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Exit Interview: Carolina Panthers

Head coach Ron Rivera is out, and quarterback Cam Newton is a question mark. The Panthers are overhauling the team—how deep will the renovations run?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next are the Carolina Panthers, who were eliminated with a 40-20 loss to the Falcons on Sunday.

What Went Right

Christian McCaffrey is the MVP … at least in fantasy football. CMC may be putting in the best fantasy season since prime LaDainian Tomlinson, leading the league in scrimmage yards (1,946) and touchdowns (16). He’s a nearly automatic bet to put up 100-plus scrimmage yards in every game, and has at times felt like the Panthers’ entire offense. McCaffrey is the best back in the league, blending finesse ...

… with power ...

We’ll be playing CMC’s highlights for a long time.

Another highlight for the Panthers has been the play of second-year wideout D.J. Moore. The 2018 first-round pick eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on Sunday, and we can finally say he’s broken out. He’s fourth in the league in receiving yards despite catching passes from a backup QB for virtually the entire season. Whoever the quarterback is in Carolina next season (more on that in a minute), he’ll enjoy having Moore and McCaffrey around him.

What Went Wrong

Cam Newton’s shoulder injury sucked the life out of the Panthers last season and lingered (along with an ankle injury) into this season, leading the Panthers to deactivate him after Week 2. That injury could change the course of the entire franchise.

After a solid start to the season, second-year undrafted free agent Kyle Allen has fizzled. From weeks 3 through 9, he connected on nine touchdowns compared to just four interceptions, and the team went 5-1 in that stretch. From Week 10 on, though, Allen has thrown seven touchdowns and eight interceptions … and the team has lost five straight. Allen is 30th out of 31 qualified passers in ESPN’s QBR metric—he doesn’t look like a long-term answer for the franchise. The team picked Will Grier in the third round of the 2019 draft and may have big plans for him, but Grier hasn’t been able to beat out Allen for the starting job.

After Week 13, the Panthers fired longtime head coach Ron Rivera, and their other front-office moves indicate that they are preparing for a complete overhaul of the team. This is the NFL equivalent of ripping the Band-Aid off quickly—It’s a change that stings now, but could be best for both Rivera and the franchise.

The Rivera era included back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in franchise history, an MVP in Cam Newton, a 15-1 season, and a Super Bowl appearance. But after nearly nine seasons (and a change in ownership), the Panthers are ready to start anew.

Free Agency

Newton isn’t a free agent, but the question of his future will hang over the team’s offseason. Newton has one year left on his contract at a $21.1 million cap hit, but the Panthers could cut him and recuperate $19.1 million of that money. It’s unlikely they’ll just cut the best passer in the history of the franchise, and NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that the team would consider trading Newton for “a large deal.”

At his best, Newton is a one-of-a-kind quarterback capable of altering the math on the field. At a time when rushing quarterbacks are having more success than ever, the Panthers may want to hold on to their guy, who is built like a running back and can bowl over defenders like a tank. Unique, game-changing talents like Newton are nearly impossible to find. It all just depends on his health.

If the team does stick with Newton, it’ll have to decide whether it wants to play him with just one year left on his deal or sign him to an extension. Both carry big risks. If they sign him and he never gets back to full health, they’re throwing money away. But if they play him on the last year of his deal and he returns to form, he’ll have the leverage to negotiate an incredibly lucrative deal in 2020. Whichever decision the franchise makes, it’ll set up the rest of the team’s offseason strategy.

As for actual free agents, nearly every notable offensive player on the team is under contract through at least 2020—the sign of an offense that was constructed to line up with its star quarterback. The one exception is offensive lineman Daryl Williams, who re-signed with the team on a one-year deal this offseason after a knee injury sidelined him for most of 2018. He is up again in 2020, but he’s been in and out of the starting lineup and the team could move on.

The defensive side of the ball will need more work. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was signed from the divisional rival Bucs, needs a new deal. Starting linebacker Bruce Irvin is also entering unrestricted free agency. Both were signed to one-year deals last offseason and both are on the wrong side of 30, so the team won’t feel compelled to overpay either. The secondary could be overhauled, with starters Ross Cockrell, Tre Boston, and James Bradberry all set to hit free agency.

The Draft

Currently sitting at 5-8, the Panthers should expect to have a pick that’s in the teens or just before. With Newton’s future uncertain, the franchise could be looking to draft a quarterback—but it won’t be picking high enough to land LSU’s Joe Burrow. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, who is recovering from a hip injury, could fall to them, as could Justin Herbert. But if the Panthers want to guarantee that they get their passer of choice, they’ll need to trade up.

Quarterback is hardly the team’s only need, though. The team could address the thinning secondary, as noted above, and could use help along both the offensive and defensive lines, as well. Pretty much the only positions they have set are running back and wide receiver.