It’s that time of year when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Panthers, who were eliminated from playoff contention after a 24-10 loss to the Falcons.
What Went Right
Christian McCaffrey would have been a Pro Bowler if he played in the AFC. With a game still remaining, the Panthers second-year running back has picked up 1,925 yards from scrimmage and 13 total touchdowns. McCaffrey was the Panthers’ rock on offense, almost never missing a snap and influencing the game on the ground and through the air:
#Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey breaks Matt Forte's single-season record for receptions by a running back (103).— Evan Silva (@evansilva) December 23, 2018
The Panthers have been looking for the right playmakers to put around Cam Newton for ages, and while they still don’t have a premiere wide receiver, they at least have a running back who can impact many parts of the game.
What Went Wrong
On November 4, the Panthers blew out the Buccaneers, 42-28, to move to 6-2 on the season. They appeared to be one of the best teams in the NFL, and the NFC South playoff race between the Saints and Panthers looked like it would be one of the ages. Then the Panthers lost seven straight games — they currently stand at 6-9.
That’s a stunning collapse. In fact, it’s an unprecedented collapse: If the Panthers lose next week, they’ll become the first team in the history of the NFL to finish 6-10 after starting a season 6-2. Under the current playoff format, 127 teams have begun their seasons at 6-2, and 103 of them made the playoffs. Seven of the Panthers’ nine losses this season have had a final margin of seven points or fewer. Nothing about this should sit well with Carolina fans.
Newton has been hobbled for the last two months with a shoulder injury, and he missed Sunday’s game against the Falcons. While there is no structural damage to the QB’s shoulder, the presence of the injury can at least help fans forgive some of the struggles that led to the Panthers’ late collapse.
But a seven-game losing streak can’t all be pinned on one player. The Panthers have underperformed on defense and in the trenches since Week 10. It’s been a complete team collapse — Carolina hasn’t been abysmal at any one thing, but all the mediocrity across the roster doomed this season.
Some have speculated that the team’s slide put head coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat, but the franchise sounds committed to keeping him. That’s probably for the best — Rivera isn’t a perfect head coach, but this season’s carousel will be busy; the Packers and Browns jobs are already on the market. If the Panthers were to move on from Rivera, there’s no guarantee they’d get someone better.
The Panthers are projected to have $21.5 million of effective cap space, per Over the Cap. That’s only the 22nd-highest mark in the league, so the Panthers won’t have a ton of weight to throw around in free agency.
But they do have a slew of longtime veterans who may leave. Ryan Kalil, who has been the starting center in Carolina since 2007, already announced that this will be his last season in the league. Defensive end Julius Peppers is a likely retirement candidate after 17 years in the NFL. And linebacker Thomas Davis, a 14-year veteran with the Panthers, has admitted his future with the team is uncertain. Safety Mike Adams will be 38 next season, and is also a free agent. All of these veterans have started a majority of their games this season, so Carolina will have some holes to fill.
The Panthers have all of their picks except their seventh rounder and are currently slated to pick 11th. And like most teams that lose seven games in a row, Carolina has holes all over the roster. Along with Adams, starting safety Eric Reid is also a free agent — so a defensive back could be at the top of Carolina’s wish list. And though this first round looks to have plenty of corners, there are few true safeties at the top of most draft list — that may mean the Panthers wait until Day 2 to address this need.
In the first round, Carolina could also shore up their defensive line with any of the many options that will be available in this draft. The Panthers may also look to offensive-line help in the draft, where there will also be a litany of options.