Cam Newton's health key to whether Panthers reload or rebuild

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The New England Patriots might be the only team in the NFL that truly reloads every season. Eighteen straight years of nine or more wins and nine trips to the Super Bowl during that stretch is evidence enough.

The common ingredient, at least in terms of players, is quarterback Tom Brady.

How Cam Newton's right shoulder responds to whatever treatment is chosen for the 2015 NFL MVP is key to whether 2019 is a rebuilding or reloading year for the Carolina Panthers.

If Newton comes back 100 percent, there are enough pieces in place to consider this a reloading process even though the Panthers have had losing records in two of the past three seasons. If he doesn't, rebuilding will be more accurate.

It might be, anyway.

Whatever you call it, change is coming for the Panthers. That became clear late during a 7-9 season when coach Ron Rivera fired two defensive coaches and took over the defensive playcalling.

It became more clear when outside linebacker Thomas Davis said he wouldn't be back for a 15th season because the team is moving in a different direction at his position.

That doesn't mean making the playoffs, or even challenging for a Super Bowl, in 2019 is out of the question. The Philadelphia Eagles went 7-9 in 2016 followed by a 13-3 season and world championship in 2017.

In 2016, the Eagles suffered through the growing pains of then-rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, who had 14 interceptions with only 16 touchdown passes. The next year, Wentz played like an MVP -- 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions -- until a knee injury ended his season after 13 games.

Then Nick Foles stepped in and played like an MVP.

So Newton's recovery and finding a dependable backup are key for the Panthers.

The good news is owner David Tepper is committed to giving Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney the tools needed to be successful long term. He plans to build a bubble over the existing practice field behind Bank of America Stadium so the team won't lose valuable practice time during inclement weather as happened often this past season.

With the plan for Rivera to remain focused on defensive playcalling, Tepper also is committed to having a "game-management person" who can help out with analytics, which has become a big part of the league.

"You want to do everything you can to give you every edge you can on that field," Tepper recently said in a 30-minute interview. "Some of these changes are easy. We talked about the bubble. We have to spend money and get that done. Some of those things are direct, no question. When you have to practice in a ballroom, that's crazy to me.

"There's some things that get done down the line."

Bottom line, Tepper is showing patience.

"What you want to build here is a long-term winning culture on the football side," Tepper said. "You may have to sacrifice some things for a long-term winning program."

With that, here are three non-quarterback positions the Panthers have to rebuild or reload to make 2019 a success:

Offensive line: Start with the retirement of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Whether the solution is Tyler Larsen, a free agent or a high draft pick, there are few positions more important. Stopping pressure up the middle is crucial for the quarterback. The right guard spot is solid with Pro Bowler Trai Turner. Greg Van Roten held his own at left guard last season replacing All-Pro Andrew Norwell, who went to Jacksonville in free agency. A decision must be made on left tackle Matt Kalil, who missed the 2018 season with a knee injury. If the team moves on from his five-year, $55.5 million deal to clear almost $7.3 million in salary-cap space, then there are big decisions. Taylor Moton could move from the right to the left side. Daryl Williams, who spent most of the season on injured reserve, would have to be re-signed as an unrestricted free agent to anchor the right side. Depth across the board would have to be shored up. As Tepper noted, the offensive line looked "like a disaster" at times last season because of injuries.

Defensive front seven: The lack of pressure on the quarterback was a major factor this past season. The Panthers, with 35 sacks, ranked 27th in the league after ranking third in 2017 with 50. Shaq Thompson is in line to replace Davis. Whether defensive end Julius Peppers, 39, returns doesn't change the fact edge rushers are needed. The Panthers mixed things up late in the season, at times using three down linemen instead of four to take advantage of the speed of their linebackers. What players they get in free agency and the draft will shape whether this group transitions from a 4-3 to a 3-4 or a mix of both. The latter seems most likely. Regardless, this unit will look different. That this is a strong draft class for pass-rushers should help.

Wide receiver: The transition of this group began during the second half of the season when No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess basically was phased out in favor of first-round draft pick DJ Moore. The combination of Moore, Curtis Samuel, Jarius Wright and Torrey Smith gives new wide receivers coach Jim Hostler a good starting point. Look for the addition of another speedster, perhaps with more height than 5-foot-11 Moore, to replace Funchess. The good news is running back Christian McCaffrey can be counted among this group. He runs the route tree arguably better than any other back in the league and some receivers. He has led the team in receptions the past two seasons with a combined 187 (107 in 2018 and 80 in 2017). However it shakes out, this group will look different from the one that began last season with Funchess and Smith as the starters.