The Carolina Panthers are rudderless. Head coach Matt Rhule entered the season at best coaching for his job and at worst in a lame-duck situation. After a 1-3 start, Rhule now sits as a -200 favorite to be the first head coach fired in the NFL this season. While Rhule and the Panthers stare down the barrel of a lost season, the organization looks to be facing a daunting rebuild.
Perhaps no sequence of transactions better encapsulates Carolina’s lack of a plan in the Rhule Era more than their moves at the quarterback position over the past two years. Carolina has invested a second-round pick, two third-round picks, two fourth-round picks, a fifth-round pick (which could turn into another fourth-round pick), a sixth-round pick, and $24.37 million in 2022 cap space since April 2021 to amass a quarterback room of Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and Matt Corral (and P.J. Walker, who required no investment in terms of draft equity).
Carolina’s moves at quarterback were each plausibly defensible in a vacuum. The Darnold trade may require some stretching, squinting, and teeth-gritting to get to the point of “plausibly defensible,” but the thought process behind taking a shot on a high-pedigree player made sense. Locking themselves into his fifth-year option in 2022 did not.
In the aggregate, those moves (and the trade for cornerback C.J. Henderson, in which they gave up a 2022 third-round pick) crippled the mid-round draft capital of a team that didn’t have the roster talent to take such a hit. Carolina picked Ikem Ekwonu sixth overall in this year’s draft. Their next non-Corral pick came at 120th overall, linebacker Brandon Smith.
The fact the Panthers were picking sixth overall and in position to take Ekwonu was a sign that the roster needed building; that building was made impossible, at least in the middle rounds of last year’s draft, through the Darnold, Henderson, and Corral trades.
For the Panthers, next year is shaping up to be similar to this year in terms of their draft equity. The Panthers only control four draft picks (their first, second, fourth, and fifth-round picks) in next year’s draft. They owe their draft pick deficit to trades for Corral, Stephon Gilmore (no longer on the team), and Laviska Shenault. The Baker Mayfield trade won’t even hit them until 2024! Making matters worse, they are not projected to receive any compensatory picks in next year’s draft, per OverTheCap.
Carolina’s depleted state extends from its draft stock to its cap sheet. As of right now, the Panthers aren’t slated to be cap-compliant in 2023 given their current roster, as OverTheCap projects them at $11 million over next year’s salary cap before any cuts and restructures. While Shaq Thompson and Robbie Anderson loom as natural cut candidates, Carolina’s financial flexibility will still likely be somewhat limited in the short term. That, coupled with a shortage of draft picks, will make for a challenging early rebuild.
The Panthers have some useful pieces on their roster, and they actually align with a rebuilding timeline. On defense, Jaycee Horn and Henderson form a formidable, young duo of boundary cornerbacks. Paired with safety Jeremy Chinn, the outline of a strong secondary is there. Derrick Brown and Brian Burns would be high-end pieces on any defensive line in the league. All of these players will be 25 or younger next season.
On offense, Carolina has less in terms of true building blocks. D.J. Moore (25 next season) and Ekwonu (23) are the two players Carolina has that inspire true hope, and Ekwonu has struggled this season. It is difficult to place Christian McCaffrey in this category with his injury history and bloated contract. Carolina has a few solid veterans on the offensive line in Pat Elflein, Taylor Moton, and Austin Corbett, but the fact remains: they need young, high-end offensive talent, and that begins at quarterback.
Whether or not Carolina is even in position to take one of the draft’s top quarterbacks will depend on how they finish this season. The case for taking a C.J. Stroud, Bryce Young, or Will Levis would be simple on the surface: if you think he’s your guy, get your guy. Reality is deeper than that, however. Quarterbacks ideally should be selected into environments where they can succeed (ask Justin Fields). Much of that is dependent on the offensive infrastructure that surrounds them. The question the Panthers must truly answer in deciding whether or not to pick their quarterback is: is our roster truly ready for this right now?
The answer depends on their assessment of their offense come April. But with better coaching, a year of development for Ekwonu, and real continuity for this offensive line (all five starters project to return in 2023), along with legitimate weapons in Moore and McCaffrey, the surrounding talent should probably not be a limiting factor if the next regime in Carolina thinks they finally found their quarterback.
In the likely event that a new regime takes over in Carolina, their new GM will have to clean up a mess that originated with trying to fix the quarterback position. Two years, seven draft picks, and $24.37 million spent in cap space later, it appears unlikely that the team will have found a long-term answer at the position. Compounding this, the Panthers find themselves in a draft pick hole that began last year and will continue into 2023 and is exacerbated by the team’s lack of financial flexibility. Carolina has dug themselves into a 1-3 hole to begin 2022, but their moves from the past two offseasons have dug the franchise into a hole their next regime will be responsible for digging them out of.
- Dec 04, 2022
- Dec 04, 2022