Cam Newton’s future will determine what the Panthers’ rebuild looks like

usa today 13361002.0 - Cam Newton’s future will determine what the Panthers’ rebuild looks likeBob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers can either burn it down or make small adjustments this offseason.

The Panthers broke from tradition in 2019 by missing the playoffs for consecutive years for the first time since 2012. That’s kicked off a small-scale rebuild that could turn into a big one, depending on Cam Newton’s health.

After being nigh-indestructible early in his career, the former MVP played in only two games last fall. He’ll be a free agent in 2021, and there’s a chance — though a small one — he’s already played his last snap in black and teal.

Should team owner David Tepper decide Newton’s no longer viable as the starting quarterback, he could join former Carolina mainstays Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly, and Greg Olsen on the growing list of former Panthers.

Carolina Panthers (5-11), missed playoffs

New coach Matt Rhule is now tasked with leading Carolina back to the postseason. The Panthers don’t really have the cap space to pull off a full makeover in free agency, but they have the No. 7 pick in this year’s draft and could plant the seeds of change with smart moves.

  1. Defensive end: Brian Burns is a promising young pass rusher, but the Panthers’ sack leaders last season were Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin, neither of whom is under contract for 2020. Adding veteran help will bolster a defensive line that ranked second in the NFL in sack rate. Carolina may also need some support at the interior positions — especially once Dontari Poe’s $13 million option is declined.
  2. Offensive line: For what feels like the 10th straight year, offensive line is a major need for the Panthers. Past attempts at beefing up the blocking through big contracts have had varying rates of success (hello, Matt Kalil). Will 2020 — which already saw the team swap out perennial Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner for tackle Russell Okung — be any different?
  3. Cornerback: The Panthers ranked 11th in the league in passing defense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, but James Bradberry, Tre Boston, Ross Cockrell, and Javien Elliott are all free agents in 2020. Rhule and general manager Marty Hurney will have to figure out who stays and who goes while adding some new contributors to the mix if they’re going to slow down opponents next season.

What Cat Scratch Reader wants most this offseason: An answer to the “Will Newton be the Panthers’ starting quarterback in 2020?” question. What’s that? I have to pick something else? OK, fine. The Panthers desperately need to rebuild their offensive and defensive lines after a dismal 2019 from both units. They were terrible at protecting the quarterback and stopping the run last year, so any help they can get in the 2020 draft would be a welcome addition. They also need to replace Olsen, which isn’t an easy task. Ian Thomas looks promising, but they need to add some depth behind him before the season starts. — Bradley Smith

We’ll check back on the Panthers after free agency to see what they still need heading into the 2020 NFL Draft.

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