After a disappointing 7-9 season, the Carolina Panthers are facing an offseason of crucial decision-making.
It’s not just that the Panthers must nail their first few picks in the 2019 draft. They have to nail free agency, too.
That includes navigating cap space, a large group of pending free agents — some of whom might require painful decisions — and finding the right combination of youth and experience in the locker room.
Here’s a player-by-player look at the 2019 free agency situation:
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▪ LB Thomas Davis: A fixture for Carolina since 2005, Davis began the year by missing four games because of an NFL-mandated performance-enhancing drugs suspension. He said before the suspension that he would retire at the end of the year, but has since changed his mind and said he wants to return to Carolina. He finished the season with 79 tackles, with three tackles for loss.
Davis wasn’t as consistent in coverage as Panthers fans have come to expect, but he still showed his ability against the run and as one of the leading voices in the locker room. The Panthers must decide whether to say goodbye to a longtime leader
There might be a compromise, though. It’s possible Davis comes back on a team-friendly deal and accepts a more limited role to pave the way for young talent. If Davis thinks next year’s roster will be built to make a run at a Super Bowl, that option could be enticing so he goes out on better terms than a suspension and a 7-9 season.
Biggest question marks
▪ DE Julius Peppers: Back on a one-year deal, Peppers didn’t see the productivity to which he’s been accustomed in his 17-year career. His five sacks were the second-lowest total of his career. He finished a half-sack short of tying Kevin Greene at No. 3 on the NFL’s all-time sacks list (159.5).
It seems unlikely that Peppers, 38, returns to the NFL in 2019 — but while head coach Ron Rivera indicated that Peppers would retire, Peppers himself has not stated as much. If he chooses to play another season, it’s hard to imagine the Panthers don’t make room for him as a purely situational pass-rusher. It just can’t be in the featured role he’s in now, because of the team’s need for fresher legs off the edge.
▪ S Eric Reid: Signed during the Panthers’ Week 4 bye after starting safety Da’Norris Searcy went on injured reserve, Reid wasted no time asserting himself as an impact player. Coaches like his physicality, leadership and football IQ, and Rivera has made very public his desire to keep Reid around. Reid likes being in Carolina, but has said he wants “market value,” and is likely to look around for it first.
Other 2018 starters/key roles
▪ OT Daryl Williams: A league source told the Observer last summer that there was a “monster gap” between Williams’ camp and the organization in terms of financial discussions, and Williams was likely to become a free agent this spring after earning second team All-Pro honors in 2017. But Williams went on injured reserve in Week 2, and that will likely affect future discussions. Still likely to test the market.
▪ S Mike Adams: Adams was a much-needed veteran presence in the locker room for the past two years, especially after the Panthers waived Kurt Coleman last spring. It’s hard to see Carolina bringing him back, as the coaching staff wants to get younger and faster on defense.
▪ OT Chris Clark: Signed to fill in when starting left tackle Matt Kalil began the year on injured reserve, Clark, 33, played well in his first few starts in Carolina but struggled in later games because of various injuries. Clark is unlikely to return in 2019 — and the Panthers have a lot of other questions to answer on their offensive line.
▪ WR Devin Funchess: Funchess was supposed to be Carolina’s No. 1 receiver, but his snaps and targets declined through the latter half of the season after he dropped at least four passes against Detroit in Week 11, and then missing Week 12 with a back injury. He finished the year averaging 5.6 targets per game.
The wide receiver market continues to inflate, and that plus the emergence of rookie DJ Moore, makes Funchess’ return to the Panthers in 2019 unlikely. The real question is, with No. 2 receiver-caliber numbers (5.6 targets per game, 44 catches for 549 yards), can Funchess, who can be a red zone threat when he wants to be, still make No. 1 receiver money elsewhere?
▪ DE Wes Horton: Horton showed big growth at the end of the 2017 season, particularly in forcing fumbles. He was moved to an outside rushing role in 2019 but the pass-rush never quite popped. When Horton was moved into an inside situational rusher role late in the year, he saw more success.
▪ S Colin Jones: Jones was voted a team captain for his role on special teams and could be a candidate for a team-friendly deal. He acts as a player-coach for young special teamers.
▪ DT Kyle Love: Love had arguably the best season of any Panthers’ defensive lineman. He recorded 1.5 sacks, had 12 solo tackles, forced three fumbles and recovered two and defensed a pass despite being in a rotational role. He is another popular candidate for a short, team-friendly deal as a valuable depth piece and another player-coach.
▪ RB Cameron Artis-Payne: He got a season-high 18 touches in the Panthers’ finale at New Orleans but was inactive for most of the season. It’s clear that any complementary back will take a remote backseat to versatile starter Christian McCaffrey, and if the Panthers want to alleviate some of his workload they might consider drafting a back in a later round. That would mean the end of Artis-Payne’s time in Carolina. He might also want to look for a bigger role elsewhere.
▪ RB Kenjon Barner: Barner finished the Panthers’ season on injured reserve with a knee injury. He was brought in as a kick returner with Damiere Byrd also on injured reserve, averaging 24.4 yards per return with a 37-yard long in four games.
▪ RB Travaris Cadet: Cadet was active in one game.
▪ LB Ben Jacobs: Jacobs played mostly special teams and had six tackles.
▪ LB David Mayo: Mayo is largely a contributor on special teams but can be depth at middle and outside linebacker as well.
▪ OT Marshall Newhouse: In a depth role for Carolina in the second half of the season, he filled in for injured starter Clark for two games.
▪ G Amini Silatolu: Silatolu hurt his knee in training camp and was only active in six games. With depth needed on the offensive line and former undrafted free agent guard Brendan Mahon in the Panthers’ system for a year, it’s unlikely Carolina brings Silatolu back.
▪ RB Fozzy Whittaker: Whittaker is a longtime special teamer and reserve scat-back who went on injured reserve in May.
▪ K Chandler Catanzaro: Catanzaro was signed as starting placekicker Graham Gano was put on injured reserve with a knee injury in his plant leg. Gano will not need surgery and just signed a four-year extension with the Panthers, making it unlikely Catanzaro returns.
Restricted free agents (three accrued seasons)
The rules: Carolina can draw up a contract for these players, but then must match any potential counter-offer from other teams after that to keep them.
▪ WR Damiere Byrd
▪ QB Taylor Heinicke
▪ TE Chris Manhertz
▪ LB Jared Norris
Exclusive rights free agents (up to two accrued seasons)
The rules: ERFAs can be offered a contract by the Panthers. If they aren’t, they become free agents.
▪ DE Bryan Cox Jr.
▪ RB Elijah Hood
▪ DE Efe Obada
▪ S Damian Parms
Biggest areas of need
Defensive end, safety, offensive line, No. 2 quarterback, Nos. 3-6 cornerback (including nickel backs).