The Carolina Panthers have had an interesting yet very productive off-season as they look to do something that’s never been done. No Super Bowl loser has returned to the big game the following season, that being said, I think the team is in better shape coming into 2016 with the return of Kelvin Benjamin and the team being one year older.
The biggest storyline was the organization’s decision to rescind the franchise tag of Pro bowl corner Josh Norman, which initially was a shocker, but I think it was a great decision because by letting Norman walk they opened up about 32 million dollars in cap space and they’ve put it to good use this off-season keeping the core of the team together with contract extensions. Additionally we’ve added veteran complimentary pieces that have enhanced the depth on the roster.
The Offensive Line
The most important person to keep healthy on this team is quarterback Cam Newton because as Newton goes the team follows. That being said, it was important to keep consistency and depth within the offensive line. The team did that in a big way signing Ryan Kalil, and Michael Oher, to contract extensions they also added veteran center Gino Gradkowski improving the depth of a vital position on the football field.
Kalil has been one of the best centers in the game in his 10 years, he is a five-time Pro Bowler a stabilizing force for our team and the quarterbacks he’s worked with throughout his career. He’s also been very durable playing at least 10 games in seven seasons and starting all 16 games in five of those creating stability for everyone on the offense. He was rewarded with a two-year 16.75 contract extension virtually assuring he will finish his career as a lifelong panther as it should be.
Next, the team locked up right tackle Michael Oher, who had a breakout year, solidifying the left tackle position that was left in flux with the retirement of longtime Panther Jordan Gross. Oher was coming off a disappointing stint with the Titans where he was plagued by injury.
Despite the recent disappointments in Oher career, he made the seamless transition to the Panthers and played a vital role in protecting Cam Newton as we made our Super Bowl run. This off-season as Oher was weighing his options as a free agent Newton personally called Oher saying that he wanted him back in a panther uniform and the team felt the same as we signed Oher to a three-year 21.6 million dollar extension keeping the stability in front of our franchise quarterback.
Lastly, the team signed Gino Gradkowski as the backup center and possibly the eventual replacement for Kalil whenever he decides to hang them up. In his first two seasons with the ravens he started 15 of 16 games and all 16 games last two seasons, then fell off in his last two seasons split between Baltimore and Atlanta where he started eight games and four games respectively.
The last two seasons notwithstanding Gradkowski has proven he can be an effective NFL player and will be a serviceable backup Kalil. The Panthers have made sure this unit has stayed intact this off-season with the only question mark being the right tackle position between Mike Remmers and youngster Daryl Williams. The team has done an excellent job of finding the best combination to protect the MVP in Newton.
The Panthers continued to take care of their own signing fullback Mike Tolbert to a two-year $4 million contract extension. Tolbert has been one of the most productive fullbacks in the league and since putting on a panther uniform he’s gotten even more effective because of the playmakers around him and he is taking full advantage.
This signing not only brings back a playmaker, but a familiar face that knows the protections and is a good blocker as well. Furthermore, it keeps the record-breaking offense in 2015 completely the same except the welcome addition of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin who is returning from injury.
The team has made it a point to keep the chemistry and camaraderie of each unit as high as possible and bringing Tolbert back continues that theme and I expect us to be better than ever in 2016.
One of the more underrated signings for the Panthers this off-season with locking up long snapper JJ Jansen to a five-year contract extension worth $5.5 million. To just the average football fan, this would seem like a waste of money, however one of the most important positions on the field that is many times overlooked.
Jansen has been with the Panthers since 2009 and over that period of time he’s handled over 1000 snaps whether that is on punts, field goals or extra points and has been rock solid handling over 600 attempts since his last misstep in 2010, knock on wood.
A position that I believe will start getting more recognition because field goals are longer and as we saw in the playoff game the Minnesota Vikings the snap matters. Jansen is a vital piece of the special teams unit, helping kicker Graham Gano confidence to just focus on his job making pressure packed kicks. Never having to worry about the snap because it’s going to be spot on. The team recognized Jansen importance and rewarded him accordingly, keeping the bomb squad intact for the foreseeable future.
The Panthers also fortified one of the best defensive units in the NFL over the last couple of years and continued the theme of the off-season keeping the core guys together on each unit. They made three major moves increasing the depth at the defense of tackle position signing veteran Paul Soliai, who is another big body and is expected to be a great run stopper.
This seems to be a great fit because Soliai will be playing alongside his great friend Star Lotulelei. Not only will you be an asset for us on the field I think he will be a great addition to the locker room commodity because of the comfort level that comes when playing with a close friend. This team cares about quality football players and people they got both of those things with Soliai.
The next move was a bit of a shocker when the team was able to re-sign Charles Johnson to a one-year $3 million “prove it” deal after a disappointing 2015. A season that saw him tear his hamstring and then lose playing time to Jared Allen who was playing better after he came back from injury.
This was shocking that Johnson would even consider coming back to the Carolinas because of the money he was offered elsewhere, specifically with the Giants it was five years, but Johnson clearly wanted to stay in the Queen City because he almost fired his agent over his desire to stay in Charlotte that is clear loyalty and I respect that immensely.
Johnson was extremely unselfish in signing this deal it allowed the team to clear much-needed cap space. He showed exactly what he cared about and that is winning. Johnson coming back adds a familiar face and a veteran guy for the young up and comers to learn from. An asset that sometimes gets overlooked, but is extremely important for the growth of the players and the defense as a whole now and in the future.
This is a low risk high reward scenario for the Panthers because if they get the Pro bowl Charles Johnson or something remotely close to that the defense will be even more fierce and if not it doesn’t cost them a great deal financially. Also, they have a lot of good options to replace if he gets injured again or if he’s not effective. it’s a win-win deal for the organization. I hope he comes back stronger than ever, giving us another weapon for opponents to plan for.
The last move the team made was signing Kurt Coleman to a three-year $17 million contract extension. This move was a must, as Coleman has quickly becoming the quarterback of the secondary with the departures of Josh Norman, Charles Tillman and Roman Harper who went back to the Saints.
Coleman is coming off a breakout 2015 where he had 90 total tackles, 55 solo and more importantly seven interceptions. An amazing first impression for a guy I had no idea who he was when we signed him last off-season, but is quickly become one of my favorites because of the brutality and focus that he plays with.
As one of the veterans of the secondary his leadership is going to be crucial as the team is trying to get the three rookie cornerbacks comfortable in our system. I believe Coleman will play a vital part in their development while continuing to improve his great skills set.
It wasn’t just the players that were taking care of this off-season, but head coach Ron Rivera was awarded a nice extension for his role in making the Panthers one the NFL’s best teams. He signed a three-year 19.5 million dollar extension making sure he will be in Carolina at least through the 2018 season.
It’s a well-deserved contract as he was one of the most underrated coaches in the NFL today. It wasn’t all roses and beginning, however some were calling for his head after a slow start to his coaching tenure. Then came the nickname Riverboat Ron taking chances going for it more than normal on fourth down, putting more trust in his player’s ability.
This resulted in the team playing more free and easy trusting themselves and because of that a lot of winning and consistent play has happened since the nickname arrived. He has led the Panthers to three straight division titles an NFC championship and has been named the NFL Coach of the year twice. He has brought honesty, consistency, and creativeness to the Panthers organization and I’m proud that he’s our coach.
The Carolina Panthers have shown they pride themselves on his loyalty and high character players and personnel. The team took the $32 million cap space they got once Norman left and turned it into six contract extensions, ensuring the bulk of this roster stays the same for a long while. They also signed three veteran guys to low-cost contracts to add different abilities to this team.
So in all they turned one player in Josh Norman, who was going to require a max deal into nine players. Many of whom are vital to the success and chemistry of this team the lesson here is be loyal to Carolina they’ll be loyal to you. If not it’s okay will find quality players that want to be in the Queen city. Don’t mess with GM Dave Gettleman he’s not afraid to play hardball. This team is set up for another Super Bowl run and I can’t wait for it to start.
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