Super Bowl or Bust? Let’s Talk About the Panthers’ Off-Season Moves. | Sports
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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Super Bowl or Bust? Let’s Talk About the Panthers’ Off-Season Moves.

Posted by on Tue, May 1, 2018 at 4:41 PM

With the draft and free agency in the rearview mirror, the book is nearly closed on the Panthers’ off-season under officially reinstated general manager Marty Hurney. As we've discussed at infinite length, Hurney's most crucial objective this off-season was finding weapons for Cam Newton, particularly the sort that could maximize the potentialities of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's downfield passing scheme. Other objectives included plugging holes on the defensive line and secondary.

Here are the things you need to know about whether last year's playoff team has made themselves Super Bowl contenders or slipped backward toward mediocrity.

What Was the Panthers Best Draft Pick?

Maryland wide receiver DJ Moore was the team’s first pick, and they certainly hope he’ll emerge as the sort of breakout star they’ve lacked since the days of Steve Smith Sr. Their best pick, however, may prove to be Donte Jackson, the flash-across-the-sky speedy cornerback from LSU who Carolina grabbed with the fifty-fifth pick overall. The Panthers were thin at cornerback after trading Daryl Worley for wideout Torrey Smith, which is not a great idea when tasked with facing Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year. Jackson possesses similar playmaking instincts as recent LSU products Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. He is five feet eleven, which could conceivably make him vulnerable to big targets like Julio Jones on high-point balls, but in fairness, everybody is vulnerable to Julio Jones on high-point balls. With his combination of remarkable top-end speed, confidence that verges on brashness, and a history of facing elite competition in the SEC, Jackson represents an outstanding value in the second round and fills an important need.

Was Our Draft Good Overall?

It’s impossible to say. Assessing drafts and giving them grades in the days immediately following the event is a fun but fruitless endeavor. In general, the very best organizations will hit on roughly 30 percent of their picks, and every draft class would be chosen radically differently with four or five years of hindsight. In that sense, it's less a question of divining the precise right player and more about assessing team needs and leveraging the number of allotted picks in a manner that provides the best opportunity to get meaningfully lucky. Did the Panthers succeed at that? The team followed up its selection of Jackson in the second round by choosing Tennessee safety Rashaan Gaulden in the third, on the theory that you can never have enough quality athletes in the secondary. They then added defensive depth in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds, with promising Ole Miss pass rusher Marquis Haynes looking like a potential steal. The later-round emphasis on defensive line and linebacker fits with the organizational philosophy, but the obvious question is whether they did enough on offense to help out their star quarterback. After selecting Moore in the first round, the Panthers selected only one more offensive player in raw but talented fourth-round tight end Ian Thomas from Indiana. Using Newton's otherworldly talent to paper over a talent shortage on offense has unfortunately become an implicit organizational philosophy as well. It’s a dangerous strategy, but it's worked in the past, and it may work again. We'll find out.

OK, But We Killed It in Free Agency, Right?

Killed it might be a little strong, but Hurney and the Panthers made a series of fully rational moves that made the team better without breaking the bank. Cornerback Ross Cockrell and safety Da'Norris Searcy won't make any All-Pro teams, but they provide experienced, low-cost options in the secondary and will allow for the team to demonstrate patience with their rookie draft picks rather than throwing them directly into the fire. Former Vikings wide receiver Jarius Wright is a similarly small-stakes signing who improves team speed on offense and will help to ease along DJ Moore. The team ultimately elected to replace their departed star guard Andrew Norwell from within the organization, but versatile lineman Jeremiah Sirles will provide a low-cost option in the event that 2017 second-rounder Taylor Moton proves unprepared to take over the starting role. None of these moves qualified as breaking news on SportsCenter, but each hewed to the sort of internal logic that is characteristic of solid roster building.

Who Was Our Best Free Agent Signing?

The closest the Panthers came to making a big splash was landing massive defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who the team lured away from the Falcons as a replacement for the departed Star Lotulelei. Poe is a 350-pound space eater who at his best can singlehandedly wreck shop with his unusual combination of strength and athleticism. The fact that they were able to sign Poe—arguably an upgrade—to replace Lotulelei for less money than the latter would have cost represents something of a coup. Coupled with the surprise return of thought-to-be-retiring future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers, the Panthers appear to be loaded in the front seven.

Awesome. So Super Bowl or Bust?

As is the case with every NFL campaign, a lot of things would have to break right, but it's not unreasonable to think so. The Panthers have made canny moves to improve an already stout defense, brought in a storied offensive coordinator in Norv Turner to reimagine their passing scheme, and may have done just enough to give Cam Newton the sort of weapons that can keep them in the high-scoring shootouts that will inevitably unfold against their division rivals in Atlanta and New Orleans. If dynamic dual-threat Christian McCaffrey continues to improve after a stellar rookie campaign and DJ Moore proves prepared to contribute out of the gate, a twelve-win season is an utterly viable proposition.

Ultimately, it all rises and falls on Cam Newton and his ability to stay upright and healthy. Typical of the Panthers, nothing too flashy has transpired, but this is a better team than the one that barely lost in the wildcard round four months ago.

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