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Another offseason brings on more rebuilding for Carolina Panthers
After 5-10 season, major personnel decisions ahead
 
Published Monday, January 4, 2021 7:21 pm
by Herbert L. White

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Receiver Curtis Samuel was one of four Carolina Panthers to rack up more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2020, a first in the franchise’s history. Samuel is an unrestricted free agent and likely to command a big contract in 2021.

The Carolina Panthers’ season is over.


The questions are just beginning.


No one expected the 2020 team to contend for the playoffs in Matt Rhule’s first year as head coach, but how the Panthers arrived at a 5-11 record left everyone frustrated. With the exception of the 33-7 loss to New Orleans in Sunday’s finale, Carolina played hard if not smart, but their inability to finish games was an issue. Against the Saints, the Panthers weren’t close to New Orleans in terms of intensity, especially after halftime.


“You guys have heard me talk about December football,” Rhule said Sunday. “That was it. That was a December football second half. Sealing it. Running the football. Playing good defense. Those are all the things you have to do to be a legitimate playoff team. That’s what they were, and we were not able to respond the way we like.”


Nowhere was it more evident than at quarterback, where Teddy Bridgewater struggled with poor judgement down the stretch of games. The Panthers converted 59% of their red zone opportunities (29-of-57) into touchdowns compared to opponents’ 63% (36-of-57), which explains in part why Carolina was 3-8 in games decided by one score.


“In this business, everything is production-based,” said Bridgewater, who completed 340-of-492 passes for 3733 yards and 15 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in his first season with the Panthers. “Of course, I have to be better, my production has to be better. I think, for the most part, we did a good job of keeping ourselves in the games. I was on a playoff team where I threw 14 touchdowns. It’s all about executing the game plan and things like that.


“Of course, you want to be better in the red zone and that’s an area that we have to be better at as a team. And of course, myself, I want to be better down there. So, 15 touchdowns – I had five rushing touchdowns as well – but I get paid to throw the football and obviously, I can do more. I need to do more.”


Bridgewater is under contract for two more years, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be in Charlotte. With a draft class heavy with accomplished college quarterbacks, the Panthers could be in the market to go in another direction, especially since they have the eighth pick overall. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Florida’s Kyle Trask will likely be taken by the eighth pick, but Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance could be available.


The Panthers have 17 unrestricted free agents, which gives them plenty of salary flexibility, but it could be a necessity with eight offensive starters among that group, including tackles Taylor Moton and Russell Okung and guards John Miller and Chris Reed.


The most important free agent is receiver/running back Curtis Samuel, who put in a career year with more than 1,000 scrimmage yards as a valuable weapon.


“I’m not really worried about that. I don’t know what free agency is like, I don’t understand the process – I don’t really focus on that,” Samuel said. “My job is – how can I become a better player next year? What part of my game do I have to work on? That’s just something where I’ll have to sit down, talk to people that I trust, and work on ways to improve my game next year.”


Keeping Samuel in Charlotte will be difficult in light of the trend across the league toward versatile offensive threats, but Carolina returns receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson, both of who went over 1,000 yards receiving, making them the third tandem in team history to do so.


“It’s so easy to point out all the bad things and, of course, the bad outweighs the good sometimes – especially when you don’t have the type of season that you want to have,” Bridgewater said. “But, when you look at this offense and see guys having career years – of course, those are the individual goals. As a unit, you want to be better situationally, but the good: you’ve got guys like Curtis Samuel, who had a career year, and D.J. Moore; Robby had his first 1,000-yard season; Mike Davis gaining 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time in his career. Little things like that get taken for granted. Also, the guys up front.”


The defense, which underwent a major overhaul last year, showed promise with as many as five rookies in the starting lineup. Safety/linebacker Jeremy Chinn is a contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year and defensive tackle Derrick Brown flashed potential of the line-collapsing big man that made him the Panthers’ top pick last year.

“We built something and it’s decent right now because we’re looking from outside in,” free safety Tre Boston said.

“But from the inside out, I know it’s going to be something truly good around here and I can’t wait. I know we’re going to build the right pieces of puzzle around here and we’ll get a lot of older guys back healthy. We can only pray that we have an offseason together and really get to building that chemistry, comradery. A lot of our younger guys, that’s a year older, so we’re able to play good ball.”


The defense doesn’t face as much offseason churn as the offense although the future of defensive tackle Kawann Short, who missed most of the campaign for the second time in as many years, could be uncertain. Linebacker Shaq Thompson tied Chinn for the team lead with 116 tackles and second-year defensive end Brian Burns emerged as a legitimate pass rusher with nine sacks and 21 quarterback hurries. The development of edge rusher Efe Obada paid off with a career season of 5.5 sacks.
Cornerback Rasul Douglas, who signed as a free agent early in the season on a one-year deal, is an unrestricted free agent.

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