After 12 games, the Carolina Panthers fired two-time AP Coach of the Year Ron Rivera and then cleaned house following the season finale. In comes first-time NFL head coach Matt Rhule on the heels of a pair of successful rebuilds at Temple and Baylor. Along with him from the collegiate ranks comes a rookie offensive coordinator in LSU’s Joe Brady, only 30 years old.
Brady spent two years as an offensive assistant to Sean Payton in New Orleans immediately prior to the stint at LSU.
For now, the focus will remain on what we can expect, even if nothing appears set in stone.
Themes we do know:
- Rhule is extremely adaptable: He’s a born New Yorker who coached in Philly before moving to Waco, Texas, and took on the lifestyle.
- He adopted a run/pass option (RPO) system at Baylor after being known for his preference of a smash-mouth offense.
- Rhule prefers a player-centric but demanding style of coaching.
- He has experience coaching on both sides of the ball and has formulated a unique perspective because of it.
Things we don’t have answers for yet:
- What will happen with Cam Newton? Carolina has to make a decision at QB, which will massively impact how the path forward is handled in terms of personnel and overall expectations.
- If Newton leaves, to whom do the Panthers turn?
- Is it time to move on from tight end Greg Olsen? Does he choose to retire (seems to be the likely outcome)?
- Can Christian McCaffrey continue to see that kind of workload and maintain a high level of play?
As mentioned, what do do with Newton is the No. 1 priority. NFL.com media insider Ian Rapoport believes Newton will indeed be traded. He carries a team-high salary cap figure of $21.1 million, but Carolina will take only a $2 million hit in dead cap if he’s no longer in the team’s plans.
Freeing up $19 million will go a long way in making Carolina competitive in spending during free agency, should the front office choose to operate in such a manner. This franchise currently projects to have roughly $30 million in free money to spend, which doesn’t include inking its rookie class and/or extending players currently under contract. While the latter typically offers cap relief in the short term by kicking the can down the road, it still requires a commitment. And Carolina is married to Rhule for seven years, financially anyway. The Panthers are closer to being a playoff contender than not, and it isn’t going to take more than an offseason or two, if all is done properly. Rhule has proven to be adept at rebuilding in short order.
In 2020, offensive free agents of note include starting left guard Daryl Williams and depth WR Jarius Wright — not exactly irreplaceable components. The Panthers have to improve an offensive line that allowed an unsustainable 58 sacks, which tied for the most in the league. In the 4-2 start to the year, this line surrendered only 16 sacks. There are plenty of factors at play in the downturn — inexperience, suspect starters, poor playcalling decisions. After all, in the final four games, Scott Turner was calling plays for the first time in his NFL career.
The retirement of star linebacker Luke Kuechly is a game-changer on defense, and cornerback James Bradberry is a free agent. Bloated contracts for Dontari Poe and Kawann Short should be of concern.
Shedding serious cap this offseason isn’t out of the question, and the 2020 starting lineup on both sides are poised to look much different than what we saw from this 5-11 team. Despite entering 2019 as the eighth-oldest roster in a year that was built up to contend now, this should become one of the youngest teams to match its coaching staff.
Offensive system expectations
Brady’s role as a passing game coordinator during LSU’s dominant 2019 season no doubt creates optimism, but it also brings serious question marks in his first year as a playcaller. The Tigers ran a blended system, which most are these days, and incorporated pro-style elements. This is what gamers should expect to see from the Panthers in 2020 — whether it will work well enough is yet to be seen.
Between Brady’s flexibility by claiming he doesn’t even have a system of his own, and Rhule’s past success with a ground-based RPO system, one can safely expect this will be the general idea of the offensive approach. Create confusion to take advantage of McCaffrey’s abilities in space, quick-hit passing to utilize the athletic traits of WRs D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, and keep defenses guessing as to what is next. Sound familiar? It’s basically the offense (conceptually, anyway) of Baltimore Ravens coordinator Greg Roman.
Contract stuff aside, a healthy Newton would be an awesome fit for this system. However, his shoulder/ankle injury history, plus the contract concerns, create uncertainty.
Don’t rule out this being a location for a possible return of Colin Kaepernick.
Fantasy football takeaway
There is too much at stake with the outcome of the quarterback decision to give any kind of rational valuation.
McCaffrey is the only player that should be viewed as a “system-proof” and be given the benefit of the doubt for 2020 drafts. Even still, he comes with risk after touching the ball an average of 364 times the past two years and coming off of what almost definitely will go down as a career season.
Moore and Samuel figure win the top two spots at wideout, and Ian Thomas has flashed a few times should he be the ultimate replacement for Olsen at tight end.
The most important aspect of this roster to watch obviously is quarterback, and this coaching staff has to decide if grooming Will Grier is the answer, or if Kyle Allen showed enough, assuming Newton is not in their plans. There’s always the draft or open market, as well.