After two consecutive playoff seasons, what do the Panthers need to do to take it to the next level? – Cody in Negaunee, Mich.
Over the next 100 or so days, between free agency that begins March 10 and the NFL Draft at the end of April, the Panthers will make a multitude of moves to reshape their roster for the 2015 season. Some of the difficult decisions that will be made could be difference-makers, but I think the answer to your question is much simpler than the impossible task of forecasting what offseason moves will be made.
The corps of the team isn't going to change this offseason, and that group already holds the key to taking it to the next level. Simply put, they need to keep on keeping on.
Look back to the end of the 2010 season when the Panthers went 2-14 and hired Ron Rivera as head coach. That season, the Seattle Seahawks became the first team to win a playoff game with a losing record. The Seahawks returned to the playoffs in 2012, then won the Super Bowl last season and are back in it this season.
One of the Panthers' two victories in 2010 was over San Francisco. The 49ers then rebuilt the right way, just like Carolina, winning a playoff game in 2011, reaching the Super Bowl in 2012 and missing out on a return trip with a loss to the Seahawks in last year's NFC Championship.
I believe Carolina could be on a similar track, having lost to the 49ers in the playoffs in 2013 and to the Seahawks in 2014. The Panthers have progressed one step further each of the last two years, and all signs point to them being able to take at least another step in 2015.
What's your take on the offensive line play this season? Should we keep Byron Bell at left tackle or get one out the draft? – Hussein in Greensboro, N.C.
The Panthers were up and down in 2014, and they ended up right in the middle of the pack in total offense, ranking 16th out of 32 teams. I loved what the running game did down the stretch and liked a lot of things the passing game did. The offensive line was key in both areas, straightening things out after a rough 12 games.
Bell, who started at left tackle after three seasons at right tackle, is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in March. The Panthers' plans for him aren't clear.
"Byron Bell showed flashes, but it is about consistency," general manager Dave Gettleman said last week. "I will give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt - it was his first year playing there. I think we've shown that if a player shows up that we think is going to make us better, then we are going to go get him. We have to sit down and evaluate."
Rivera said how the pieces fit together could play into decisions. Regardless of the decision made at left tackle, I hope to see the offensive line play better from Week 1, and perhaps that calls for continuity. The offensive line has started slow and finished fast in each of my five seasons covering the team, better than the opposite being true. But better still, they hope to figure out how to play well from beginning to end.
What will the Panthers do about the secondary? Seems to me they fell short because they can stop the run but have no shutdown corners for third-down scenarios. That's what cost us the game in Seattle. – James in Slidell, La.
I guess I'm more excited about the secondary than you. Yes, the Seahawks beat young players for a pair of big plays in the NFC Divisional Playoff, but rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere impressed me all season, and a re-energized Josh Norman played outstanding football once he regained his corner spot. Rookie safety Tre Boston had his share of growing pains but also his share of big plays, and veteran safety Roman Harper was a steadying influence for the group that played steady football down the stretch.
More quality depth would certainly help, but I believe the future is bright for the group and that for the most part the future is now.
Why did we use Brenton Bersin as a punt/kick return when we had Stephen Hill on the practice squad? – Rich via Twitter
Hill, a second-round draft pick by the New York Jets in 2012, has never returned a punt or kick in the NFL and returned just one kick in three seasons at Georgia Tech. The punt return job belonged to undrafted rookie Philly Brown the first half of the season, but he had some ball security issues. When he missed a game midseason with a concussion, the Panthers turned to Bersin. Outside of a turnover in the NFC Wild Card win versus Arizona, he got the job done though he did look shaky at times. I expect a wide-open competition for that job in 2015 with at least one candidate emerging from among the players Carolina adds this offseason.
Hill, who was signed to the Panthers' practice squad just before the regular season opener and remained there all season, has signed a future contract with Carolina and will therefore compete for a roster spot in 2015. Rivera was ready to add Hill to the active roster if Brown hadn't healed up his shoulder injury enough to play against the Seahawks.