by since he was a kid. The story is simple: The first K is for Kawann, and because he’s so big, someone just tacked another K onto his name.
Short’s bankk account is looking bigger today, too. The Panthers and Short agreed on a five-year, $80 million deal on Monday, putting an end to a year-long negotiation and eliminating the need to sign the franchise tag the team placed on him in February.
The move reemphasizes general manager Dave Gettleman’s passion for so-called hog mollies—a philosophy bred from his days in New York with Tom Coughlin and Ernie Accorsi. Additionally, and most importantly, the extension marks the penultimate major move this off-season from the 66-year-old GM of a franchise eager for its first-ever Lombardi Trophy for its 80-year-old owner.
Gettleman has long rebuffed the idea of championship windows, and he repeated as much at the NFL combine two months ago.
“Really and truly, every year my butt is on the line. As is Ron [Rivera’s],” Gettleman told reporters. “Our goal is win, and it’s to win now. I like my job. I’m having fun. I’d like to keep it.”
The extension shores up the interior of Carolina’s defensive line, with the hope that Short will continue his sack production (17 in the past two seasons) through 2021. But nearly every other move this off-season shows the urgency in Pantherland for winning now.
The most prominent example is the one-year contract with Julius Peppers, bringing the former No. 2 pick back to his home state with his original team for one last hurrah. That signing isn’t just for nostalgia’s sake, either. Peppers, who will be on a pitch count for Carolina this season, has racked up at least seven sacks in 14 of his 15 Hall of Fame seasons.
The Panthers boast the best linebacking duo in football in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and the team was wise to sit Kuechly in the final month of last season even after he cleared the concussion protocol. And after signing three corners with their top four picks last season, the Panthers added 36-year-old safety Mike Adams to the back end to pair with eight-year safety veteran Kurt Coleman. They even brought back cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to play both inside and outside.
The average age of the projected starters in Carolina’s base defense is 29.45 years old. That’s a defense built to win right now.
On the other side of the ball, questions remain for the 2015 NFC champs. The biggest concern today is the health and recovery of quarterback Cam Newton, who underwent shoulder surgery less than three weeks ago and won’t be full-go until training camp. In the past three years, the normally durable Newton has undergone ankle surgery, suffered a fractured back and cracked ribs and missed a week due to a concussion on top of last month’s surgery.
With that in mind, as well as the fact that Newton played at least 15 pounds above his listed 245-pound weight, Rivera has said this off-season that the offense must “evolve” under coordinator Mike Shula. Details remain vague on the day the Panthers return for off-season work, but surely it means less zone-read for Newton and more quick short and intermediate passes for the offense.
Carolina let veteran receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown walk in free agency and replaced their speed with Russell Shepard and Charles Johnson. The Panthers are also taking a gamble at their tackle spots. Michael Oher missed 13 games due to a concussion, and the team is hopeful that, once he returns to health, he’ll be back in form at right tackle. Gettleman broke the bank for left tackle Matt Kalil, signing him to a five-year deal worth up to $55 million. The Panthers believe they can “fix” the embattled former Viking, who is the brother of center Ryan Kalil, but paying him that much money shows they are unwilling to spend valuable time nurturing a college prospect coming out of a historically weak draft at that position.
All of this points to the final big off-season move for Carolina, which is just more than a week away from happening. With Short locked up for years and the potential for another franchise tag disaster avoided, the Panthers should focus their efforts on drafting an offensive playmaker with the No. 8 pick to give more help to Newton.
Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and O.J. Howard should be at the top of Carolina’s board. Not only is this the highest the Panthers have drafted since Gettleman took over in 2013, but it’s clearly the draft with the most pressure both for the top-10 pick and for the win-now position Carolina is in.
Fournette could be the draft’s best running back and the heir to Jonathan Stewart, soon to be 31, in the Panthers’ backfield. McCaffrey could offer Carolina a dynamic offensive weapon that can work out of the backfield or in the slot. Howard would come to Carolina and team with Greg Olsen to fill out the same kind of 12 personnel packages that the Panthers used in 2011, when Olsen and Jeremy Shockey helped Newton to his record-breaking rookie season.
Short’s long-term deal today helped the Panthers in the short-term, too. Now there’s one more big move to make.