2018 Season Recap: Carolina Panthers

2018 SEASON RECAP: CAROLINA PANTHERS

Division: NFC South

Record: 7-9 (2-4), 3rd place in the NFC South

The Carolina Panthers 2018 season was a season best summed in two parts: Healthy Cam Newton, and Injured Cam Newton. The Panthers were 6-2 before a hit by TJ Watt into Cam's shoulder effectively ended his ability to throw the ball effectively. While the defense had plenty of struggles and the offense was inconsistent, the Panthers had a real shot at the playoffs until the Curse of the Even Year struck again. Positive takeaways include the breakout of young offensive players like DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, Taylor Moton, and especially Christian McCaffrey, a finally diverse offense that managed to function behind a patchwork offensive line, and plenty of promise from young cornerbacks James Bradberry and rookie Donte Jackson. The Panthers only lost two games by more than seven points despite having their defensive coordinator fired late in the season and their quarterback being hurt in Week 10.

New owner David Tepper didn't put too much of his own stamp on the team this year, preferring to use it as a learning year. He did, however, okay the midseason signing of controversial protester Eric Reid. He quietly hired a new team president, a team mental health therapist, and finally put the Panthers logo at midfield rather than the NFL shield that former owner Jerry Richardson demanded. He seems to want to stay largely out of the football side of things, and is focusing his efforts on upgrading the Panthers' woefully inadequate practice facilities, working on stadium renovations, and overhauling the Panthers business side of things.

Panthers Stats

Stat Value League Rank
Offensive Yards 5972 10
Points Scored 376 14
Passing Yards 3836 16
Rushing Yards 2136 4
Defensive Yards Allowed 5651 15
Defensive Points Allowed 382 19
Passing Yards Allowed 3847 18
Rushing Yards Allowed 1804 12

The Panthers had an overall middling offense, though they did excel in running the ball. The defense, however, was below average and was frequently gashed for huge chunks of yards.

2018 Offseason

Draft

Round:Selection (Overall) Player Position School
1:24 (24) D.J. Moore WR Maryland
2:23 (55) Donte Jackson CB LSU
3:21 (85) Rashaan Gualden S Tennessee
4:1(101) Ian Thomas TE Indiana
4:36(136) Marquis Haynes DE Mississippi
5:24 (161) Jermaine Carter, Jr. LB Maryland
7:16 (234) Andre Smith LB North Carolina
7:24 (242) Kendrick Norton DL Miami (FL)

2018 Draft Review

D.J. Moore didn't see much of the field the first few weeks, as Carolina offensive coaches tend to graduallly work young players into the offense. By week 11 he was fully inolved in the offense and ended up the year with 788 receiving yards, 172 rushing yards, and 2 TDs. He definitely had some rookie struggles, including 2 fumbles against Washington and a few instances of miscommunication with Cam Newton, but he definitely showed his ability to make contested catches and get loads of YAC. If he works on his route running this offseason, the Panthers may finally have found Cam Newton a young #1 Wide Receiver that isn't roughly the size and weight of Dan Snyder's ego.

Donte Jackson started out hot, snagging 3 picks in his first three games. He cooled off a bit towards the end of the season, but showed a ton of promise throughout the year playing opposite fellow CB James Bradberry. His brash, talkative nature reminded Panthers fans of Josh Norman, even though his frame is more reminiscent of Richard Marshall. He's got a lot of upside and Panthers fans can expect solid play from him for years.

Rashaan Gaulden was a rotational player at safety all year. He didn't do much with the snapes he got, and he had some gaffs. The jury is still out on him.

Ian Thomas was as raw a football player as anyone in the draft, but he had all the physical tools and had shown to be someone that overcame incredibly tough circumstances. The Panthers planned to let him quietly develop behind Greg Olsen his rookie year and then involve him into the offense more in year 2. However, when Olsen reinjured his foot in Week 1, Thomas found himself thrust into a role as the Panthers' starting tight end. His rawness was certainly on display, but he showed tons of ability. When Olsen returned in Weeks 6-12, Thomas saw limited action. However, when Olsen reinjured his foot in Week 12, Thomas took the opportunity presented to him and played very well. With another offseason to develop, he could be a breakout player next year.

Marquis Haynes appeared in just four games and didnt do much in any of them. He's undersized, but given that the Panthers are thin at DE, he'll probably make the roster again this year.

Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith played primarily on special teams. Kendrick Norton was waived by the Panthers for the second time in September and the Dolphins picked him up in December. He has not appeared in an NFL game.

Gains via Free Agency / Trades

Torrey Smith, WR
The Panthers traded underperforming CB Daryl Worley to the Eagles for Smith in March of 2018, and neither player seems to have worked out for either team. Smith ended the year with 190 yards, which is terrible even though he missed four games with a knee injury. He and Cam never seemed to gel, and it wasn't helped by Cam's injury against the Steelers. His leadership in the locker room was very welcome, but it is expected that the Panthers and Smith part ways this offseason.

Ross Cockrell, CB
Suffering a broken leg in training camp, Cockrell was put on IR. He'll get another shot this year with the Panthers.

Da'Norris Searcy, S
Searcy played rather recklessly in the preseason, and earned himself two concussions for his trouble. He was placed on IR and, like Cockrell, will get another shot this year.

Dontari Poe, DT
Panthers fans have been very disappointed with Poe. Signed for three years and $28 million, Poe rewarded the Panthers' investment with 17 tackles and one sack. Rivera has said that Poe's role is to 'eat up space', similar to what Star Lotulelei did for Carolina, but you would expect a little more production than what we got.

Jarius Wright, WR
The biggest (and really, only) bright spot for the Panthers offseason signings was Jarius Wright. Wright played the Panthers' 'third down move the sticks' WR role, and did that very well, hauling in a respectable 43 balls for 447 yards.

Jeremiah Sirles, G
Injured in the preseason and placed on IR, then later released.

Weekly Game Recaps

Carolina started the season with a solid, if unspectacular win. The defense shut down Dak Prescott all game long, and the Panthers offense played well, aside from a few blunders including a Christian McCaffrey fumble at the Cowboys' 1-yard line.

The defense turned in a terrible performance as the Falcons cruised up and down the field all day. Matt Ryan seemed to have all afternoon to throw in the pocket, and Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith ran all over the Panthers. The Panthers offense was again solid, and DJ Moore caught his first TD of his career, a 51-yarder. By the way, Damontae Kazee was ejected for a very dirty hit on Cam, but Torrey Smith had Cam's back.

Carolina was clicking on all cylinders as they harassed Dalton in the pocket all day. Donte Jackson picked up two interceptions and Luke Kuechly added another on a Hail Mary pass. Cam Newton turned in another efficient game, and Christian McCaffrey ran for 184 yards, including this great 45-yarder.

Somehow this ended up being one of the best games of the season, as long as you don't care about defense. The Panthers scored on a crazy special teams play, OBJ threw a touchdown pass to Saquon Barkely, Cam Newton blocked a guy to the ground on a nice DJ Moore reverse, and Graham Gano drilled a 63-yard field goal in the final second to win the game.

This was a game that the Panthers would really like to have back. DJ Moore fumbled once on a punt return and again after a reception later in the game. Christian McCaffrey was largely ineffective, and Adrian Peterson nearly topped 100 yards. The Panthers had a chance to win late but Cam couldn't connect on 4th and 5 and the Panthers dropped a costly one on the road.

The Panthers' offense looked like it was coached by Jeff Fisher for three quarters, then suddenly Sean McVay pulled off his mask and the Panthers offense came to life. Scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter is not easy to do on the road, but somehow the Panthers did it. Credit goes to the defense for keeping the Panthers in the game, especially in the fourth quarter.

A lot was made going into this game about the Ravens fantastic defense facing the Panthers' inconsistent offense. Well, Carolina made a statement today. The defense forced a Joe Flacco fumble and picked up a couple of picks, while the offense never let up on the gas. Lamar Jackson came in and scored a garbage time touchdown late in the fourth, but this day clearly belonged to Carolina.

As well as the Panthers offense played the previous week, this week they played even better. Christian McCaffrey got 157 all-purpose yards, including a ton after a nice hurdle, Curtis Samuel scored a TD on a double reverse and the Panthers picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. The defense mostly played well, but there were some worrying signs that the Buccs could gain a ton of chunk yards on passing plays.

This Thursday night game was ugly. The defense couldn't stop anyone. Cam threw an ugly pick six. And TJ Watt got away with a helmet-leading hit right into Cam's shoulder that effectively ended any hope of Cam playing well the rest of the year. How that hit was not flagged nor fined would remain a mystery, as Watt clearly lowered his head and lead with his helmet, except we all know how much the NFL cares about Cam Newton (see Week 1 of the 2016 season for more information).

This was the most forgettable game of the season. The only notable thing was that the Panthers lost the game on a last-second failed two-point conversion in which Cam missed a wide-open Jarius Wright in the end zone. Whether this was due to Cam's shoulder or just because Cam's not the most accurate quarterback remains a mystery.

A solid game by the Panthers offense was undercut by a Panthers defense that again struggled against the pass. Russell Wilson had a great day, but Christian McCaffrey stole the show with 125 rushing yards, 112 receiving yards and 2 TDs. DJ Moore had a great game with 91 receiving yards. The Panthers lost on a last-second 31 yard field goal by the Seabass.

This is the game where Cam's arm issues really started to show. He threw four picks and was clearly struggling to get the ball down the field on every pass. Jameis Winston, in contract, had a very good day and the Panthers pass defense again decided to give up a ton of chunk plays.

Cam's arm was a noodle by now, yet for some reason the Panthers made him throw the ball 42 times. Baker Mayfield played great. Not much else interesting happened in this game.

This was the best game of the year by the Panthers defense. They completely shut down the Saints offense. However, Cam's arm was falling off going into the game and the Saints took advantage of his inability to actually throw the ball 10 yards by stacking the box on every play. In an ugly game on both sides, the Saints managed to eke out a win. The only highlight of the game was Christian McCaffrey's 50 yard touchdown pass to Chris Manhertz.

Cam Newton was finally sat by the Panthers coaches and Taylor Heineke got the start. He played....okay. He has accuracy issues, which showed up very clearly, but he executed the game plan fairly well. He suffered an elbow injury late in the game and third-string QB Kyle Allen came in and finished the game off. Christian McCaffrey had 178 all-purpose yards and the Panthers defense pretended to be competent at times, causing two Atlanta fumbles. At least Cam repped Heineke with this shirt.

The Saints rested a good chunk of their starters, letting this be the Teddy Bridgewater versus Kyle Allen premiere matchup that the NFL always wanted. Bridgewater struggled, while Allen played very well until going down with an injury and paving the way for AAF legend Garrett Gilbert to close out the game for the Panthers. The Panthers got their young receviers plenty of snaps, as DJ Moore had 81 yards, Curtis Samuel had 72, and Ian Thomas had 61.

Coaching Staff Review

Head Coach: Ron Rivera

One of the better coaches in the league overall, Rivera excels at getting his players to play hard for him and maintaining a largely distraction-free team. His clock management is rather poor, and he tends to give his coordinators a bit too much freedom. While this worked great when the Panthers had Sean McDermott as a DC, this has failed rather miserably the last two seasons when Steve Wilks and Eric Washington had their turns at the job. Rivera fired Washington and took the reigns of the defense late in the season, and the defensive playcalling immediately showed improvement. Rivera has stated that he plans on keeping defensive playcalling duties going forward, but repromoted Eric Washington at DC. His seat was warm last year, but Tepper made a wise move in not firing him. At least this year.

Offensive Coordinator: Norv Turner

The Panthers offense finally had a spark of life under Turner. He emphasized a lot of different types of looks, short passes, and letting the Panthers young talent find their own niches. The Panthers offense thrived under him until Cam Newton got hurt, but he did a great job overall.

Defensive Coordinator: Eric Washington

Formerly the Panthers defensive line coach, Washington was clearly in over his head this year. His defensive playcalls were terrible, and the Panthers defense frequently didn't look quite ready to compete with whatever offense they were playing that week. He got demoted late in the season but was given back the job, though Rivera will continue to call the defensive plays.

Upcoming Free Agents

LB | Thomas Davis

A Panthers legend, Davis (and Panthers fans) were crushed when he was informed that the Panthers would not be re-signing him. The team is trying to get younger and faster on defense, and while Davis still played largely high-level football in 2018, he had clearly lost a step after years of dominance. We Panthers fans wish him luck, and look forward to the day when we see him inducted into the Panthers Ring of Honor.

C | Ryan Kalil

There is really no way to overstate how important Ryan Kalil was to the Panthers offense for many years. He anchored what was often a patchwork line, but did so with extreme toughnes and unending leadership. He announced that 2018 would be his last year, but it still hit Panthers fans hard when we finally saw him walk off the field for the last time.

DE | Julius Peppers

The Carolina Reaper. 1st Ballot Hall of Famer. Not much else needs to be said about the man who is 4th all-time on the NFL career sack list. Thanks for coming back, Pep.

S | Mike Adams

Another aging veteran told that he would not be re-signed, Adams played well for the Panthers but it's clear his career is about over. His presence in the locker room will be missed.

WR | Devin Funchess

A perennial disappointment, Funchess never developed into the player the Panthers hoped they'd get when they drafted him in the second round of the 2015 draft. He argued with coaches and always seemed to drop the ball when the Panthers needed him most. He will not be re-signed.

T | Daryl Williams

After a breakout 2017 campaign, Daryl Williams injured his right knee in Week 1 and spent the season on IR. Panthers fans want him back, but signs seem to point to the Panthers rolling with mediocre-at-best Matt Kalil and 2018 breakout tackle Taylor Moton on the offensive line next year.

S | Eric Reid

Signed in October, the controversial Eric Reid played well for the Panthers. Well enough to earn a 3-year deal with them going forward. The Panthers under new owner David Tepper didn't seem to care that Reid continued to protest during the National Anthem, and it's nice to have at least one talented player at the safety position.

Team Needs

Offensive Line
Yet again, the Panthers need linemen. While the right side is locked down with Taylor Moton and Trai Turner, with the retirement of Ryan Kalil and the impending free agency of Daryl Williams, the Panthers could use an upgrade over the penciled in trio of C Tyler Larsen, LG Greg Van Roten, and LT Matt Kalil. This will probably be filled in the draft, though I can see the Panthers picking up a cheap guard in free agency to come in and compete.

Defensive Line
The Panthers defensive line was just plain bad this year. Dontari Poe didn't do much, Kawann Short was largely stifled, and the got almost nothing from their defensive ends. We need an edge rusher to help free up Short, and extra competition on the interior would be extremely nice, especially since 2016 1st-round pick Vernon Butler seems to be a huge bust. The Panthers will very likely pick a DL player in the first two rounds of this draft, and may pick up a mid-tier free agent DE.

Safety
The Panthers have one safety in Eric Reid, but other than Da'Norris Searcy (who missed the season with an injury), they really don't have anyone to play opposite him. This would be best filled in the draft, since any safety worth getting in free agency will probably be out of the Panthers' price range.

2019 Draft Picks

Round Pick Overall
1 16 16
2 15 47
3 14 77
3 37 100*
4 13 115
5 16 154
6 15 187

*compensatory pick

Conclusion

The Panthers should see a resurgence in 2019, thanks to a healthy Cam Newton and Greg Olsen, a year of experience for DJ Moore, Donte Jackson, and Ian Thomas, and hopefully an infusion of young talent from the draft.

Thanks to u/therealDoctorKay for their patience as I had extensive internet issues today.