For the past two offseasons, Baylor head coach Matt Rhule was one of the hottest names in NFL head coaching circles.
The offensive innovator had been a miracle worker in the college ranks. He inherited a Temple team that went 2-10 in his first season at the helm and guided it to back-to-back 10-win seasons before leaving for Waco for the Carolina Panthers (and a contract that could be worth up to a whopping $70 million). His first Bears team, still reeling from the mess Art Briles left behind, went 1-11 in 2017. By 2019 he was playing in the Big 12 title game and invited to the Sugar Bowl.
Rhule’s college career painted him as a fixer. Now the Panthers hope he can bring a similar turnaround to a franchise that’s had no issues with being good — but all sorts of problems when it comes to staying that way.
Hiring Rhule only fixes one of Carolina’s problems. He’ll inherit a team in flux. Team owner David Tepper has been slow to rebuild the club in his image after taking over in 2018, but firing Ron Rivera after nine inconsistent years was his first step. Releasing or trading former MVP Cam Newton, which would cost the team just $2 million in salary cap commitments tied to the final year of his contract in 2020, could be the team’s next step in an ongoing makeover.
This could be good news for Rhule, who’d not only get a fresh start in Charlotte, but also an expectation-free rookie year if Tepper opts for an all-out teardown. Without a top-10 pick in this year’s draft, however, it could also leave him stuck in franchise quarterback purgatory for the immediate future.
There are a lot of questions that remain about Rhule’s NFL future. Let’s try to answer them.
Should the Panthers keep Newton in 2020?
Christian D’Andrea: Yes. Newton will count $21.1 million against the salary cap next season and would save more than $19 million via release or trade. That’s a tantalizing option for a rebuilding team, but unless Rhule’s been brought in to oversee a Dolphins-esque tank in 2020, it’s worth it to keep Newton in town.
The 2015 MVP will head into his contract year theoretically 100 percent healthy after 11 months of rehab. That’ll give him the chance to put the past two underwhelming years behind him and, at 31 years old, convince teams he’s worth an expensive new deal. Pairing him with a head coach who turned Charlie Brewer (2017’s 826th-rated recruit) into a two-time 3,000-yard passer and an 11-game winner should only aid his comeback.
There’s a chance Kyle Allen and Will Grier can grow after ending 2019 on a down note, but right now neither looks like the quarterback of the future in Carolina. Give Newton the chance to prove himself in a year with zero expectations.
Morgan Moriarty: I think Carolina will end up keeping Newton for the reasons Christian listed above, but I’m not so sure it should. Yes, all signs point toward Newton being healthy next season, but with all the injuries he’s had throughout his career, it’s hard for me to see that as likely. In 2015, Newton rallied his team to a 15-1 regular-season record and a trip to the Super Bowl.
Since then, the Panthers have stagnated. In the last three-plus years, he’s an 23-23 as a starter. He missed the last two games of 2018 due to a shoulder injury before 2019’s lost campaign, too. If Tepper wants to completely clean house from the Rivera era, he’d be justified in letting Newton go.
That leaves two options for Carolina: riding with Kyle Allen/2019 third-round draft pick Will Grier, or picking up a free agent QB. Both scenarios could probably work out, considering Rhule has had some success with quarterbacks. Most recently, he helped Brewer throw for 7,742 yards and 51 touchdowns in three seasons in Waco. Rhule could probably work some similar magic with Allen, but if Carolina wants to pick up Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, or even a guy like Case Keenum, who might work out even better.
If Carolina opts to ride with Allen/Grier in 2020, that also would leave the option to draft a quarterback come 2021 — especially if the team can improve on its draft position. The 2021 draft should be a solid QB class, with guys like Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and JT Daniels likely available.
What position should be Rhule’s focus in the 2020 NFL Draft?
Moriarty: Defensive tackle. Gerald McCoy is a free agent, so the Panthers could draft someone like Auburn’s Derrick Brown to fill that void, assuming McCoy doesn’t return. Brown racked up 13 sacks in his four years with the Tigers.
D’Andrea: Offensive line. Picking at No. 7 likely excludes Carolina from the Joe Burrow/Tua Tagovailoa class of quarterbacks, but it should give the Panthers a great opportunity to add a blue-chip pass blocker to the trenches.
The club spent second-round picks in 2017 and 2019 to add Taylor Moton and Greg Little, respectively, at offensive tackle. While Moton has been solid, Little made only three starts thanks to injuries as a rookie and underwhelmed when he did take the field (14 blown blocks, including 11 in pass blocking, in just 214 snaps).
He failed to outplay impending free agent left tackle Daryl Williams in 2019, leaving questions about the most important position on an offensive line that ranked 27th in sack rate last fall (8.4 percent). If Rhule doesn’t think Little’s ready for a starring role protecting his QB’s blindside, he could draft a budding young blocker like Tristan Wirfs, Andrew Thomas, or Jedrick Wills and keep the 2019 draftee around to develop as a swing tackle. There’s no such thing as too much blocking — especially under a head coach who’s likely to completely revamp the Panther offense.
Who are the five players who should remain on the roster, no matter what?
Moriarty: The obvious first one is Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, along with 1,005 receiving yards. He’s so versatile he was named an All-Pro both at two positions, both at RB and flex. Depending on what Rhule does at quarterback, McCaffrey makes Carolina dangerous both on the ground and in the air — something it lacked a bit with Allen as the starter in 2019.
I’d also probably keep receivers DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. Moore led the team with 13.5 yards per reception this season, and Samuel had a team-high six touchdown receptions.
On defense, Luke Kuechly and Mario Addison would be smart to keep around. Kuechly led the team with 144 total tackles this season, and he’s been the anchor of Carolina’s since he entered the league in 2012. Addison led the Panthers with 9.5 sacks, the fourth straight year he’s led the team in sacks with at least nine. I think getting one or two more playmakers added to the roster on defense would help Rhule’s offense get back on the field more, too. The consistency of Addison and Kuechly is enough to keep them around, in my opinion.
D’Andrea: McCaffrey, Moore, and Kuechly for sure. I’d also throw Brian Burns (16 QB hits as a rookie) into the mix, as he’s liable to start 2020 with a string of double-digit sack seasons. The last name depends on whether you think a soon-to-be 31-year-old Kawann Short is entering the downside of his career. The 315-pounder is a rare wrecking ball from the interior of the defensive line, but he played just two games last fall and has only 10 quarterback hits in his last 16 games (he had at least 17 in each season from 2015-17).
If he can return to form, he’s foundational bedrock. If not, a few candidates spring to mind. Moton may be the team’s best blocker. Shaq Thompson is a useful inside linebacker whose coverage skills improved in 2019 (seemingly at the expense of his tackling ability). James Bradberry is an inconsistent ball of potential at corner, but he had three interceptions vs. one touchdown allowed in coverage and held opposing QBs to a 63.5 passer rating in coverage this season.
All things considered, I’d rather go with a full-power Short — but Moton is a nice option, too.
Was Rhule the best option for the Panthers?
D’Andrea: I think so. Elsewhere in the NFC, Jerry Jones was busying penning an ode to wild card losses by hiring Mike McCarthy (Jason Garrett 2.0) and keeping Kellen Moore on board as offensive coordinator. Washington decided the next prestigious coaching name it would ruin was Rivera’s. Rather than rely on a retread, Tepper went bold and hired quite possibly the hottest name among the college ranks (outside of maybe Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley).
Rhule fits the larger overall trend of young(ish) offensive minds who can continue the NFL’s trend of evolving passing attacks. Based on what he did with Brewer, the Panthers must be thrilled to see what Rhule can do with Newton, Allen, Grier, or whomever ends up being their franchise quarterback going forward.
Moriarty: I agree with Christian. While Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has NFL head coaching experience unlike Rhule, the Panthers decided to go with a bolder name, and someone who fits the Kliff Kingsbury mold coming out of college.
Rhule is a great hire. The turnarounds he’s been able to pull off at Temple and Baylor were impressive, and I’m excited to see how that translates to the NFL. Now he’ll inherit a pretty talented roster, so unlike his college days, he won’t be building from the ground up. But if he wants to completely overhaul things, it seems like Tepper will let him do that, too.