Many thought the Carolina Panthers were in for a good season, but few expected them to win the NFC South, make the playoffs with a 12-4 record and even getting a bye week before losing at home to the San Francisco 49ers. Now is the time to make sure the Panthers are just as successful next season, and that begins with giving Cam Newton a few more offensive weapons to throw to.
Newton enters the final year of his rookie deal next season, which means it’s time to talk extension and big raise for the Panthers and the quarterback. The same goes for defensive end Greg Hardy, who made the Pro Bowl this season and was named to AP’s second team All-Pro, leading the team with 15 sacks.
Newton’s number one target was Greg Olsen the tight end with 73 receptions for 86 yards and 6 touchdowns. His most productive wide receiver was Steve Smith, who is turning 35 in May. The other wide receivers who caught passes from Newton all have the chance to become free agents, which means it’s time to hit the draft and find some skill-players.
The Panthers focused elsewhere last year, drafting Kenjon Barner out of Oregon as their only offensive skill player. The Panthers’ front seven looked like the best in the NFL during the regular season, managing to hide their problems in the secondary. They put on a good game against the 49ers in the Divisional playoffs, but the problems in the offensive line and Newton unable to find open receivers (they didn’t get open) brought to the Panthers’ downfall in the second half.
The Panthers have put in too much money on running backs and stocking their defense with talent to go after a big name free agent wide receiver. Carolina and Oakland are the only teams in the NFL to select zero wide receivers, tight ends or running backs in the first three rounds since 2011, the year Newton went first overall. Joe Adams and Kealoha Pilares are the only receivers Carolina has drafted in the Newton era. It’s time to change that trend.
Newton’s total yards average has dropped to 247.8, down from 288.5 in 2012 and 299 during his rookie season. Clearly, the Panthers have been showing their improvement through defense which was ranked second in the NFL behind the Seahawks this season. Counting playoffs, the Panthers played eight games against teams that ranked among the NFL’s top 10 in fewest points allowed. They averaged 13.4 points per game against those opponents and 29.9 points per game against everyone else.
So LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon are all becoming free agents. None of them are must-have players, but the Panthers need some depth in the position besides Steve Smith, who’ll try to become the fourth wide receiver over the last decade to finish a season with over 1000 yards after the age of 34.
There seem to be six wide receivers who are first-round worthy in the upcoming draft: Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins, Marqise Lee, Mike Evans, Jordan Matthews and Paul Richardson. Any one of them will be a huge addition to the Panthers, who have other needs at offensive line as well, but giving Newton weapons to throw to has to be their biggest concern.