CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012, posting a 6-10 record just a year removed from losing Super Bowl 50 to Denver. How close are they to contending for the title game?
Panthers’ Super Bowl barometer: On the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance.
Assessing the foundation: The foundation that helped Carolina to an NFL-best 17-2 record (including playoffs) and a trip to the Super Bowl in 2015 for the most part remains intact. Blame an inexperienced secondary with three new starters, catastrophic injuries on the offensive line and inconsistent play by reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton for the huge step backward this past season. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly's absence in the final six games after suffering a concussion didn’t help either.
That’s why coach Ron Rivera referred to Carolina missing the playoffs as a “blip" and not the start of a trend -- and with sound reasoning. Rookie corners James Bradberry and Daryl Worley played well toward the end of the season, and as the secondary solidified, the defense started to return to the top-10 form it showed during the previous four seasons.
Most of the injured players, including Kuechly, are expected back. The biggest concern position-wise is left tackle, where the future of Michael Oher (concussion) remains a mystery and Mike Remmers is a free agent. But the Panthers have more than $33 million in cap space and the eighth pick in the draft for general manager Dave Gettleman to fill holes.
The promotion of secondary coach Steve Wilks to defensive coordinator after Sean McDermott was named the head coach at Buffalo shouldn’t have a huge impact. Wilks has been a big part of the system since 2012, so little should change under his leadership. The biggest obstacle will be the NFC South. Atlanta and Tampa Bay in particular took big steps forward in 2016 and should only get better. But Carolina still has the nucleus to be one of the top teams in the NFC and return to the top of the division it won from 2013-15.
Judging the quarterback: Cam Newton followed his MVP season with arguably his worst since entering the league in 2011. He had career lows in passing percentage (52.9), passer rating (75.8) and rushing yards (359). He went from a career-best 35 touchdown passes to 19, tied for the second-fewest of his career.
Beyond stats, Newton’s confidence appeared shaken from the opener, in which he took several vicious hits against the same Denver team that had two strip sacks against him in the Super Bowl. That ultimately led to Newton talking to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the lack of protection he’s getting from officials.
Ultimately, as Newton said in December, it was a “demoralizing season," in which he and the offense never found their rhythm. Injuries to the line, on which only left guard Andrew Norwell finished the season in the same position he started, were a factor. Newton’s sore right shoulder late in the season also played a role. But even before the injuries mounted, Newton seemed out of sync.
Moving forward, Rivera says Newton and the offense must evolve to the point where it doesn’t depend on the dual-threat quarterback to be such a huge part of the running game. That doesn’t mean Newton, who has run for more yards than any quarterback in the NFL since 2011, will have his legs shackled. It just means less read-option and more roll-outs and moving pockets to make Newton less of a target.
Newton still has the talent to be a top-10 quarterback. Stabilize the talent around him, and he can be an MVP candidate again. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, he still has the arm strength and athletic ability that make him feared by defensive coordinators. He just needs to find the consistency and confidence he had in 2015.
Realistic ways the Panthers can improve their chances to contend for a Super Bowl:
Improve Newton’s protection: For Newton to get his swagger back, he needs to have confidence in the pocket. This starts with figuring out what to do at left tackle. With Oher an unknown and Remmers probably not a long-term solution, finding a tackle in free agency seems the best avenue -- perhaps a player like Minnesota tackle Matt Kalil, the brother of Carolina center Ryan Kalil.
Draft a running back: A set of fresh legs who can be a threat as a receiver as well as a runner would take a lot of pressure off Newton. Jonathan Stewart, who will turn 30 this year, has only a combined 24 catches out of the backfield the past two seasons. A player like LSU’s Leonard Fournette or Florida State’s Dalvin Cook might be the best value at No. 8.
Re-sign DT Kawann Short: Carolina couldn’t get a long-term deal done with Short before last season. The last thing it needs this offseason is to find a replacement for the 2015 Pro Bowl selection, who along with Star Lotulelei is the anchor of the defensive line. With plenty of space under the cap, Gettleman might have to loosen his purse strings just a little.