CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- New Carolina Panthers coach Frank Reich had two key components in 2017, when he won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, that he doesn’t have now.
Philadelphia and the Kansas City Chiefs, which meet on Sunday in Super Bowl LVII, have the same key components at quarterback and tight end -- the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, the Eagles in Jalen Hurts and Dallas Goedert.
Those components are the biggest missing pieces from a Carolina roster that has 18 of 22 starters from last season under contract in 2023. It's a roster many who interviewed for the job Reich got believed was the strongest among the five teams with head coach openings.
Finding those pieces, particularly at quarterback, will be Reich’s biggest challenge.
“We see teams go from big-time losing to big-time winning, even competing for championships all in the space of one year,’’ said Reich, who was hired in large part because of his offensive background. “It’s possible.
“The reason we see these things happen is because what we already instinctively know: The difference between winning and losing, it’s in the margins, it’s in the details, it’s one player at a time ... it’s about focusing on getting it right.’’
With that, let’s take a close look at the roster Reich inherited. The players listed below are under contract with the Panthers heading into the 2023 season:
Reich currently has two options with untested Corral (2022 third-rounder) and Eason (2020 fourth-rounder who was a backup under Reich with the Indianapolis Colts) as the only quarterbacks under contract.
The team can sign a quarterback in free agency or draft one. It’s possible a bargain-priced veteran could be added, or they could re-sign Sam Darnold, but it’s doubtful the team will make a run at a high-priced veteran such as Derek Carr with the team ranked in the bottom half of the league in salary cap space. Their cap is currently around $9 million with expectations to get between $15 million and $20 million with offseason moves (see linebacker Shaq Thompson with a $24.5 cap figure).
So look for the Panthers to focus on quarterback in the draft, even if that means trading up from No. 9 overall to the top three. Reich and general manager Scott Fitterer agree the best way to build long term is to draft a quarterback and build around him.
Reich mentioned that D’Onta Foreman “looked strong’’ in leading the Panthers in rushing last season. Foreman is only 26. He wants to return, so re-signing him should be a priority and not costly. Adding another back in the middle of the draft makes sense as well.
Some nice players, led by Moore, but Reich needs to add a consistent deep threat through free agency or the draft who can take the pressure off of Moore.
You could make a case for cutting Thomas. As good as he is at blocking, he’s not the receiver this group needs, and he has a $6.7 million cap hit in 2023. Cutting him with a post-June 1 designation would free up $3.1 million. Use that money to sign a veteran in free agency, such as Dallas’ Dalton Schultz or Jacksonville’s Evan Engram. Carolina hasn’t had a dependable weapon at tight end since parting ways with Greg Olsen in 2020.
Re-signing starting center Bradley Bozeman is a priority. That he wants to return should make that easier. That means Elflein, who began last season as the starter, could be a cap casualty. He’s set to count $7.5 million against the cap in 2023. Assuming Corbett (ACL) and Christensen (fractured ankle) are ready to play when the season starts, this is a strong foundation to protect the next quarterback.
The addition of new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero -- based on his history with Monte Kiffin, Dom Capers and Vic Fangio, along with the returning talent -- likely signals a switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4. Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu would be natural fits as outside linebackers, and the change may allow safety Jeremy Chinn to move closer to the line, as he did playing linebacker as a rookie. In addition, the Panthers ran a 3-4 with Capers and Fangio when Reich was with the Panthers in 1995.
Finding a playmaker opposite 2022 sack leader Burns is a priority, as is extending Burns’ contract which is set to expire after the 2023 season. The team turned down two first-round picks for Burns before last year’s trade deadline, so he’s going to be costly.
Definitely an area that needs another starter beside Brown and depth. Re-signing veteran Matt Ioannidis is an option. This may be the one position that gives the Panthers pause when it comes to using their first-round pick on a quarterback.
Cutting Thompson would clear $13.1 million from the cap, so that’s something to keep an eye on. He’s also only 28, a team leader and coming off a career-best 135 tackles. Cutting Wilson also could make sense. That would free up $3.6 million in cap space. Regardless, look for a rebuild of this unit around Luvu.
Getting this group healthy is the key. Starters Horn and Jackson ended the season on injured reserve, which likely kept the Panthers from winning the NFC South.
Safety: Jeremy Chinn, Xavier Woods
A big-time playmaker needs to be added here. Getting Chinn more involved and closer to the line also would help.
Kicker: Zane Gonzalez
Gonzalez was the starter until a groin injury in the final preseason game landed him on IR. Cutting him would free up $1.46 million. But he has only a $2.09 million 2023 cap number. His replacement, Eddy Pineiro, made his final 19 field goals after missing two game-winners against Atlanta. Sticking with Pineiro may make the most sense, particularly after Reich retained special teams coordinator Chris Tabor.
Punter: Johnny Hekker
As solid as they come. Nothing more needs to be said.
Re-signing Pro Bowler JJ Jansen, even at 37, makes too much sense.