Panthers facing a lot of big changes for a playoff team

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You don’t typically see a lot of offseason change on a team that has reached the playoffs four out of five seasons, including a trip to the Super Bowl.

The Carolina Panthers aren’t in a typical situation.

They will enter the 2018 season with a new owner, a new offensive coordinator, a new quarterbacks coach and probably a new defensive coordinator.

Team owner Jerry Richardson, under investigation for workplace misconduct, officially put the team up for sale after Sunday’s 31-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs. Among those interested in buying the team is NBA superstar Stephen Curry, a Charlotte native.

Again, not typical.

Coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey a day after saying he didn’t expect changes in his staff besides defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.

Wilks is interviewing with the New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts for head-coaching positions this week. Wilks was on the job only one year after Sean McDermott left after the 2016 season to become the head coach at Buffalo.

Also, general manager Marty Hurney still has the interim tag beside his name. There’s a chance there could be a change when the new owner arrives, though it seems likely Hurney will remain in the job.

That’s a lot of change for an organization coming off an 11-5 record. It’s the kind of change you would expect for a team such as the Cleveland Browns, who went 0-16. But as Rivera noted, “the system is in place," so change isn’t always a bad thing.

“It’s not about scheming and trying to design stuff as much as it is about having a system and playing the system and being able to play fast," Rivera said when talking specifically about replacing another defensive coordinator.

“We made a couple of mistakes [Sunday] that cost us. But when we had to, when we needed something to happen, the guys came through. That’s because we stuck to the system. That’s the important thing, is that we have something we believe in, and we stick with it."

There also will be changes in personnel. Defensive end Julius Peppers, tied for the team lead in sacks with 11, could retire at the age of 37. Running back Jonathan Stewart and defensive end Charles Johnson could be released to free cap space.

Stewart is 30 and set to count $5,250,000 under the cap in 2018. The Panthers could clear $3,750,000 in space by releasing him, with only $1.5 million in dead money.

Johnson, 31, was suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs. He also was made inactive in the playoff game for, in his words, “doing something." Releasing him would clear $3.5 million in cap space with no dead money.

The Panthers will need more cap space, with 12 players set to become unrestricted free agents on March 14. They currently have only $4,239,804 available.

Here’s a look at those players and the likelihood that each could be part of the changes:

  • Derek Anderson, QB -- He has been Newton’s backup since 2011, and at 34, the club would like to keep a veteran backup and develop a younger player. Anderson shouldn’t come at a huge salary (he had a cap hit of $2,243,750 this season). The question is whether he wants to return with a new coordinator, and will that coordinator want him to return? The new coordinator might want to fast-forward developing a young quarterback.

  • Charles Johnson, WR -- He was waived with an injury designation after being signed to a one-year deal last offseason. With the team so desperate for receivers, he could get another look for a low price tag.

  • Brenton Bersin WR -- He has been cut five times and brought back each time since he joined the team as an undrafted player out of Wofford in 2012. He knows the system well, so for the price tag, he could at least get another shot.

  • Ed Dickson, TE -- He stepped up big time when three-time Pro Bowl selection Greg Olsen suffered a broken foot and was placed on injured reserve for eight weeks. Re-signing Dickson seems like a no-brainer.

  • Andrew Norwell, OG -- Probably the highest free-agent priority, Norwell has been an anchor on the left side of the line since he arrived as an undrafted free agent out of Ohio State in 2014. The question is can the Panthers afford the high price tag he’ll demand after he was selected All-Pro and after they gave huge deals to left tackle Matt Kalil and right guard Trai Turner last season? That will likely require some cuts (See Stewart, Johnson).

  • Amini Silatolu, OL -- He played well when Trai Turner was out at right guard for three games with a concussion. His ability to play guard and tackle makes him worth keeping around.

  • Julius Peppers, DE -- It’s all up to Peppers and whether he wants to go through a 17th season. Rivera wants him back, and teammates want him back. He had 11 sacks this season, the most he has had in five years. His price tag won’t be high. He came at a bargain this year, at $4.5 million after reaching $750,000 in incentives.

  • Star Lotulelei, DT -- After Norwell, he has to be the top priority. He’ll want top pay for his position, and that likely isn't feasible after fellow tackle Kawann Short signed a five-year, $80.5 million deal last year. Former general manager Dave Gettleman prepared for this possibility when he selected tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of the 2016 draft.

  • Andrew Gachkar, LB -- A special-teams player the team might or might not want to keep around.

  • Teddy Williams, CB -- He spent the year on injured reserve. Again, he might or might not be back.

  • Jairus Byrd, S -- Likely kept for depth at least into training camp, unless he gets more elsewhere.

  • Graham Gano, PK -- Gano was kept this season despite a $4 million cap hit and had one of his best seasons, minus that missed 25-yard field goal in the playoffs. With key players at other spots needing to be re-signed, this will come down to how much he is valued. Letting seventh-round pick Harrison Butker get away last year could have been a mistake.

  • Restricted free agents (5) -- WR Kaelin Clay, CB LaDarius Gunter, TE Scott Simonson, C Greg Van Roten, G David Yankey

  • Exclusive rights (6) -- WR Damiere Byrd, OT Dan France, DT Drew Iddings, C Tyler Larsen, TE Chris Manhertz, P Michael Palardy