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The Panthers’ rebuild hinges on surrounding Teddy Bridgewater with playmakers

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The Panthers decided to burn it down. Here’s how they keep their rebuild short.

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

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 turned into a big one.

Cam Newton became the latest tenured veteran to leave Carolina when he was released this spring. He joined a distinguished list that includes Ron Rivera, Luke Kuechly, and Greg Olsen among the big names who’ve either left or been forced out of Charlotte. The Panthers’ offense now belongs to newly signed quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He’s gonna need some help to bring the team back to the postseason.

Carolina Panthers (5-11), missed playoffs

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

Before free agency:

  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 are rostered for 2020. Adding veteran help will bolster a defensive line that ranked second in the NFL in sack rate.
  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: 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

After free agency:

Carolina saw more talent leave than it took in in the free agent period, but the Panthers still added interesting pieces like Robby Anderson, Tahir Whitehead, and Stephen Weatherly. And they got their QB in Bridgewater. He’ll have a useful lineup of skill players to target, but the club can’t afford to waste its shots at this year’s draft.

  1. Offensive line: The QB room is now Bridgewater, XFL star P.J. Walker, and Will Grier. Protecting the team’s new investment will be paramount to completing this rebuild quickly and efficiently.
  2. Cornerback: Bradberry is now a Giant, and the only defensive back to join the roster thus far is cornerback Juston Burris — who was good in limited targets last season but has only started 11 games in his four-year career. Reinforcements are needed.
  3. Tight end: Carolina still hasn’t moved to replace Olsen. While Thomas could make a leap in his second year as a pro, the Panthers shouldn’t feel comfortable with him unchallenged atop their depth chart just yet.

After the draft:

The Panthers went all defense in the draft and while they didn’t address offensive line or tight end, they still got some nice pieces. First-round pick Derrick Brown was a monster defensive tackle for Auburn. Second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos could’ve gone on Day 1 and should provide a strong pass-rushing presence (nine sacks last year for Penn State) right away in Carolina.

The Panthers traded up for Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn, another immediate starter. Safety Kenny Robinson from the XFL should be ready to contribute too. Although they waited until Day 3 to add to their cornerback depth, Notre Dame’s Troy Pride could be a nice fourth-round pickup.

Dan Kadar’s draft grade: B+