CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- With Cam Newton off the books, the Carolina Panthers have dumped more than $50 million from the salary cap since the end of last season. The majority of their free-agent acquisitions are young, relatively unknown players signed to low-cost, team-friendly deals.
They have a new coach in Matt Rhule who has only one year of NFL experience, and that was eight years ago as an assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants.
On top of all this, Rhule and the Panthers will likely have to shorten any offseason program until after the COVID-19 outbreak. He can’t seriously begin installing the “process" he calls crucial to rebuilding until this is epidemic over.
Nobody knows when that will be. The NFL ordered all 32 teams to shut down their training facilities by 6 p.m. on Wednesday. The April 6 start of offseason workouts for teams with new head coaches has been delayed indefinitely.
“They’re going to be behind where we were as an expansion team, because we got our team on the field in April," said Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, who was the general manager of the Panthers when they became an expansion team in 1995. “They’ll be very fortunate if they get their guys in the building by OTAs in June."
Long term, Polian believes this is just a “bump in the road" for Rhule. He said Rhule really had no option but to do a complete overhaul after Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly surprisingly retired after last season.
“For all intents and purposes, you’re starting over again," Polian said.
What does starting over mean? Do the Panthers accept they have absolutely no chance to make the playoffs in 2020? And if not, are they thinking they could get in prime position to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first pick in 2021?
Rhule’s process has a defined vision and set of rules for getting there. It requires every player, staff member and team employee being all-in in terms of living and defending the process. As Rhule's father, Dennis, said, the process “is doing the little things consistently with excellence."
At Temple and Baylor, that meant weeding out upperclassmen and building with freshmen and sophomores who fit Rhule’s profile. It won’t be much different in the NFL.
The Panthers moved on from Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, defensive end Mario Addison, defensive end Bruce Irvin, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle Dontari Poe and safety Colin Jones, all of whom will be 30 or older before the 2020 season.
So far, all but one free agent -- additions and re-signings -- is 27 years or younger. All received contracts ranging from one to three years.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s deal is for three years and $63 million. And it is arranged so that if Carolina decides to move on after two seasons, it would save $21 million against the cap in the third year, with only $5 million in dead money. It means that the Panthers are likely going to be in the QB market in the draft next year.
And in two years, the salary cap should be manageable enough to add high-impact veterans if the younger players improve enough to be a potential playoff team.
Can they win now?
Even the expansion Panthers won seven games after an 0-5 start in 1995, so yes. Can Carolina make the playoffs? It's unlikely.
What the Panthers might be able to do is stay competitive offensively. Having a veteran quarterback in Bridgewater helps.
If Carolina can give Bridgewater time to work with a rebuilt offensive line, anchored by veteran center Matt Paradis and new left tackle Russell Okung, this group can put points on the board with Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and the spread offense that new offensive coordinator Joe Brady is implementing.
And several additions, such as former New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson and former XFL quarterback P.J. Walker, went through the process with Rhule at Temple, and their familiarity with him could be a bonus.
The bigger question is on defense, with an overhaul of the front four and much of the secondary. There are some nice pieces in linebacker Shaq Thompson, 2019 first-round pick Brian Burns and free-agent acquisition Tahir Whitehead, but it will take time for this group to jell.
Defense was the issue in Rhule’s first season at Temple. The Owls lost a lot of high-scoring games, the prime example being a 59-49 decision to SMU. The same thing happened in Rhule’s first season at Baylor, starting with a 48-45 loss to Liberty and including a 49-41 defeat versus Oklahoma.
The 1995 Panthers gave up 27.5 points a game during their 0-5 start, then 10.5 during a four-game winning streak. So how fast the current defense comes around likely will determine when Carolina starts winning again.
Next up is the draft. The Panthers have the seventh overall pick. Because they've addressed major needs on offense in free agency, it seems likely that the Panthers will address the defensive line in the first round, with a player such as Auburn’s Derrick Brown or South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw. Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons could be a target, as well.
Team owner David Tepper gave Rhule a seven-year deal, which means he is going to be patient during the tough times. Remember, Temple was 2-10 and Baylor 1-11 during Rhule’s first year at the respective schools.
By the third year, each won 10 or more games.
Polian built the expansion Panthers into a team that made the NFC Championship Game in their second season in much the same way, although that team had many older veterans because that’s what was available in the expansion draft.
“This is absolutely the way to go," Polian said of Rhule’s plan. “Look, Matt’s got a long time to do this. What’s going to happen six months from now is just not positive. What’s going to happen a year from now is positive."