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Relatively quiet offseason yields C- grade for Panthers

during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 1, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

There wasn’t a tremendous amount of turnover on the Carolina Panthers’ offense this offseason, and their key pieces will return in MVP quarterback Cam Newton and his favorite weapon, tight end Greg Olsen. The Panthers focused heavily on defense in the draft and didn’t add any major offensive players in free agency. It appears that the Panthers’ offseason plan was to rely on their present offensive weapons to get healthy and to make the front-seven even deeper than it was last year.

Offseason grade: C-

Free agency and trades

New Arrivals: DI Paul Soliai (Falcons), C Gino Gradkowski (Falcons)

Re-signings: ED Charles Johnson, FB Mike Tolbert, RT Mike Remmers

Departures: ED Jared Allen (ret.), WR Jerricho Cotchery (UFA), P Brad Nortman (Jaguars), CB Josh Norman (Redskins)

The story of the Panthers’ offseason is the loss of cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with Washington after becoming an unrestricted free agent. Josh Norman earned a +16.8 cumulative coverage grade last year, which ranked No. 3 among all cornerbacks, and opposing quarterbacks had a league-low 54.0 NFL QB rating when targeting the CB in coverage. While the Panthers felt it was in their best long-term interest to let Norman walk, they will have to pay a price in the short-term; he won’t be an easy player to replace.

Losing Jared Allen’s 32 pressures isn’t as bad as it sounds, as Kony Ealy should be able to replace Allen’s production with increased snaps. The Panthers hope Ealy can continue his high level of production from the playoffs, when he posted his best two games of the season, including a three-sack Super Bowl. The addition of Paul Soliai gives the Panthers another big body to rotate into their defensive interior to give Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei a breather. The Panthers have arguably the deepest and most talented defensive tackle rotation in the NFL.

2016 NFL draft

  • Round 1 (pick No. 30) Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech
  • Round 2 (pick No. 62) James Bradberry, S, Samford
  • Round 3 (pick No. 77 from Cleveland via Detroit via Philadelphia) Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia
  • Round 5 (pick No. 141 from Cleveland) Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma
  • Round 7 (pick No. 252) Beau Sandland, TE, Montana State

The Panthers took defensive tackle Vernon Butler at a position of depth because they wanted to select the best player available. Butler was the No. 5 run defender in the draft class among interior defensive linemen, but he was selected in the first round because he moves very well laterally for his size and can be an effective pass rusher and used on stunts. The Panthers were using the strategy of building on a strength rather than filling a need with the selection of Butler.

Carolina also drafted three defensive backs. The first two seem to fit the same mold; big, long, and fast. Both James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are 6-foot-1, weigh over 200 pounds, have 33-inch long arms, and have been timed running 40-yard dashes in the 4.5 range. Zack Sanchez is slightly smaller and faster than the other two, but he also fits within the physical parameters the Panthers eyed in selecting their defensive backs. The Panthers hope one of them can eventually come close to playing at the same level as Norman, although playing with that defensive line will make any cornerback’s job easier.

Conclusion

Carolina Panthers' projected base defense in 2016:

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 2.31.30 PM

The depth and talent in the Panthers' front-seven is truly impressive. They will be able to rotate in defensive linemen with little loss of production and ability. Ealy will be called upon to step into Allen’s spot and be as disruptive and productive as he was during the playoffs. Perhaps one of the rookie pattern DBs will emerge as a candidate to replace some of Norman’s production. The Panthers did add draft pick Beau Sandland to their offense, an athletic move tight end in the mold of Olsen. However, it would have been nice to see them try to add some more weapons on offense around their MVP quarterback. Newton and the Panthers’ loaded front-seven should keep the Panthers in NFC South title contention once again in 2016.

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