The Carolina Panthers announced that Cam Newton would sit out the final two games because of his injured throwing shoulder. The move is meant to protect the Panthers franchise quarterback from further injury and jump-start the rehabilitation process for next season. Newton has yet to be placed on IR because the Panthers still, as strange as it may sound, have a chance to make the playoffs.
Sitting Cam at this point felt like a decision that was a long time coming. It’s been a question among fans for weeks now and bewildered many that Ron Rivera didn’t make this decision earlier. Delaying the decision to sit Cam originated from an attempt to salvage a season that started promisingly at 6-2 but has undergone one of the most precipitous declines in NFL history after losing six straight to fall to 6-8. Ron Rivera, who is likely fighting to save his job as head coach, saw the move as an admission that the season was lost. Sitting Cam is the figurative waving of the white flag and difficult to internalize by a quarterback who never quits fighting and a head coach whose livelihood requires to keep fighting.
The white flag was finally waved this week, making the final two games an evaluation tool for General Manager Marty Hurney for an offseason that could feature the departure of Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, and maybe even Greg Olsen. There will be a lot of difficult front office decisions to be made about the importance of Shaq Thompson, Vernon Butler, and Devin Funchess. Carolina needs to know what they have on this roster, who they need to keep, and who to part ways with. With all eyes are looking at Taylor Heinicke in his first NFL start to see if he could be a viable long-term backup, here are five other players that Carolina should be closely evaluating in the next two weeks.
The rookie 3rd round selection saw the field early after Da’Norris Searcy was placed on injured reserve because of multiple concussions. Gaulden looked like a rookie. The game looked a little fast for him and it was only exacerbated by elder Mike Adams who was forced to play at strong safety. Carolina signed Eric Reid to a one-year deal after it quickly showed that the combo was a weakness for the defense. He’s started every game aside Adams since. Reid’s return to Carolina isn’t certain but a recent endorsement from Rivera certainly makes it a possibility. Carolina needs to know if they should prioritize signing Reid or looking towards free agency and the draft for the Panthers defensive backfield, which could be entirely different personnel next season. Seeing more tape on Gaulden will go a long way in measuring his development and understanding his role going forward. It may be more of a determinate in choosing to sign Reid than one would think. If the Panthers have some faith that Gaulden is heading in the right direction and could complement Reid, who is better down in the box, they could look to address pressing personnel issues elsewhere instead. If Gaulden doesn’t the part, Carolina may have to invest in the safety position in a more decisive way than even signing Reid alone.
Ron Rivera just unpromptedly started talking about Efe Obada and his growth/talent for the past five minutes.
Just raving about him, says you see flashes of an elite talent in Obada.
— Josh Klein (@joshkleinrules) December 15, 2018
International football sensation and human trafficking survivor, who took care of his little sister as they were later orphaned in London, fought hard to make the Panthers 53-man roster and made an impact early in the season notching both a sack and in an interception in his NFL debut. Obada went quiet over the next seven weeks, mainly being a healthy scratch. Rivera, however, has gushed about Obada all season, most recently describing him as “showing flashed of elite talent.” Carolina’s pass-rush has been dormant all season and is likely heading for a complete overall now that Peppers will probably retire, Addison’s marginal effectiveness, and the disappointing play of Dontari Poe and Vernon Butler. By this point, Carolina should have a good idea about both Wes Horton and Bryan Cox Jr. Scouting Obada’s progress will be essential to evaluating Carolina’s defensive line depth going forward.
It hasn’t been the most forgiving of seasons for Corn Elder. Fans and even the coaching staff made Corn Elder the sacrificial lamb after a heartbreaking loss against the Seahawks that featured some big plays on Elder who was forced to play as an outside corner after Donte Jackson went down to injury. Elder has been missing in action since. Carolina can’t have a good feeling of what he could be for the team in the long run, however. Elder missed his entire rookie season because of injury and his rocky debut hasn’t instilled a great deal of confidence. Captain Munnerlyn has shown clear signs of aging and won’t likely be with the team much longer. This would be a good opportunity to see if Elder can play a rotational role in the secondary going forward.
Carolina placed Shaq Thompson on injured reserve this week, only complicating the linebackers group going forward. All signs are pointing that Carolina will part ways with Thomas Davis in the offseason, Thompson’s fifth-year option could cost the Panthers over 9 million, and the only experienced backup, David Mayo, is also in the last year of his contract. Carolina could be looking for a starting linebacker and a backup this offseason. Carter showed some promise in the preseason but getting a look at him after a season of development would help to see how the undersized linebacker could be integrated if Carolina were to part ways with David Mayo.
Carolina’s dormant pass-rush is in desperate need of speed and athleticism; it needs a spark. Mario Addison’s best days appear behind him. He’s 31 years old now and hasn’t been able to ride the momentum from his 11 sack 2017 season as a three-down starter this season. Addison hasn’t been bad, notching a eight sacks this year, but he has shown some signs of plateauing. Haynes is a player whose trajectory ironically may be similar to that of Addison’s. An undersized guy who was big enough in college with NFL speed. It’s the type of player that some coaches may try to work into a 3-4 defense. Carolina won’t be switching to a 3-4 any time soon, so Carolina will need to find out if he has the skill and strength that, with some bulking up, they could rely on as a 3rd down pass-rusher.
It’s been hard watching photos of Cam watching practice as Heinicke and company prepare for Atlanta. It’s hard for all of us realizing that what could be, has finally not been. Carolina’s front office and coaching staff will have to peer past the disheartening end and over the calls for their jobs and look closely at the guys who are on the roster this year to get the best vantage point for next year’s group.
By Tony Dunn
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