CHARLOTTE — This was not the ending the Panthers were looking for, but as they wrap up the season with Sunday's trip to Tampa, the focus remains on the future.
The Panthers are in line for a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, and they anticipate being active in free agency to bring in some help. So it's a reasonable expectation that the next version of the team will look quite different, particularly on offense.
But before they get to that, there's one more game to push through.
Here's a look at five things to watch in this Week 18 matchup.
A ROLE FOR ROBINSON
The Panthers have taken a longer look at second-year defensive back Kenny Robinson lately, and they've liked what they've seen.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Robinson has turned himself into a "legitimate safety" this season, and mentioned him as one of the young players "really ascending with the reps."
There's an opening for him to take on bigger role in the future, based on moves that could happen this offseason.
Veteran starter Juston Burris is among their 22 unrestricted free agents this offseason, and as he's struggled with a groin injury late in the year, the door has been opened for Robinson to get more work.
Robinson has played over half the snaps in each of the last two games, though the secondary has been thrown into the blender lately with all the injuries and COVID-19 cases.
If the Panthers make aggressive moves in free agency, they'll need some of their own draft picks to play larger roles next year, just to balance the books. And as Robinson gets more comfortable in this defense, there's an opening for him to be one of those guys.
KEEP AN EYE ON RIGHT GUARD
Rhule said this week they wanted to play rookie Deonte Brown some against the Bucs. It's unclear what they plan to do to start the game, but shaking things up on the line is something that's clearly coming.
They've started 12 different combinations of linemen this year, and last week's group (including Brady Christensen at left tackle, Michael Jordan at left guard, Pat Elflein at center, John Miller at right guard and Taylor Moton at right tackle) are all available.
But any reps Brown takes will be useful, to see how the still-massive (although he's down to the 335-pound range) former Alabama guard moves.
We know Moton will be part of the future, and Christensen and Brown are absolutely going to be around next year. Jordan has impressed as a run blocker this year, but the Panthers are expected to spend plenty of resources on the line this offseason.
Miller, Trent Scott, and injured center Matt Paradis are also among the free agents, so that group is going to look quite different in 2022.
KEEP AN EYE ON CAM
Quarterback Cam Newton's not going to start Sunday, but as has been the case throughout his career, any time he's on the field he's worth stopping to watch.
Newton's also among the free agents coming up this offseason, and his future remains cloudy. While his recent work as a passer doesn't create much confidence, he's proven he's still dangerous as a runner.
His leadership is also still evident, as he has the ability to change the tone of practices and meetings with the way he prepares as well as his innate enthusiasm.
A lot of his future is going to be up to him, but the way he's handled the unique circumstances of his return has certainly left a good impression on this coaching staff.
This year hasn't provided much in the way of offensive excitement, but DJ Moore has continued to play consistent football.
Moore has 1,070 receiving yards this year, leaving him 30 short of hitting the 1,100-yard plateau for the third straight season.
With Robby Anderson questionable for the game because of a quad injury, Moore will easily be the featured target, since the remaining receivers will be Brandon Zylstra, punt returner Alex Erickson, and whoever gets called up from the practice squad later today.
As depressing as it sounds, the Panthers have vested interest in some other games Sunday.
They could jump into the fifth spot in the 2022 NFL Draft order with a loss to the Bucs, as long as the Giants beat the Washington Football Team. That's a 1 p.m. game, so fans will know entering the game where it's heading.
BONUS GAMEDAY RECIPE
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Carolina is 25-19 all-time against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, posting a 13-10 record at home and 12-9 on the road.