How will the Panthers choose to spend their offseason? Who will they get and lose in free agency? Who will be the next coach to take over Carolina? All are evaluated below:
Through 2022, the Panthers had a roller coaster season. As the final week of the regular season came to a close earlier this month, lots of things are now in the air that determine the team's future. From coaching to players and everything in between, the organization is looking to improve massively.
Carolina’s playoff chances came to a close in Week 17 when they came up short against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, 30-24. Tampa Bay clinched the NFC South, and the Panthers were immediately eliminated from playoff contention. Some issues many tended to point out through this matchup were the coaching decisions, leaving Wilks’ chances of obtaining the permanent HC position in limbo, along with the defeated secondary, and the rough game Darnold had. Regardless of how well the Panthers have appeared to play recently, all of these issues have persisted throughout the season and even into the 2021 season. It’s nothing new, but the importance of change is even higher.
For starters, let’s lay out the whole coaching situation. Steve Wilks has done a better job as an interim head coach than Matt Rhule did in three seasons, so he is well-liked throughout the NFL. The Panthers also had an improvable division record, sweeping the Saints 2-0, then going 1-1 against the Falcons and Bucs. Though Carolina’s loss to Atlanta was just an unlucky run, the Bucs, as well as other games throughout the season, needed better play-calling and coaching performances in general. There have been complaints about Wilks’ clock management; for example, not calling timeouts in serious situations when needed. There was also a big 4 & 1 play that the Panthers could have gone for against the Buccaneers in their previous game, but the call was for a punt instead. In a way, after how close the game ended up, that should’ve been one of the risks they took. Even with these, Steve Wilks has still put himself in a great position to be one of the frontrunners for the head coaching position in Carolina.
Another issue with coaching is Ben McAdoo. There has been so much talk of how McAdoo’s calling doesn’t fit the offense’s talents, which are evident through plenty of film. Laviska Shenault could be used for running more, providing help to the ‘backs, but instead his only play that Ben sees fit is a screen. The offense appears to be so simple and predictable that it's no surprise the Panthers are stopped on most third downs. On a positive note, the running game has been killing it lately, which will be discussed later. Another are the quarterback sneaks with Darnold, which surprised most fans when they were first introduced and used frequently against Detroit on Christmas Eve. In general, McAdoo may not be the guy the Panthers should step forward with in the 2023 season.
Al Holcomb is one last piece to discuss. Holcomb is the defensive coordinator and doesn’t seem to get mentioned as much as McAdoo, because of how well the defense (especially the line) performs together. They know how to do their job, but a piece in the D that has really made Holcomb and the Panthers look bad is the secondary. It’s no wonder they’ve struggled this season, since big pieces like Jeremy Chinn, Donte Jackson, and Jaycee Horn have been injured, but there needs to be better depth that backs them up to still support Carolina’s play. Holcomb should’ve done a better job of preparing players like CJ Henderson and Keith Taylor Jr. to cover the WR1 and WR2 positions. It’s unacceptable for a coach to put fourth- or fifth stringers in to hopefully "lock them down".
It was reported by Adam Schefter on January 15 that the Falcons requested permission to interview Holcomb. It leaves a lot of question marks in the air, but if a division rival wants to take a coordinator who may cause problems down the road, they can be our guest.
There are some coaches that the Panthers could look at for potential. Carolina will have to be selective in who they hire, whether for small or large positions. In my opinion, Ben McAdoo won’t be around much longer once the head coach is decided. For reference, Frank Reich is a roaming coach around the league right now who could be considered fit for the upcoming offense. There's also the matter of Eric Bieniemy. Some other prospects are Shane Steichen, from Philadelphia, Ken Dorsey, from Buffalo; as well as Ben Johnson and Kellen Moore. It’d be worth taking a look at some of these NFL coaches and seeing if any of them would be willing to make a change, whether they’re willing to move positions to another team or even take a head coaching job if Wilks isn’t the guy. Defensively speaking, DeMeco Ryans has also been a huge name as a coaching candidate, and I think he’s worth giving a shot as well. Although he and Carolina weren’t able to meet up for an interview, he is still someone to mention.
Sean Payton and Jim Harbaugh are two well-known head coaches who have been mentioned in connection with head coaching discussions in general. In my eyes, neither are fit for Carolina. Payton’s been the Panthers’ nemesis for years, and Carolina would also have to give up something in a trade to hire him as head coach. Harbaugh would be coming from the great football program he's built in Michigan, and looking back on his career in the NFL, it'd take a lot for an owner to give him a shot in the league again. He coached from 2002 to 2014, but was mostly known for the great run he had in his last four years with the 49ers. He ended up going 44-19-1 in San Francisco, which is remarkable. He and Nick Saban are both amazing college coaches, but I think they are just "iffy" in the NFL. After the debacle Matt Rhule left the Panthers in, I believe it's too risky to hire another college coach. Another tie everyone has been curious about with Harbaugh, though, is the extensive 14 years he played as a quarterback in the NFL. His last season in 2001 was actually with Carolina, but he didn’t get a shot at playing. Rumors have recently spread that he and Tepper have a good relationship, and Tepper was in talks of getting Harbaugh on board to interview for the head coaching position, but the news turned out to indicate that Harbaugh had been the only one initiating conversations. Back to Sean Payton: he’s been a successful coach, but he’s also had star quarterback Drew Brees by his side the majority of the time his popularity has risen. Unless the Panthers get their quarterback situation fixed, it may be more complicated for Payton to prove that his coaching days aren’t over. The Panthers are planning to interview him and see how that situation may go.
The best plan to go about coaching is to get a good offensive-minded coach, keep Wilks around (whether it’s as head coach or a coordinator), and build your team up from there. Saving the picks; and for goodness' sake, don’t pay him a load for 7 years. Let them prove themselves first.
NFL Draft 2023
The draft is coming up in Kansas City from April 27 to April 29. Depending on how the combine goes, Carolina will definitely be looking for plenty of young rookies to continue to build their franchise. In hopes of playoff contention, their biggest need is a quarterback. Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson are all in talks about being candidates for a fit NFL team—the question is, will any of them become a Panther? CJ Stroud has caught teams’ eyes after his incredible performance against Georgia. Some were worried about whether he'd even declare, since he was so late to announce the news. Carolina has the ninth pick in the draft, with Chicago having the first. Chicago won’t be looking for a QB, even though mentions on Twitter are trying to stir up chaos about the Bears shopping Fields. If Fitterer can work his magic and Carolina is desperate for a quarterback, it wouldn't hurt to see what they would have to give up for that first pick. Fitterer has reiterated that Matt Corral is their guy and they drafted him for a reason—so hopefully once he is fully healed from his injury, he can prove himself and be the QB1 for the future. If drafting a quarterback isn’t on the Panthers' table because of this and free agency, they definitely should look for some depth for their rosters. The Panthers are looking to add another cornerback, a defensive end, a wide receiver, and even a linebacker this offseason. After Corbett and Christensen’s season finale injuries, it wouldn’t even hurt to try to add some better linemen for depth. Overall, the Panthers have seven picks to make the right calls with. Their first rounder, two second rounders (one from SF), a third rounder (from SF), two fourth rounders (one from SF), and lastly, a singular fifth rounder to close it out. It’ll be interesting to see how those picks will determine the moves made in free agency.
Free Agency 2023: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
There are a good number of star players who will be making their rounds of talks around the league this offseason. Many will be re-signed, others may find they want a shot elsewhere. Quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady are also planned to go to another team or sign a long-term extension, but don’t count Fitterer and the front office out of any bold moves that could be made.
Carolina is going to have to decide who is worthy of staying; who will contribute most to a winning record and a "Keep Pounding" mentality the best? The two names who have constantly been putting their focus on coming back are D'Onta Foreman and Bradley Bozeman. Bozeman didn’t even get a shot to start over Pat Elflein when Rhule was in charge, but after Elflein’s season-ending injury, Bozeman had his opportunity to show his stuff, and he did. D’Onta also went from a RB3 to RB1 in just a matter of time after Christian’s departure to the Niners. He’s put up great numbers and was almost able to hit 1k in rushing yards if he hadn’t been disqualified against NOLA. Both have been major contributors to what Carolina has been able to accomplish this season, and after letting Stephon Gilmore and Haason Reddick both walk last season, it’d be a shame to repeat history. If they somehow decide to look elsewhere, some known running backs who are hitting free agency include Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt, and Tony Pollard. If money talks and the players are willing to listen, Carolina may pay up for one of them, or another big name in a spot that needs some help. The smartest move in the ‘backs perspective would be to leave the room as it is with Foreman, Hubbard, and Blackshear, and instead use a large amount of money to pay a quarterback or defensive player. Sam Darnold’s future with Carolina is up in the air, but most fans are wanting to move on from his time spent there. Derek Carr had a rocky end with the Raiders, and some teams that may be interested include Carolina, along with Washington and the Jets, per Ian Rapoport.
Some other things that don’t concern free agency but could be done during the offseason include trading for a young QB like Trey Lance if the Panthers wanted to go that route. Purdy may be in the Niners’ future, whether as a starter or backup, but someone in the quarterback room isn’t going to be happy. That leaves Carolina to once again make the right call if it’s something they know will benefit them.
Another change I’d like to see happen with the team involves the secondary. They should try some experimenting with Jeremy Chinn. Playing as a LB throughout college, it seems like that was a bit of Chinn’s forte as well during his rookie year. If Carolina decides to make that move, they can find another safety to add to the mix and let go of a LB they may see they don’t need or don’t want to pay to let Chinn fill that spot. Jessie Bates III is a safety for the Bengals who could look for some money somewhere else, along with Jadeveon Clowney, who is a DE for the Browns. Clowney made a statement saying he was "95% certain" he wouldn’t re-sign with the team next season. The defense is a huge spot to fill and work with, and with how good they’ve managed to be, it’d be a nice landing spot for any player looking for something new.
Full list of Panthers free agents in 2023:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (16)
QB Sam Darnold
T Cameron Erving
G Michael Jordan
C Bradley Bozeman
WR Rashard Higgins
WR Andre Roberts
RB D'Onta Foreman
DE Henry Anderson
DT Matt Ioannidis
LB Cory Littleton
LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe
CB TJ Carrie
S Sean Chandler
S Juston Burris
LS J.J. Jansen
K Eddy Piñeiro
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (3)
QB P.J. Walker
S Myles Hartsfield
S Sam Franklin
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS (2)
TE Stephen Sullivan (re-signed on Jan. 9)
TE Giovanni Ricci (re-signed on Jan. 9)
The Panthers should try to shop for some safeties either way if Chinn remains in his place or not, and also decide what they want to do with Matt Ioannidis and Henry Anderson. Both have been injured this season but have done fairly well. Ioannidis has definitely done his part to help the team, so if they can get him on another contract, it’d be refreshing to see him back.
Carolina will also have to decide who will be the kicker. Zane Gonzalez has had two groin injuries in the past two seasons, and this year he was put on season-ending IR. Eddy Piñeiro has been a bit of a personality for the Panthers, taking on the kicking role and being one of the most consistent in the league. Some fans tend to take Zane over him after the rough game in Atlanta, but the Panthers may just have to let the two compete during mini camps and may the best man win.
So What Next?
There’s still so much ground to cover and discuss in terms of the Panthers. They are almost as unpredictable during the offseason as they are during the regular season, so it will be interesting to see what moves are made and why. If Carolina can do anything, it’ll just be, as Wilks says, to "Win the Day". The sole focus should be on turning the team with "no identity," as some try to claim, into one that’s a winning franchise for the future. From having a winning record to making the playoffs or even making it to next year’s Super Bowl, the Panthers and David Tepper need to do what’s best.