What do you think is the biggest thing the Panthers need to do this offseason? I think they should focus on offensive linemen and cornerbacks. – Hunter in Bassett, Va.
One of the biggest things the Panthers need to do – and something they did so well the season prior – is take care of the little things. It's hard to put a finger on exactly why Carolina didn't come close to repeating its 2015 success, but getting back to taking care of business in close games would be a good starting point. The offseason not only will be about improving the depth of talent on the roster, but also about improving the performance of those remaining on the roster.
USA Today with a helping hand from a Reddit user recently looked at how this year's playoff lineup would have looked if the outcome of every game decided by seven points or less was reversed. I like the concept, but given that nearly half of all games are decided by that margin in a league built for parity, that metric seemed a bit overdone to me. The exercise led to just three of the 12 playoff teams (not including NFC top seed Dallas) hypothetically still making the playoffs.
So, with massive kudos to intern Connor Keith, we set to forge a more conservative and more realistic alternate universe. What if all games decided by three points or less or in overtime had come out the other way? In our model, all of the division winners remained the same save for the AFC South, where the Colts overtook the Texans. All four wild card participants were different, though, including the Panthers - by the skin of their teeth. Carolina and Philadelphia replaced the Giants and Lions in the NFC, with the Panthers and Eagles edging out the fellow 10-6 Vikings on the fifth tiebreaker (strength of victory). For the record, the Chargers and Bills edged out the fellow 9-7 Broncos in the AFC in place of actual wild card qualifiers Oakland and Miami.
Such a switch of fortune doesn't seem like a stretch for the Panthers, whose two victories by three or less points came "comfortably" – a 23-20 victory over the Saints that they led 23-3 and a 13-10 victory over the Rams that was a 10-point game in the waning seconds. The six losses in that category, meanwhile, all easily could have been reversed: a 21-20 loss at the Broncos that ended with a missed field goal; losses to the Buccaneers and Saints on final-play field goals; a second loss to the Bucs on a last-second two-point conversion; and losses to the Chiefs and Raiders after Carolina led by more than a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
No, returning to the playoffs in 2017 isn't as simple as executing better, but that's a strong starting point. As to the reader's points about offensive linemen and cornerbacks, I address an aspect of those positions below.
Do you think we look at adding another Kalil to the offensive line this year? As in Ryan's brother, Matt? – Gage in Charleston, S.C.
It is of course possible that five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and five-year veteran offensive tackle Matt Kalil could team up next season. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Vikings, the younger Kalil is set to become a free agent. The Panthers face a tough decision and possibly multiple ones regarding tackle, with Mike Remmers eligible to become an unrestricted free agent and with Michael Oher's status undetermined coming off a concussion. If the Kalils are united in Carolina, it would qualify as a historic reunion.
Following the 2014 season, the Pro Football Hall of Fame compiled a list of brothers to play pro football, unearthing 373 such pairings. Of those, just 68 played on the same team in the same season. Of those, just 11 pairs played on the same offensive line together, and just two of those duos – Jay and Joel Hilgenberg (1993 Saints) and Dave and Doug Widell (1900-92 Broncos) – played together in the Super Bowl era. We'll see if the Kalils join that super-short list.
(Incidentally, the Panthers have never had a pair of brothers play together, though one brother in a pair has played for Carolina in 19 instances, perhaps most notably quarterback David Carr – older brother of current Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.)
Clearly if one of our two young corners were to get hurt next season, we'd have a problem. Do you see any medium-tier free agent signings coming? Do you see a potential Bene Benwikere reunion for depth? – Matt in San Francisco
With Lou Young as the lone outside corner currently on the roster behind James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, this is an area where Carolina could look to shore up its depth. Most importantly the Panthers feel good – as well they should – about Bradberry and Worley leading the way after the progress they made as rookies. There are some potential free agent corners that could score big contracts like A.J. Bouye of the Texans, Trumaine Johnson of the Rams and Stephone Gilmore of the Bills, but the list of guys who could provide depth is much longer and more affordable for that matter. Not sure about Benwikere, who ended the season on the Packers practice squad, but I do see Carolina looking to add some talent at corner, though it could just as easily happen in the draft as it could during free agency.