The Carolina Panthers have had an interesting, yet very productive off-season as they look to do something that’s never been done. No Super Bowl loser has returned to the big game the following season and have won, that being said, Carolina looks to be in better shape coming into 2016 with the return of receiver Kelvin Benjamin and more experience out of its defense.
The biggest storyline was the organization’s decision to rescind the franchise tag of Pro Bowl corner Josh Norman – which initially was looked at as a shocker – but as more inquiry grew, the Panthers made the wise decision of letting Norman walk as it opened up $32 million in cap space. All together, Carolina utilized the wide-spread amount of money to extend the contracts to key contributors on the team; also adding veteran and complimentary pieces that have enhanced the depth on the roster.
Key returnees on offense
Offensive Line: The most important player to keep healthy on the team is quarterback Cam Newton. He is the engine that drives Carolina’s train, and when he is on (like last year’s MVP campaign) the Panthers’ offense is virtually unstoppable to shut down. With that being said, it was important to keep consistency and depth within the offensive line. That’s why the Panthers signed OT Michael Oher and C Ryan Kalil to contract extensions; they also added veteran center Gino Gradkowski.
Kalil has been one of the best centers in the game in his 10 years, serving as a five-time Pro Bowler throughout his career. He’s also been very durable, playing in at least 10 games in seven seasons and starting all 16 games in five of them, which creates stability for everyone on the offense. Kalil was rewarded a two-year, $16.75 million dollar contract extension virtually assuring he will finish his career as a Panther.
Despite the recent disappointments in Oher’s career, he made the seamless transition to the Panthers in 2015 and played a vital role in protecting Newton. Oher did see a growth in production at left tackle last season. That alone was reason for Carolina handing him a substantial $21.6 million dollar extension for three years.
Mike Tolbert: The Panthers continued to take care of their own by signing fullback Mike Tolbert to a two-year, $4 million contract extension. Tolbert has been one of the most productive fullbacks in the league (rushing for 5.2 YPC in his career) and since putting on a Panther uniform he’s gotten even more effective because of the play makers around him.
This signing not only brings back a playmaker, but a familiar face that knows the protections and is a good blocker as well. Furthermore, it keeps the record-breaking offense in 2015 completely in tact, except for the welcome addition of wide receiver Benjamin who is returning from ACL injury.
Key returnees on defense
Charles Jonson: The next move was a bit of a shocker when the team was able to re-sign Charles Johnson to a one-year, $3 million “prove it” deal after a disappointing 2015 season that saw him tear his hamstring and lose playing time to Jared Allen, who was playing better after he came back from injury.
Johnson’s return to Carolina for a lot less money is quite perplexing considering he was offered a five-year deal from the
Giants months before being offered by the Panthers. Regardless, Johnson was extremely unselfish in signing this deal as it allowed Carolina to clear much-needed cap space on defense.
This is a low risk, high reward scenario for the Panthers because if they receive the performance of the once pro bowl defensive end, or something remotely close to that the defense will be even more fierce than a season ago. If not, it doesn’t cost them a great deal financially. The Panthers have a wealth of options to replace him if he gets injured again or if he’s not effective. Essentially, it’s a win-win deal.
Kurt Coleman: The last move on defense was extending Kurt Coleman to a three-year, $17 million deal. This move was a must, as Coleman has quickly become the lead dog of the secondary with the departures of Josh Norman, Charles Tillman and Roman Harper who went back to the Saints.
Coleman is coming off a breakout 2015 where he had 90 total tackles, 55 solo and more importantly seven interceptions. An amazing first impression for a guy who Carolina had zero expectations for when they signed him last off-season. As one of the veterans on the secondary, his leadership is going to be crucial as the team is trying to get the three rookie cornerbacks comfortable in its system. Coleman will play a vital part in their development while continuing to improve his great skills set.
The mastermind behind it all
Ron Rivera: It wasn’t just the players that were taken care of this off-season. Head coach Ron Rivera was awarded a nice extension for his role in making the Panthers one of the NFL’s best teams. He signed a three-year, 19.5 million dollar deal ensuring that he will be in Carolina through at least the 2018 season.
It’s a well-deserved contract as he is one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL today. It wasn’t all roses in the beginning, as Rivera built Carolina up using the draft choices from 2011 and on, such as Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly. By instilling trust into his player’s hands (more so than most NFL coaches) results in the team playing more free and easy. He has led the Panthers to three straight division titles, an NFC championship and has been named the NFL Coach of the year twice. He has brought honesty, consistency, and creativeness to the Panthers organization and he hasn’t stopped changing players’ lives along the way.