CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 17: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers runs the ball against the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 17, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Carolina Panthers have a competitive window with talent on the roster — the 2019 offseason is a major crux in whether the Panthers can seize that opportunity. PFN explores the Panthers free agency and draft outlook.

At one point during the 2018 season, the Carolina Panthers looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The team was 6-2, Cam Newton was playing like a dark horse MVP candidate, and the team looked like they had captured some of the magic they had discovered in their 2015 Super Bowl run. Then Newton’s shoulder got in the way, and a seven-game losing streak derailed the season. With much ambiguity looming over the future of Newton and the direction of the franchise, it’s critical that the team nails the 2019 offseason.

According to 247sports, the Panthers are projected to have about $23 million in cap space for 2019, meaning general manager Marty Hurney will, for the most part, be handcuffed in free agency. Fans shouldn’t be expecting any big-time acquisitions like Ndamukong Suh signing with the Los Angeles Rams or Kirk Cousins signing with the Minnesota Vikings last year. They also shouldn’t expect any high risk signings like the Cleveland Browns signing running back Kareem Hunt. However, there is still plenty of room for the team to re-sign key players and fill some holes on the roster.

Carolina’s Key Free Agents

With four restricted and 20 unrestricted free agents, the Panthers will have some critical decisions to make in terms of whom to keep. Here is a list of some of the team’s key free agents and what they should do with them:

OT Daryl Williams
Williams was a second-team All-Pro selection in 2017 but spent nearly the entire 2018 season on injured reserve. Even though he only appeared in one game this past season, he is still expected to make upwards of $10 million a year in his next contract. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a team that is already suffocated by the cap especially considering there is no guarantee Williams is the same player after his injury. However, with question marks at the left tackle position and with the retirement of perennial Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the Panthers cannot afford to add another hole to a thin offensive line. Williams will likely test free agent waters this spring, but re-signing him should be the team’s number one priority.

S Mike Adams
Adams has put together a long and productive career. Between the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, and Panthers, he has accumulated 60 interceptions, 887 tackles, and has been selected to two Pro Bowls. His football IQ is fantastic, and he is a perfect veteran presence for the Carolina locker room. That being said, it is time for the team to move on. Not only will the team get Da’Norris Searcy back in 2019, but the Carolina coaching staff has made it clear that they want the defense to get younger and faster. Unless Adams agrees to come back to the team in a minimal capacity to be a locker room presence, it would be shocking to see the team re-sign him in 2019.

WR Devin Funchess
The Panthers traded away former first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin in 2017 in large part because they believed Funchess could be the team’s number one receiver. Though the move surprised many, Funchess’ play down the stretch in 2017 justified the team making a move. Going into the 2018 season, there was much hype around Funchess. Not only was it going to be his first full season in Carolina as the team’s number one threat, but he was now fully healthy after battling a shoulder injury in 2017, and it was a contract year for him which historically has motivated players to elevate their game.

However, injuries and inconsistency plagued him throughout 2018, and by the end of the season with the emergence of D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, Funchess was nothing more than an afterthought in the offense. He still can be a very productive receiver in the league, and no team won’t love his 6’4 236-pound body; however, there are still too many question marks around him to pay him like a number one receiver. It will be sad to watch him walk away, especially considering the team had him in their long term plans just a season ago, but Carolina has plenty of talent already at the skill positions and have more significant needs to use available cap space.

LB Thomas Davis
Davis originally planned on retiring after the 2018 season, but after a surprise PED suspension and a rocky end to 2018, he was not willing to retire on such a low note. Davis publicly stated that he wanted to resign with Carolina and play one more season for the black and blue, but the team informed him that they would not be offering him a contract for 2019. While the decision to let him go is a tough one and will leave a hole at the linebacker position, it was very much the right move.

At this point in his career, his game is declining, and his production isn’t where it used to be. Davis is a Panthers legend and loved by every fan and member of the organization. The 2014 Walter Payton Man of the Year recipient is nothing but a class act and highly regarded around the league as one of the best men in the NFL. Seeing Davis in a new uniform next season will put a sour taste in a lot of fans mouths, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is a Panther for life.

Draft Needs

Carolina holds the 16th overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft and has one pick in each of the first six rounds. The 2019 draft class has been labeled a dominant defensive class, especially on the defensive line. However, the class quietly has an excellent group of offensive linemen as well which is the team’s biggest need. There is expected to be a plethora of pass rushers taken ahead of the Panthers pick, and it would be astounding if at least two, if not three, quarterbacks are taken before Carolina’s selection. This means that the team will likely be able to sit and wait for a quality offensive lineman to fall into their lap. Jonah Williams is one of the most intriguing prospects for the Panthers because of his combination of high production at the collegiate level for Alabama as well as his ability to play either the guard or tackle position. Jawaan Taylor from Florida, Greg Little from Ole Miss and Cody Ford are also guys that could be available for the team to select with the 16th pick.

There are also many holes that need to be addressed in the draft apart from just the offensive line, particularly on the defense. Depending on if the team decides to re-sign Mike Adams or not, the team could have a huge hole to fill on the back end at the safety position. Also, with the team electing not to resign Thomas Davis and with the retirement of Julius Peppers, don’t be surprised to see the team draft multiple pass rushers and linebackers.

Head coach Ron Rivera’s philosophies are rooted in defense, and throughout his tenure with the team, he and his scouting department have done a great job of evaluating defensive talent. Rivera is very much on the hot seat in 2019 and would benefit greatly from a solid draft.

2019 Offseason Preview

The Panthers are in a tough NFC South Division, so they cannot take anything for granted. Down south, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to rebuild fast, and could be a contender as soon as this season. The New Orleans Saints are always a threat with Drew Brees, and the Atlanta Falcons are trying to reshape their roster on the fly.

If Carolina can fill some holes, mainly on the offensive and defensive lines, and head into 2019 with a healthy roster, the team has the potential to compete for a Super Bowl. It is critical to keep Cam Newton healthy which means that the team should cut no corners in building the offensive line this offseason. Expect the team to use multiple high round picks on offensive lineman and don’t be surprised to see them overpay a little bit for Daryl Williams. The future could look very bright in Carolina, but they need to hit a home run this offseason.