Off-season report card: Carolina Panthers
2016: 6-10, 4th in NFC South.
Significant Additions: LB Julius Peppers (FA), RB Christian McCaffrey (R1), WR Curtis Samuel (R2), OL Taylor Moton (R2), DE Daeshon Hall (R3), CB Corn Elder (R5)
Significant Losses:Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Asst. GM Brandon Beane, S Tre Boston, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Philly Brown
The 2017 season is all about getting Cam Newton back on track. Over the past three years, Newton’s medical history includes ankle surgery, shoulder surgery, a fractured back, cracked ribs, and a concussion. It all seemed to catch up to the Panthers in 2016.
After an MVP season in 2015, in which Newton led Carolina to an NFC championship with a career-high 15 wins, the quarterback’s sputtering 2016 was a major league storyline. Newton’s 90 carries and 359 rushing yards were his lowest totals since entering the league in 2011 and his completion percentage (52.9) was almost seven points lower than his 2015 mark. Newton was sacked 36 times and underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder in March. Newton suffered the partial tear in his rotator cuff in Week 14, and says he played through it to demonstrate leadership.
Panthers GM Dave Gettleman didn’t act as drastically as he did last offseason—read: no Josh Norman-esque drama—but he was active in making life easier for Newton post-surgery, and allowing the offense to evolve. In using its first-round selection on Christian McCaffrey, Carolina not only picked up a running back, but a do-it-all weapon so that Newton doesn’t feel he has to make all plays by himself. At Stanford, McCaffrey easily surpassed Barry Sanders’ longstanding record for single-season all-purpose yards (McCaffrey totaled 3,864, compared to Sanders’ 3,250). Expect McCaffrey to line up in the backfield, in the slot or out wide, take traditional handoffs between tackles, or handoffs around the edge and return punts or kicks.
Versatility and speed were major points of emphasis on offense, especially after Carolina let its fastest player, wideout Ted Ginn Jr., walk in free agency—to the division rival Saints, nonetheless. The Panthers used a second-round pick on Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel who, like McCaffrey, has the potential to line up all over the offense (and his speed is no joke: a 4.31 in the 40 at the combine). Both players are explosive, with tremendous yard after catch potential, which figures to add a few more wrinkles to offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s game plan. More importantly, it can give Newton more high-percentage throw opportunities. Newton completed only 44 passes to his backs last year. That's something Shula noted in his conversation with The MMQB’s Peter King after the draft. As Shula told King: “In the Super Bowl, how many passes do you think Tom Brady threw to his backs? Mostly completed, right? So maybe, sometimes, it turns into just a 4-yard gain. But I'll take a 4-yard gain. ... They're glorified runs sometimes, but they work and it doesn't matter what you call them.”
Newton has never had a season where he was sacked less than 33 times. In an effort to limit, the Panthers might lessen the design QB runs in their offense. They also worked on beefing up the offensive line with another second-round pick, Western Michigan offensive lineman Taylor Moton. The 6-foot-5, 319-pound lineman can play right tackle or guard, but his physical and athletic traits should benefit Newton in 2017 and beyond.
The Panthers didn’t tinker a ton on defense this offseason, but the moves they made sure are interesting. Carolina has arguably the top linebacking corps in football, but added two pass-rushers who could help generate more pressure. In free agency, the Panthers added 37-year-old Julius Peppers. It’s more than just a trip down memory lane; Peppers tallied 7.5 sacks for the Packers last year while playing less than 60 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Carolina also traded up in the third round for Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall, who may need some development. He’s still learning the nuances of defensive end after beginning his career as a linebacker, but has tremendous potential in getting after quarterbacks.