Everyone knew major changes were coming for the Carolina Panthers after a disappointing 2019. Panthers owner Dave Tepper finally cut ties with the Cam Newton–Ron Rivera regime and was ready to leave his mark on the franchise. In the 2020 off-season, he did exactly that.
The Panthers’ first big move was hiring former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule. Rhule was one of the hottest head-coaching candidates on the market. So, it was a huge win for the Panthers to be able to reel him in.
It was easy to assume that the Panthers were going to use the first season of Rhule’s tenure as a buffer year to see which players on the roster he wanted to move forward with. Meaning, be dormant in free agency and focus on developing younger talent.
However, the Panthers didn’t feel the need to wait. They seemed very content with their young nucleus of players and felt like they were a few pieces away from competing. That said, three major aspects of their off-season could dictate their future for years to come.
Three Reasons to Be Skeptical About the Carolina Panthers Rebuild
A Middling Move at Quarterback
The ideal first step of any rebuild is finding a franchise quarterback. Everyone knows that is easier said than done. However, sustained success starts at quarterback. The best path at finding a franchise signal-caller has typically been through the draft.
Electing to draft a quarterback allows teams to quickly move on from guys that aren’t good enough to win with. This is because these quarterbacks are cheap. The cheap contracts are also valuable when a team hits on a quarterback because they can use that extra money to improve the rest of their roster.
The Panthers decided to go the free-agent route by signing Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year contract worth $60 million. While this is a team-friendly deal, there is a strong chance that Bridgewater won’t push the needle in either direction. In other words, he isn’t good enough to win with but won’t be bad enough for them to pick highly in the draft either.
Assuming this of Bridgewater is jumping the gun a bit. Yet, this is who Bridgewater has been throughout his career. Solid but nothing more. The Panthers need more than solid quarterback play to overcome the question marks on their roster. Especially, in a division with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady.
Played the Draft Safe
Matt Rhule signed a seven-year contract. He has the time to build this thing how he wants. That said, the Panthers should’ve swung for the fences in their first draft of this regime. This was the perfect time to take boom or bust players that will end up as really good or really bad because there is nothing to lose.
Instead, they drafted a run-stuffing defensive tackle and an unproven edge defender with their two first picks. It just felt like the “we are going to build through the trenches” drafting philosophy when there is a ton of data that suggests you should build outside-in. Now, they did address the secondary with four of their next five picks. It just would’ve been more advantageous to do that earlier in the draft.
Made Christian McCaffrey the Highest-Paid Running Back
In the year 2020, most people know that paying running backs big money is a bad investment. Christian McCaffrey is the exception, right? His receiving skills make him different. Well… not exactly.
Everyone knows McCaffrey is a great receiver for a running back but being a great receiver for a running back isn’t as important as many think. In an article called “The case for trading Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey“, Pro Football Focus’s Ben Linsey points out that the average EPA (expected points added) generated when targeting running backs was just a mere 0.04.
In other words, targeting running backs in the passing game doesn’t increase your odds of scoring points. A lot of that has to do with the depth at which running backs are targeted. The higher the depth of the target, the higher the odds are for scoring points.
McCaffery’s average depth of target wasn’t even over a yard in the last two seasons. Meaning, many of his targets were behind the line of scrimmage and that isn’t valuable. So, what he does as a receiver isn’t pushing the needle, and running the ball is inefficient offense. Therefore, he is not the exception unless he starts catching more passes down the field.
It would be naive to ignore the reality of the situation. McCaffrey is a fan favorite, one of the most popular players in the NFL, and by all indications a great person. Carolina would probably receive some serious heat if they moved on from him. However, it’s hard to ignore all of the evidence that shows that paying running backs makes it harder to win. And isn’t that the end goal?
Last Word on the Carolina Panthers Rebuild
The Panthers started on the right foot by landing Matt Rhule. Unfortunately, their moves to follow were pretty questionable. They made a lot of moves in an effort to improve right away. When in reality, it is nearly impossible to go from the bottom of the division to a contender in one off-season.
More importantly, the Panthers are running the risk of being stuck in the middle. They improved just enough to not be bad but don’t seem to be good enough to compete for a championship either. It would’ve been easier to feel better about Carolina’s future if they made moves with the big picture in mind. It’s about winning the war, not the battle.