Forget the seven-year contract that Matt Rhule signed earlier this offseason – that timeline is less important than the one that Marty Hurney and the rest of the front office has set the Panthers on over the course of the past three months.
Rather than the slow rebuild that many thought was on the horizon after the departure of franchise legends Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton and Greg Olsen – not to mention the exodus of most defensive starters and an entire changing of the guard in the coaching staff – in the span of three months, it would appear that the Panthers have other plans.
After refilling their defense through the draft and inking a slew of free agents to one- and two-year deals, it appears that Hurney and the Panthers are interested less in building at a steady pace and clearly feel as if their version of Rome – built not in a day, but in an offseason – is ready to compete in 2020.
The team assembled around new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater – the only one of 13 free agent acquisitions to sign a three-year deal (but it’s really only a two-year deal) – appeared to be complete on the offensive side of the ball, but even after restocking the defense with the only draft class in NFL history that consisted entirely of defensive players, there was a glaring hole at outside corner, where fourth-round pick Troy Pride, Jr. was slotted into the starting lineup opposite third-year corner Donte Jackson.
Consider that hole filled after the Panthers agreed to terms with 24-year old former first-round pick Eli Apple Thursday afternoon.
Apple spent the past two seasons in New Orleans after being traded five weeks into 2018. He started 25 games in New Orleans the past two years, with two interceptions and 13 passes defensed, but according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 43 catches on 68 targets last season.
By signing Apple, the Panthers have protected Pride – if everyone stays healthy – from being picked on in his rookie season and, theoretically, Apple can help to mold both Pride and Jackson as the most experienced player in the cornerback room by far. What it also does is send a message to the players – and to the coaching staff – that 2020 will not be a learning season for the team…they will be thrown into the deep end of the pool with the new schemes of Joe Brady and Phil Snow and expected to compete.
The Panthers clearly wanted to make their roster a lot younger this offseason – in 2018, they had the oldest roster in the NFL and currently only six players on the 90-man roster, including JJ Jansen and Graham Gano, are over 30 – and Apple continues that trend. The cornerback from Ohio State won’t turn 25 until August.
It’s not only the age that makes this one-year flyer appealing – the short length of the deal (and, for that matter, every deal signed this offseason) gives the Panthers the choice to reload next season if Apple doesn’t pan out or, if Apple rejuvenates his career in a new scheme and environment and shows the skills that got him drafted 10th overall only a few seasons ago, they can extend his deal as the team that took a chance on him when no one else would.
Or, in another scenario, Apple provides some veteran depth while Pride improves and the Panthers secondary still struggles enough for the team to get a high pick in the 2021 draft. Either way, the Panthers have put themselves in a position where winning this season is possible, which didn’t seem even plausible with all of the turnover this team has had this offseason – that certainly seems like a strategy that makes sense for a general manager on a one-year deal while the rest of the staff has a long runway to success.
A team entering a season with a new coaching staff, new quarterback, almost an entirely new defense and now one of the youngest rosters in the league might have been tempted to throw a rookie into the mix at corner immediately to line up against Chris Godwin, Calvin Ridley or the rest of the monsters in the NFC South – they may have even been tempted to use any of the above reasons or the truncated, weird offseason that COVID-19 has presented them with to be fine with a season in which they were outmatched for most of the year in order to gain a higher draft pick.
That sentiment – minus the draft pick, of course – certainly had been the case in the first years of Matt Rhule’s previous tenures at Baylor and Temple, where he amassed three wins total in two seasons. Change the culture, build the locker room and let the wins and losses fall where they may, with the underlying and unspoken mantra being that the losses piled up in the first season ultimately built towards a higher goal.
But that does not appear to be the case in Rhule’s first season in Carolina. It would appear that the Panthers have eyes on reaching that goal sooner rather than later – whether that can be done remains to be seen.