Super Bowl 50 didn’t play out the way any Panthers fan thought it would. After dismantling the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship, it appeared that the Panthers were on the fast track to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
That achievement will have to wait at least another year. While Sunday’s game was difficult to watch for any Panthers fan, it is important that we recognize how special of a season Carolina had. 15 regular season wins, a third straight division title, an NFC Championship title, and an MVP in Cam Newton. Those are pretty respectable accolades for a team, that many people said, would not win more than seven games.
Oh, how things can change in a year. The offseason expectations are drastically different now, than they were a year ago. 365 days ago, Panther fans were still thinking about that Seattle loss in the divisional round and how the offensive line and receiving core needed to improve before the team made any real damage in the league.
This upcoming season, however, Carolina will enter as one of the favorites to win Super Bowl. These expectations will be a new situation for Panthers players and coached to handle. Previously, Carolina was used to coming into a season with not many people expecting much out of them. Now, all eyes are on MVP Newton and the reigning NFC Champion Carolina Panthers.
Before we start talking about another Super Bowl appearance, there is a checklist of items that the Panthers needs to take care of as an organization to take the final step in the path to a championship. The 2016 offseason for Carolina will be highlighted by what free agent cornerback Josh Norman decides to do.
It is expected that the Panthers will use their franchise tag on Norman, in hopes to reconstruct his contract going into the future. Taking care of Norman should be the first thing on general manager Dave Gettleman’s mind.
Even with Norman, many people describe Carolina’s secondary as the weakest link of the team. Safety Roman Harper and corner back Charles Tillman will also be free agents in the 2016 offseason. If Tillman were unable to return, Robert McClain would likely step in as the starting corner. Depending on the status of Harper, Carolina could look to draft a corner or safety in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Panthers will take a $15 million cap hit from Charles Johnson during the upcoming season. Johnson, who is a free agent in 2017, could be moved by Carolina in order to free up cap space. The nine year pro missed seven games this season due to a hamstring injury.
With Kony Ealy sitting behind Johnson on the depth chart, that decision might not be difficult for the Carolina to make. It will be important for the Panthers to think ahead when evaluating contracts this offseason. The 2017 offseason will be a pretty hectic one. Among others, 2017 free agents include Ted Ginn Jr., Ryan Kalil, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short. A reconstruction of Lotulelei and/or Short’s contracts could be taking place this offseason. The Panthers pride themselves on their defensive tenacity, and pass rushers like Lotulelei and Short don’t come around very often. The defensive line presence that was so dominant at times this season, took the pressure off of what was, by the end of the season, a beaten up secondary.
The offensive line was one of the most improved units on the Panthers’ team from the 2014-2015 season, to the 2015-2016 season. The acquisition of left tackle Michael Oher helped patch up what used to be an extremly vulnerable blind side for Cam Newton. Led by center Kalil, the offensive line played particularly well for Carolina.
That notion is displayed through the Panthers as a team leading the league in rushing this past season. However, the play of the offensive line during Super Bowl 50 is something that should raise the eyebrows of head coach Ron Rivera. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller had his way with the Panthers offensive line, as Newton was sacked seven times by the Denver defense.
Although it was just one game, and Denver’s defense is now being regarded as one of the best all time, the poor play on the biggest stage certainly can be a cause for concern. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Panthers decided to address offensive line depth during early/middle rounds of the draft.
The 2016 offseason will be an important one for Carolina to manage, if they have any plans of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next season. While the end of the season may not have played out like Panthers fans wanted, the future of Carolina Panthers football may be as bright as it’s ever been.