Carolina Panthers 2015 NFL Off-Season Preview

Positions of Need

Offensive Tackle

Byron Bell was arguably the weakest starting left tackle in the NFL going into the season and he played about as expected, grading out 85th out of 86 eligible offensive tackles. He’s a free agent this off-season and the Panthers desperately need to find an upgrade. On the right side, Nate Chandler was also a disaster, grading out 68th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 11 games before going down for the season with an injury. Even if Mike Remmers, a 2014 undrafted free agent who played well at right tackle down the stretch in Chandler’s absence, is the solution on the right side, they still need help on the left side and they could easily need to add two offensive tackles.

Wide Receiver

The Panthers were one of five teams with two 1000+ yard receivers (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Vincent Jackson/Mike Evans, Randall Cobb/Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders). However, that was largely because they didn’t have any receiving options after Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. Those two received 49.25% of the Panthers targets, the highest percentage by any two teammates. Olsen is a tight end anyway. They desperately need wide receiver help after Benjamin on the depth chart. The Panthers’ next three wide receivers (Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Philly Brown) combined for just 4 more targets than Benjamin. Cotchery is going into his age 33 season, Avant was cut mid-season, Brown is just a slot receiver that went undrafted in 2014, and all 3 of them graded out below average in pass catching grade.

Cornerback

Antoine Cason led Panther cornerbacks in snaps played last season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 97th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible last season and was cut before the end of the season. Josh Norman, Melvin White, and Bene Benwikere were next in snaps played. Norman and Benwikere both graded out above average, but Norman graded out below average as a 5th round rookie in 2012 and then again in 2013, while Benwikere was a mere 5th round rookie this season, so both of them are hard to trust into 2015. White, meanwhile, graded out 94th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014. He’s graded out below average in both seasons since he went undrafted in 2013. They could add this off-season.

Safety

Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud were signed as reclamation projects last off-season for the Panthers. DeCoud graded out below average in 2012 and 2013, including 82nd out of 86 eligible in 2013. Harper, meanwhile, graded out below average in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 86th out of 88 eligible in 2012. Harper was decent in 2014, but he’s going into his age 33 season, while DeCoud once again graded out below average. Reserve Tre Boston was decent, but he was an inexperienced 4th round rookie, so they could still add at the position this off-season.

Defensive End

The Panthers have already said they won’t be re-signing Greg Hardy, after suspending him for 15 games as a result of off-the-field issues. They didn’t fare well opposite Charles Johnson in his absence last season as Wes Horton, Mario Addison, and Kony Ealy graded out 49th, 39th, and 56th respectively out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Kony Ealy was a 2nd round pick in 2014, so he could be better in 2015 and he’s still a big part of their future plans, but they need to add to the position.

Tight End

Wide receiver isn’t the only place where the Panthers have depth problems in the receiving corps. Ed Dickson was predictably horrible as their #2 tight end last season, grading out 60th out of 67 eligible. He was Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked tight end out of 64 eligible in 2013 with Baltimore before the Panthers signed him so that shouldn’t have been a surprise and they shouldn’t bring him back as a free agent. Adding a 2nd tight end would help this offense.

Key Free Agents

DE Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy had such a bright future at this time last year, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013 and their 6th ranked in 2012. The Panthers, eager to keep him long-term, franchised tagged Hardy last off-season, guaranteeing him 13.1 million for 2015, but they would end up regretting that. Hardy was arrested for and convicted of domestic violence in the off-season. He was allowed by the NFL to play for the Panthers week 1 because he was appealing the verdict, but public pressure forced the Panthers inactivate Hardy for the final 15 games of the season, meaning the Panthers got just 1 game for that 13.1 million. Hardy is still young (going into his age 27 season), still talented, and got the charges dropped this off-season, but he could be rusty, he got the charges dropped on a technicality, he’s still facing a suspension from the NFL, and he remains an off-the-field risk long-term. The Panthers have already said they’re moving on from him. It’ll be interesting to see what his market is this off-season. If he’s smart, he’ll take a one-year deal, bet on himself, stay clean and make a boatload of money next off-season.

G Fernando Velasco

Fernando Velasco was the Titans’ 11th ranked center in 2012, but the Titans still made him a final cut the following off-season. It was a curious move at the time, but now it makes a little bit more sense. That 2012 season is very uncharacteristic when you look at his whole career. The only other season he’s graded out above average since entering the league in 2008 was 2011, when he played just 28 snaps. Since being released by the Titans, he graded out below average on 758 snaps at center in 2013 in Pittsburgh in place of an injured Maurkice Pouncey and below average on 407 snaps at guard in 2014 with the Panthers. He’s a reserve interior offensive lineman.

DT Dwan Edwards

Dwan Edwards has graded out below average in each of the last 5 seasons, averaging 595 snaps per season over that time period. In 2014, he graded out 63rd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles on 591 snaps. Going into his age 34 season, things aren’t going to get better. He won’t draw a big market this off-season and might end up retiring. If he plays next year, he’ll probably be signed late in the off-season and have a small role.

TE Ed Dickson

Ed Dickson has graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL (4 with the Ravens and the last one with the Panthers) since the Ravens drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s been especially bad in each of the past 2 seasons, grading out 63rd out of 64 eligible tight end in 2013 and 60th out of 67 eligible in 2014. He’s a fringe roster player.

OT Byron Bell

Byron Bell is experienced, with 56 starts in 4 seasons since the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011, but he’s not very good. He was horrible to start his career at right tackle, grading out 69th out of 76 eligible in 2011, 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012, and 53rd out of 76 eligible in 2013. Predictably, he wasn’t better in 2014 when forced to play the blindside, grading out 83rd out of 84 eligible. He’s a swing tackle at best and not a very good one. The Panthers have already said they aren’t going to be bringing him back in any capacity

Cap Casualty Candidates

RB DeAngelo Williams

The Panthers signed DeAngelo Williams to a massive 5-year, 43 million dollar deal in the 2011 off-season and, even after a restructured contract with a severe pay cut given to him two off-seasons ago, the Panthers are only now at the point where they can release Williams as a post-June cut and save on the cap. They’ll only save 2 million on the cap by doing that and they won’t even have him completely off their cap until 2017, but they’ll save 2 million in cash and Williams is going into his age 32 season and coming off of a season in which he missed 10 games with injury and averaged just 3.53 yards per carry. Jonathan Stewart is much younger and played way better last season.

FB Mike Tolbert

Mike Tolbert has had some good years, but he’s coming off of a season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked fullback out of 23eligible. He could bounce back in 2015, but he’s going into his age 30 season and his 2.45 million dollar salary is a lot for a fullback who isn’t one of the best in the NFL so he might not even be worth his salary even if he does bounce back. The Panthers can save that entire amount on the cap by letting him go.

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