CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Change is coming to the Carolina Panthers offensively, and it runs deeper than coaching changes that have happened or could happen.
Former Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. was in for a visit Monday, a sign coach Matt Rhule and his staff are looking to improve the depth behind Teddy Bridgewater, even if it means adding a controversial player.
Carolina is also considering using the No. 8 pick of the draft on a quarterback, which means the long-term future of Bridgewater is in doubt after 2021 when he has a $23 million cap hit.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Panthers getting into the mix for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson should he demand a trade. However, that would likely cost more than the salary-cap-strapped Panthers can afford without including running back Christian McCaffrey and several years of first-round picks in a deal.
Carolina is projected to have approximately $14.5 million in cap space in 2021. It can add another $14.5 million by releasing defensive tackle Kawann Short, who is set to count $20.8 million against this year’s cap.
That seems likely.
Change offensively is a definite.
Since the season ended, Rhule has lost quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz and two other offensive assistants (D.J. Mangas and Marcus Satterfield) to college programs because they got promotions and big pay raises.
Even if Brady stays, look for the Panthers to change their offensive approach a little.
Rhule touted the importance of the run game late in the season after Carolina ran 35 times in a win against Washington. He repeated that after a season-ending 33-7 loss to New Orleans, in which the Saints rushed 30 times for 156 yards.
“If it showed anything, it showed the value and importance of a run game," Rhule said.
And when asked in his postseason news conference about the future of Bridgewater, he said: “We have to evaluate our total offense, what we're doing, players, the schemes and every position, including Teddy."
So all bets are off on what the Panthers will look like offensively in 2021. But in terms of approach, look no further than New Orleans, where Brady studied under coach Sean Payton and his staff for two seasons.
Despite the success of quarterback Drew Brees as a passer, four of the five times the Saints have won at least 12 games under Payton -- including the Super Bowl season of 2009 -- they rushed for 2,000 yards or more. They also eclipsed the 2K mark in winning 11 games in 2017.
Overall under Payton, the Saints have averaged 12.4 wins in the five seasons they have rushed for at least 2,000 yards and 9.0 wins in the nine seasons they haven’t.
The NFL playoffs also show the importance of the run game and balance. Of the 14 playoff teams, eight -- Baltimore (1), Tennessee (2), Cleveland (3), New Orleans (6), Green Bay (8), Los Angeles Rams (10), Indianapolis (11) and Seattle (12) -- ranked in the top 12 in rushing.
Six of the remaining eight teams ranked in the top 16 in rushing. The exceptions are Buffalo (20) and Tampa Bay (28).
Carolina ranked 21st in rushing (106.5 YPG) in 2020. That was the team’s worst average since 2006.
In 2015, when the Panthers went to Super Bowl 50, they finished second in rushing with 142.6 yards per game.
That season, they ran the ball on 49.6% of plays, which is closer to what New Orleans did this season, when it had a 47.3% run rate. The 2020 Panthers ran just 41.0% of the time. A league source said the Panthers would like to get that number closer to 45-47% next season.
A healthy Christian McCaffrey, who missed 13 games this past season, will help, but the offensive line also will play a role in how Carolina addresses change. Among the regular starters, only center Matt Paradis is under contract for 2021. That makes re-signing free-agent right tackle Taylor Moton a priority, as well as finding a replacement for 32-year-old left tackle Russell Okung, who is unlikely to be re-signed.
Again, the cap will play a big role. That’s why taking a chance on Haskins, the 15th pick in the 2019 draft, makes some sense. He likely can be had for the league minimum.
The negative is Haskins was released by Washington a week after being photographed without a mask at an event where strippers were present following a loss to Seattle. That was his second violation of COVID-19 protocols. But Rhule has a history with Haskins, whom he recruited at Temple before Haskins settled on Ohio State. He also has a relationship with Haskins’ college coach, Ryan Day, from their 2006 season together at Temple.
Rhule also has a history of giving second chances. He twice fought to get Robby Anderson back on his Temple team, the second after Anderson was declared academically ineligible in 2014. He took a chance on Anderson again last offseason by signing him in free agency. Anderson was arrested twice in eight months (2017-18) while with the Jets for traffic misdemeanor violations.
So while Haskins’ visit was described as exploratory, that he was brought in suggests uncertainty for P.J. Walker and Will Grier behind Bridgewater.
Whether this happens or not, change is coming for the Panthers' offense.