For the first time in a very long time, the Carolina Panthers will be entering an NFL season without head coach Ron Rivera, linebacker Luke Kuechly or quarterback Cam Newton. Rivera had served as the team's head coach since 2011. Newton was drafted by the team first overall in the same season. A year later, Kuechly was selected ninth overall.
The trio were the best thing that ever happened to the Panthers. They won the NFC South in three consecutive years, and went to the playoffs four times in nine seasons. In 2015, Newton won MVP and carried the team to a 15-1 record. Carolina would make it to their second Super Bowl in franchise history, though they came up short against the Denver Broncos.
Rivera was fired after the 2019 season, and the team elected to let go of Newton. Kuechly then chose to retire at age 29. Three of the most important figures in franchise history are now gone, so what do the Panthers do now.
What is the plan here?
The NFL season is almost upon us! Over the next few weeks I will be previewing each of the 32 NFL teams, and ranking them 1-32 as to how likely I believe they are to win Super Bowl LV. This week we continue the list with teams on the fringe of the playoff conversation.
27. Carolina Panthers
While the Panthers did just lose two big stars on the field and a leader on the sidelines, they still have one of the league’s biggest studs on the roster. Christian McCaffrey is possibly the league's greatest offensive weapon at the moment. He totaled nearly 2,400 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns last season—the third-highest yardage total in league history. He was rewarded this offseason with a gargantuan four-year deal worth $64 million.
McCaffery managed to do all of this with Kyle Allen at quarterback as well, as Newton missed nearly the entire season with injury. Allen played about as well as you would expect for a backup, and was then traded to Washington this offseason. Now McCaffery will get to play alongside a better quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater.
The signing of Bridgewater this offseason is a confusing one. They inked the quarterback to a three-year deal worth $63 million, though they can get out of it fairly easily after two seasons. This signals they still think they can compete for a wild card spot as long as they have a decent quarterback playing alongside McCaffery, and they have some other weapons too.
Robby Anderson, the speedy former New York Jets wide receiver, joined the team this offseason. However, his style does not seem to mesh with what the Panthers do as a team that focuses on the short passing game. The other two starting receivers, Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore are great, though, and among the top receiving duo in the league.
The offense has enough weapons to provide some sort of threat, but the lack of a real functional offensive line in front of Bridgewater and Co. will severely limit them.
On defense, they are depending on a lot of mediocre players to play at a much higher level. The only sure bet is Brian Burns, the 2019 first-round pick who tore it up in his rookie season. Other than him they are relying on long-time inconsistent players like cornerback Eli Apple, and unproven youngsters like 2020 first rounder Derrick Brown.
Carolina should be entering a rebuild, but just by having McCaffery they really cannot. Losing an MVP quarterback, an all-time great linebacker and a longtime head coach is the perfect time to start over, but they also cannot waste the talents of another potential all-time great they have right now. Running back windows do not last very long—just look at former Los Angeles Rams linebacker Todd Gurley—so they need to win before that window closes.
Unfortunately, this insistence to continue going at it—signing Bridgewater instead of trying their hand at a young developmental quarterback—is just delaying the inevitable. They will likely not be very good this year, no matter how McCaffery plays. Not biting the bullet now may hurt them long term.