Season summary: Carolina coach Ron Rivera spent the offseason talking to everyone from retired coaches to military leaders about ways to avoid the so-called "Super Bowl hangover." If you aren't familiar, no team that lost the Super Bowl has gotten back the following season since the 1992-93 Bills. What Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman didn't do was spend money on keeping cornerback Josh Norman. That was the only major change in a defense that ranked among the top 10 the past three seasons. Rescinding the franchise tag on the 2015 Pro Bowl selection forced the Panthers to open the season with two rookie cornerbacks in an already rebuilt secondary. Rivera called that a bold move, but that move contributed heavily to a 1-5 start from which the Panthers never recovered. The defense still ranks 22nd. That wasn't the only issue. Carolina simply lost the swagger that enabled it to win close games during a 15-1 2015 regular season. It lost five of its first 11 games by a field goal or less, beginning with a 21-20 loss to Denver in the opener. Who knows how the confidence and chemistry might have been different had Graham Gano not missed a last-second, 50-yard field goal in the Super Bowl rematch? Ultimately, catastrophic injuries to the offensive line and inconsistency, as well as inaccuracy, from reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton made for what Newton called a "demoralizing season." Not since the 2007 Chicago Bears went 7-9 after losing the Super Bowl to Indianapolis has a Super Bowl loser had a more demoralizing follow-up.
Biggest draft need: Offensive line and left tackle in particular. With some question about the future of Michael Oher after he missed the final 13 games with a concussion, the Panthers need to invest in a left tackle to give Newton the long-term protection he deserves on his blind side. Mike Remmers was an adequate stopgap, but he's a better right tackle. It isn't a great year for tackles in the draft, so if the Panthers don't look there, an every-down pass-rushing end would be a huge upgrade. Charles Johnson, 30, is past his prime as an every-down end, and Kony Ealy hasn't lived up to expectations as one. This defense is predicated on pressure by the front four, and the middle of the line is set with Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, assuming a deal is reached with Short. As such, an end would solidify this group.
Key offseason questions
Can Newton return to MVP form? Few league MVPs have had more disappointing follow-up seasons than Newton, the first pick of the 2011 draft. He went from throwing a career-best 35 touchdown passes in 2015 to 18 entering the final game of 2016. He had a career-low 52.7 completion percentage after focusing in the offseason on making the so-called gimme throws. His inconsistencies played a big role in the inconsistencies of an offense that went from first in the NFL a year ago to middle of the pack. That's with the return of No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from injury. Struggles on the offensive line were a factor. Newton hasn't appeared completely comfortable in the pocket since Super Bowl 50, in which Denver sacked him six times and strip-sacked him twice, both of which led to touchdowns. For the Panthers to get their swagger back, Newton has to find his.
Can the Panthers afford to not spend money on the offensive line? Gettleman has been frugal at best on the line, filling around Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil with inexpensive free agents and midrange draft picks. Kalil, who played in only eight games this season because of a shoulder injury that ultimately required surgery, will be 32 in March, so his long-term future is in question. Communication on the line is essential to protecting Newton, so it might be time to groom a player to replace the five-time Pro Bowler, a team captain. It also might be time to spend money on the line in general because the objective on offense is to protect the franchise quarterback and be run-oriented. This isn't to suggest a complete overhaul of the line, which was devastated by injuries this season. But everything else around Newton seems to be in place, so fix the line, and the rest should take care of itself.
Can the Panthers keep DT Kawann Short? The simple answer is yes, they can, and they likely will, even if it requires using the franchise tag. But the tag will cost Carolina an estimated $16.9 million in 2017, and that's a lot for a player who went from 11 sacks in 2015 to six heading into Sunday's finale. Gettleman loves his big men, whom he calls "Hog Mollies," but eventually, he has to find a way to sign defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, scheduled to play 2017 with the fifth-year option already exercised, to a long-term deal. The Panthers drafted tackle Vernon Butler in the first round last year, so they have insurance. Butler showed late-season explosion after missing games and struggling with a high ankle sprain. If Short and his representatives continue to seek a deal in the $17 million range, Gettleman has a history of moving on. See Norman.