The Panthers are hurting for cornerbacks in a big way. Amid division rivals that now boast quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan — along with wide receivers Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders — the Panthers' cornerback room currently consists of Donte Jackson, Corn Elder, Cole Luke and now Troy Pride Jr. as the headlining names.
Those in the football realm who subscribe to the idea that coverage trumps pass rush for defensive efficiency would be wise to avert their eyes. This has the makings of a crippling Achilles heel for Carolina in 2020.
Perhaps it is designed to be that way. The Dolphins' 2019 rebuild famously looked into acquiring Jadeveon Clowney on the eve of the season and surprisingly signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but they were so barren in the trenches they couldn’t compete until the second half of the season; helping them secure a top selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Could the Panthers be strategically handcuffing a key branch of their roster to ensure that while progress may be made towards a bigger picture that progress doesn't show up in the win column until after the Panthers secure a long-term triggerman to Joe Brady's offense?
It's hard to say, although it kind of feels that way, doesn't it? Carolina, like Miami last year, has engaged in some surprising spending habits for a rebuilding team. The Panthers signed QB Teddy Bridgewater and WR Robby Anderson to big contracts; although Bridgewater's deal is pedestrian starting quarterback money and they have an easy out after 2021 with just $5 million in dead cap if he's traded or cut.
Yet for all their spending, the Panthers barely touched the cornerback room. What general manager Marty Hurney does next will speak the loudest as it pertains to deciphering where Carolina stands. Hurney spoke to WFNZ, a local sports radio station, on Wednesday and confided that adding a veteran cornerback to the room is the team's top priority.
Who Carolina signs will show how serious it is about its rebuild one way or the other: whether it tries to skip the massive regression or rather skip the rest of the field for the top spot in the draft.
Some of the top names available at cornerback include Logan Ryan (Titans), Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard (Bengals) and Trumaine Johnson (Jets). They all still linger on the open market as do a few younger talents headlined by Eli Apple (Saints). With less than $7 million in 2020 cap space, the Panthers are likely out on Logan Ryan's services. But what they choose to do from there will define the team's 2020 intentions pretty well. If Carolina covets experience in spite of age, it may think it can compete for a wild card spot. If the Panthers opt for youth and cost instead, they feel like a team destined to play hard but with the deck stacked against them from a roster construction point of view — dooming them to a poor record in 2020 no matter how hard they play or how scrappy they prove to be under coach Matt Rhule.
Keep an eye on Carolina’s actions over the next few weeks. Despite the speculation of how far the Panthers are willing to regress in order to move forward, there's no clear answer to where the truth lies. But we're about to get our best clue yet for Carolina's 2020 prognosis.