The Panthers are officially halfway through the 2020 season – having now lost their last three games, the conversation has understandably shifted from the outside chance of them making the playoffs in 2020 to how they can continue to build going into 2021 and what they can take from the 2020 season into the future.
By my count, over half of the current 53-man roster will be a free agent after this season – that’s a lot of decisions for the Panthers to make as they continue to mold their roster into contenders. As much turnover as the roster saw this past offseason, they could potentially see as much – if not more – again in 2021.
While some of this is necessary (the Panthers need to continue to get younger and better in places), the Panthers could also take a step back if they lose some key pieces. So, at the halfway stage of the season, what should the Panthers be looking to do with their pending free agents and potential cap casualties based on what we’ve seen in the first half of 2020?
We’ve evaluated the offense – now to examine the defense/special teams:
KK Short: Restructure Or Release
KK Short is somebody the Panthers should absolutely want to be in the building – not only is he their only true 3-tech at this point but he, alongside Zach Kerr, offers some veteran experience in what is otherwise a very young defensive line room.
However, he has missed most of both this season and last to injury with a cap figure of just under $21m next year in the final year of his deal. The Panthers can get out of nearly $10m of that just by cutting him, and that will also be in the cards, but it could be in the best interest of both sides for him to restructure. If the Panthers can reduce his cap figure significantly, maybe by adding another year to his contract, they are able to save some cap space and he is able to make more than if he ends up on the open market having not been healthy in nearly two years.
Efe Obada: Definitely Re-Sign
Obada is a restricted free agent and so should be relatively inexpensive to bring back – along with Short earlier in the season, he is the only player who has shown an ability to generate anything like a consistent inside pass rush; Obada also has the ability to play on the edge at times.
Despite only playing 50% of the defensive snaps twice this season (and never more than 55%) he has managed to notch his third career sack (on a team starved for sacks, Obada is one of only four Panthers to notch one in 2020) as well as six QB hits (second behind Brian Burns). Obada isn’t a starter for the Panthers if everybody is healthy, but he is a valuable and versatile rotation piece about whom there should be no hesitation to bring back.
Austin Larkin and Woodrow Hamilton: Definitely Bring Back, At Least For Camp
These two are an ERFA and an RFA respectively – that means both will be inexpensive to bring back; while neither should be expected to make the roster going into camp, as with many of the players mentioned on offense, it is always useful to have veteran bodies with scheme experience in camp in order to create a baseline from which you can attempt to build upon.
Neither player has made a massive impact when they have played so far this season, but neither have really struggled either – if you can get that as your baseline, that’s a decent place to start.
Tahir Whitehead: Likely Let Walk
Whitehead has largely been what he has been throughout his career thus far this season – a decent, if unspectacular, run defender with athletic limitations in coverage; that is essentially all he was paid to be in terms of an on-field presence.
However, while the Panthers don’t play two conventional linebackers that much of the time, this is one of the areas of the defense where the Panthers should be looking for a real upgrade this offseason. Whitehead is still on track for over 80 tackles on the season but he hasn’t recorded a TFL and has allowed a completion percentage of over 80% and a passer rating of 103.3 (though this is actually better than the past two seasons).
If Whitehead is willing to return for a deal nearer to what the Panthers gave Adarius Taylor (one-year, $910k instead of one-year, $2.5m) I think the Panthers would welcome him back as a locker-room presence, but he may well rather go elsewhere with a chance of meaningful playing time.
Adarius Taylor and Julian Stanford: Probably Bring Back, At Least For Camp
While Taylor has seen some playing time on defense this season, both players are essentially on the roster for veteran depth and special teams play – while I don’t think both should be guaranteed to make the roster, they are able to provide what the Panthers need from them. While I would expect the Panthers to bring in some more youth at linebacker through the offseason, both players should at least be part of the battle for the final couple of roster spots at the position.
Corn Elder and Rasul Douglas: Try To Re-Sign
The Panthers haven’t actually been able to roll out their starting secondary much this season – Donte Jackson has spent much of the early season struggling for an injury while Douglas missed the past two games on COVID/reserve. However, when they have played, both Elder and Douglas have played well and the Panthers should be keen to bring both back.
Elder has taken a real step this year in particular and has potentially carved out a role as the Panthers’ long-term nickel. While he doesn’t have an interception and only two passes defended, he is allowing a completion percentage of under 70% and a Passer Rating of under 80 when targeted. The Panthers might want to push Troy Pride up the depth chart by moving Elder along, but given how much Jackson has struggled to stay on the field, that seems unwise.
Douglas has played well at outside corner; while he has some athletic limitations, he has done well in the Panthers’ mostly zone-focused scheme with six passes defended whilst allowing a completion percentage of just 60% and a Passer Rating of 76.8. He also has the potential to play some time at safety if the Panthers were to lose Juston Burris again. Ideally, the Panthers would bring both players back – but Douglas in particular looks to be a useful piece of the rebuilding defense.
Kenny Robinson and Joey Slye: Absolutely Re-Sign
Both players are ERFAs and both should be no questions to return. Robinson might not make the roster in 2021 either, but he should have a better chance with a year to learn the scheme and adjust to the speed of the NFL game. Slye might not be the de-facto kicker going into 2021 as he was going into 2020 following Gano’s release, but he is a solid NFL kicker – he currently ranks second in the NFL in made field goals as well as ranking 15th in field goal percentage (min 10 attempts).
For the price it will cost to bring him back, it absolutely makes sense to do so.
JJ Jansen: Probably Re-Sign
Jansen will be 35 to start next season and there is a chance that he just opts to retire, but if he wants to keep playing, then he should be doing it in Carolina. Nothing gets the blood pumping quite like a long snapper re-signing.
(Top Photo Via Brandon Todd/Carolina Panthers)