Carolina Panthers Offseason Preview
The Panthers entered the 2023 season with the expectation that they would build off their 5-3 stretch run to close 2022. With a quality defense, an all-star coaching staff keyed by new head coach Frank Reich, and #1 overall pick Bryce Young, they figured to make some noise in a weak NFC South. Instead, they began the season with six straight losses, and after nine weeks the team ranks 26th in scoring offense and 31st in scoring defense. Young has struggled, Reich ceded playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, and Carolina fans can begin looking ahead to the team’s offseason moves.
Owner: David Tepper
General Manager: Scott Fitterer
Head Coach: Frank Reich
Tepper bought the Panthers from franchise founder Jerry Richardson in May 2018, and he has yet to see his first winning season. It’s not from lack of trying. For his first head coaching hire, he ponied up a reported $62 million, seven-year contract to lure Matt Rhule away from Baylor University. Rhule won just 11 games in two-plus seasons with Carolina. For his next hire, he tabbed Reich, who guided the Indianapolis Colts to winning records in three of his first four years, but was fired nine games into a disappointing fifth season. Surrounding Rhule are up-an-coming coordinators Brown and Ejiro Evero, backed by veteran coaches like Jim Caldwell and Dom Capers, both former head coaches. Assembling such a well-regarded group must have cost Tepper a pretty penny.
The slow start to 2023 doesn’t reflect well on this cast of coaches, but Fitterer’s seat is the one getting hotter. Tepper hired him in 2021 to pair with Rhule; it’s not clear whether he still shines as brightly in ownership’s eyes after two losing seasons and Rhule’s firing. Certainly, this season’s stumbles do not help matters; worse, the team doesn’t have a 2024 first-round pick after the trade for Young (more on that later).
Heading into 2023, Carolina looked to have the makings of a great defense. Edge rusher Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, and cornerback Jaycee Horn, the team’s first-round picks in 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively, looked like defensive cornerstones. Yetur Gross-Matos and Jeremy Chinn, a pair of 2020 second-rounders, also figured to play big roles, along with veterans Donte Jackson and Shaq Thompson. They added safety Vonn Bell in free agency with no major losses, so they figured to build on the momentum they built in late 2022.
Things didn’t play out that way. Thompson, Horn, Chinn, and Gross-Matos all hit injured reserve, and the team slipped from 19th in scoring defense to 31st. Things aren’t quite that bad—they rank eighth in yardage allowed—but now Fitterer faces the challenge of keeping the group together. Burns, Chinn, and Gross-Matos all hit free agency after the season. The team faces a difficult decision on the fifth-year option for Horn, a talented player but one who has suffered major injuries in two of his three NFL campaigns. His contract is up after 2024, as well as those of Thompson, Brown, and Jackson.
The offense has struggled, with 33-year-old receiver Adam Thielen essentially the only bright spot. Young has predictably struggled in his rookie campaign, as has second-rounder Jonathan Mingo. The team dealt D.J. Moore, their leading receiver each year from 2019 to 2022, as part of the move up to nab Young. That came on the heels of trading star running back Christian McCaffrey at last season’s trade deadline. That left a big playmaker void that offseason additions D.J. Chark and Hayden Hurst haven’t come close to filling.
As disappointing as the receivers have been, the offensive line looks even more dire. Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu, the sixth overall pick in 2022, has played inconsistently. Right guard Austin Corbett just returned to action after an ACL injury suffered late last season. Heading into Week 9, Pro Football Focus ranked the Carolina offensive line 31st out of 32 teams. Yikes.
As noted above, the Panthers must navigate their pending defensive free agents, but offensive needs, basically across the board, trump anything else in priority. They have not set up Young for success in year one; they need to improve the situation around him for future seasons.
The Panthers swallowed a big dram of salary cap medicine this offseason; at nearly $56 million in dead money, they ranked fifth in the NFL. That sets them up for some spending in the offseason; Over the Cap projects them to have $58 million to play with. They can clear more by restructuring some of their pricier contracts. Right tackle Taylor Moton’s cap figure increases to nearly $30 million in 2024, and those of Brown, Jackson, Corbett, Hurst, and safety Vonn Bell all exceed $10 million. They can push some money into 2025 as needed.
The Panthers will have to build their team without the benefit of a 2024 first-round selection, given up in the move up for Young. He may or may not develop into a great quarterback, but losing out on what looks like a top five pick hurts.
Prognosis and Plan
The Panthers first need to decide if Fitterer is the right general manager to lead them moving forward. That decision will say less about Fitterer’s track record, unimpressive in a short time period, and more about his relationship with Reich. Those two must align their visions in what is shaping up to be a pivotal offseason.
Secondly, the team must decide what to do with key defenders, especially Burns. Carolina might place the franchise tag on the pass rusher, to buy time to work out a longer-term deal or create the flexibility to trade him if they can’t agree on an extension.
From there, the Panthers need to look at offense. They need to add both skill players and offensive line help, using a combination of their cap space and their draft capital, reduced though it may be. Even if Ekwonu and Mingo develop into cornerstone pieces, they need interior line help and complementary receiving targets to go with Thielen and Mingo. Fitterer, or whoever winds up making the decisions, has his work cut out for him this offseason. He must fix an offense that ranks among the league’s worst, and do it without the benefit of a first-round pick.