CHARLOTTE — The Panthers have done a lot of stuff over the last month.
Now, they get to start doing the stuff that matters.
While there might be a few more incomings, Frank Reich's staff is effectively put together with tight ends coach John Lilly coming aboard Thursday. That gets the count to 196 years of NFL coaching experience among this group (and a lot more in college), along with 75 years of playing experience in the league. The sheer weight of experience of this bunch creates a condition for success.
Now all they have to do is create it.
For all the excitement these coaches have generated, a number of them pointed out this week it was about the players. Oh yeah, players.
All the Panthers really have to do this offseason is find a quarterback, start thinking about what the long-term looks like with Brian Burns, and reshape a few entire positions to fit what these coaches want to do.
That's it, no big deal.
Meanwhile, all these new coaches who gathered for the first time this week are scrambling to watch tape of the current roster and college prospects since many of them will be at the combine next week. And so will we, and that's when the new league year practically begins.
You had lots of questions, so let's get to them.
Now that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named has decided his pickleball team needs his attention, every NFC South team needs a QB upgrade. At one time, I thought Derek Carr was a possibility. Now, who knows? Unless, of course, you do, oh Wise One. — Ben, Newport, NC
I am inquiring about your opinion about the signing of Lamar Jackson. Is this on the table, or is this just sports media looking for topics? — Allen, Charlotte
Do you think Sam Darnold could be brought back to Carolina after his 4-2 record at the end of the season? I think he should be brought back since he did not turn over the ball a lot, kept Carolina competitive, he also kind of checks one of the boxes Frank Reich said about the quarterback position "a movement-style quarterback." — Nick, Raleigh, NC
Do you think the Panthers will bring a veteran QB from free agency, so he can be a mentor for the rookie QB and compete with the rookie QB? — Jacob, Atlanta, GA
Yeah, might as well start with the big one.
To Ben's point, the (for now, I guess) retirement of Tom Brady has created a quarterback vacuum in the NFC South. And filling it will be the priority for all the teams in the division.
Carr and Jackson are the early names in the news hopper, since they're closer to being available than the draft prospects who'll be in Indy next week. Of course, Jackson is a little less available since the Ravens are expected to tag him in some form, protecting the value of their asset. Depending on who you believe, he could be had, but it's going to cost you picks to acquire him and then lots and lots of money.
Carr's free to do as he chooses at any moment. He's already made a stop in New Orleans and New York on his tour. He hasn't shown up here yet, but here's the thing. It makes a degree to sense to inquire about him because he's a bit of a known commodity. He's been to four Pro Bowls, and he's been to the playoffs. He's objectively better than anyone they've rolled out on the field since Cam Newton was healthy.
And honestly, you can expand this conversation to other potential free agents such as Jimmy Garoppolo and even Darnold (or a half dozen other names). It's kind of hard to zoom in on any one theory of finding quarterbacks at the moment because right now, teams are trying to figure out what this market is going to look like.
Until teams (and all the agents) get to Indianapolis, everyone's guessing about what the cost of each of these guys will be. And until we know that, it's hard to know which teams are going to be most eager to make a move and what direction that's going to push teams in March.
I know the Panthers have talked about getting off the wheel of veteran stop-gaps and drafting one, and that makes sense, but there's a catch. They draft ninth overall, so there's no certainty they'll get one there. This is not in their control. And the only thing worse than paying a quarterback too much is not having a quarterback. So if you can't get to the pick you want, you'd want to find the best veteran you could, and even if your intent is to draft one, you have to have alternate plans as well.
To single out the most recent name, Carr might not create the most sizzle, but he'd capably improve the position. And if you can't be sure you can do that in the draft, you're better off getting better.
Hi Darin! Long time no mailbag. Just kidding. I know you've been super busy keeping up with all these new coaching hires. Whew! What a staff! My question is, once Frank Reich and his team travel to Indy for the combine, and they find their conviction on a certain QB, could we see them trading all the way up to one of those top two picks to get their guy? — Jeff, Henderson, NV
Do you think Carolina Panthers could have intentions to trade up in the draft? — Perry, Nashville, TN
Well, that's where the quarterbacks usually are, and if you want one, sometimes you have to go get them. They didn't do it when they were a spot away from Justin Herbert in 2020, and you get the sense some people around here kind of regret it.
That's not to say they're absolutely moving up because guess what, other people are also interested in the same scarce commodities. But I think they're open to it if they need to be.
They're still in the early stages of evaluations, with college scouts finishing up the first set of draft meetings this week. But as they study this class and set their board, you have to imagine the calculations also include what it might cost to get to _.
General manager Scott Fitterer, as you may have heard, wants to be "in on every deal," and this might be his chance to prove it.
It won't be cheap to get there. Again, they pick ninth, and there are at least four teams who need to find a long-term answer at quarterback in front of them (and probably more than four, if those teams are being honest with themselves).
But if you're not going after a more established veteran option, trading up is kind of the cost of doing business. Other people are thinking the same thing. Stay tuned.
Based on the past drafts, should Carolina trade down the first pick and take a QB later and use additional picks for other players since they will be "rebuilding" again this year? — Melvin, Mooresville, NC
Ahhhh, the Brock Purdy effect is already working on people. Because the 49ers got on a hot streak with a seventh-rounder last year, everyone's going to start to wonder if their team can, too. But not just any seventh-rounder can do what Purdy did, mainly because few of them get to play with a roster like Purdy was surrounded by. That was an ideal situation, and not every situation is set up for just anyone to walk into.
Now, taking a quarterback later remains a possibility because adding to the pipeline remains a sound philosophy. Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf used to draft a quarterback every year, and he hit on several and flipped a few he didn't need.
But the idea of rebuilding is also up for debate. As mentioned above, the NFC South is wide open, so there's no point in assuming that the Panthers (or the Saints, or the Falcons, or the Bucs) can't compete if they get the quarterback position (and all the other ones around him) right.
It seems like the Panthers have about as many coaches as players [added another yesterday] - is one on one the goal? Do they really need that many cooks in the kitchen? — Mitchell, Clover, SC
It's one thing to have a lot of people. What the Panthers have are a lot of good people.
If anything Reich has done since taking over has stood out, it has been assembling a group with what he calls "diversity of thought." That means old heads who know the passing game, like himself and Jim Caldwell. That means a rookie coach who played in the league forever, like Josh McCown. That means prying former Rams running backs coach Thomas Brown out of the House of McVay to be offensive coordinator, bringing a run game perspective. That means longtime NFL back and assistant Duce Staley.
Make no mistake, Frank's the boss. He's going to call plays until he's comfortable passing it off to someone else, and he said as much this week. But assembling a group of smart people and hopefully creating some stability on offense remains the goal.
I'm not sure I've made the Mailbag since the Herald days. We're all a little older now - time being undefeated. Tell me a bit of what you see in Frank Reich and Dom Capers as they change from their journey. — Chris, Greensboro, NC
Now that's a name I have not heard in a long time. Welcome back, Chris.
The throwback vibe is strong, with the Panthers' original starting quarterback and original head coach walking the halls.
Reich wasn't with the Panthers long enough to move into Bank of America Stadium in 1996, but Capers was. He laughed this week as he sat in his office, thinking how much had changed. For one thing, the room he's in was occupied by his defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 1996 (Jim Caldwell is currently in the office offensive coordinator Joe Pendry was in then, immediately to the right when the head coach walks out of his door). And yes, Capers is the kind of guy who remembers the seating chart from 27 years ago. He's that detailed. Always has been.
He also paused in the hall to scan a print of the team's 10th Anniversary team, full of a number of his guys such as Sam Mills and Kevin Greene and John Kasay and many others. He's taking in all the nostalgia, for sure, even remembering old restaurants he used to frequent in his first stint, which are long gone in a changing city (RIP, Frankie's on Morehead).
But the thing that's stayed the same about Capers is his commitment to the game. He's not really much of a golfer or a fisherman (though he does have a lot on Lake Tillery he's thinking about doing something with again). Listening to him this week brought it back; this is Dom's environment, the place he feels comfortable.
"I can remember we had a lot of national media in here (in 1996), and some guy asked me what do you want to be doing when you're 72 years old?" Capers recalled. "And I looked at him, and I said, I want to be coaching, and God willing, here I am still coaching.
"So I enjoy the competitiveness. The X and O part of the game. Still, I don't think there's anything that matches Sunday afternoon for three hours. You put in all that work during the week, and there's no in-between. You either feel real good, or you don't feel very good at all. And I don't know what you find to match that when it's all over."
So since we're on the nostalgia kick with Dom, we might as well make Chris this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and get him the appropriate honorarium since I didn't have a merch budget when I was at my old newspaper.
Thoughts on the Super Bowl? Were you there?— Will, Rock Hill, SC
Skipped it this year. Great game. Fun to watch on TV. Wasn't sure either team was going to be in that game (the 49ers were the best team in the league this year, and only their third and fourth quarterbacks getting hurt kept them out of the Bowl). But ultimately, the team with the best quarterback and the better coach won. Wish I had been there.
Of course, I wish I had been there for reasons that have nothing to do with the game itself or my journalistic obligations. It was a big day because it was the last game for Arizona Republic columnist Kent Somers after 38 years at the paper.
Kent's a big deal in the journalism business, but he was also the best man at my most recent wedding and one of the best men I can imagine. We've known each other for what feels like forever, first as friends who caught up at a game a year or a dinner in Indianapolis at the combine. We quickly discovered that we had similar senses of humor (which was evident as jokes worked their way through "the intestine"), listened to a lot of the same records, and thought alike about a lot of things.
The day I really realized he was my role model was at my first committee meeting as a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I was younger then and deathly afraid I was going to say or do something stupid in front of so many legends of my profession (including him). I showed up early with my notes and office supplies and sat down kind of timidly near a corner. Kent lets me get all settled, and about two minutes before the meeting starts, he leans over his breakfast and whispers, "I don't know how to tell you this, Darin, but you're sitting in Edwin Pope's chair," referring to the legendary Miami columnist. I damn near died, and so did he (laughing) when he realized I took it hook, line, and sinker.
Over time, we each became the other's road-wife (when in doubt about entertainment, just Google "dive bar in [city], trust me, it works, and tell Sunny we said hello). We spent a lot of days and nights together at Super Bowls and combines and all the league events. People would see me in a press room and say, "Where's Kent?" The answer was usually nearby, but that was true even when we weren't at ball games.
Life sometimes throws you curveballs, and when I hit a patch in life where I wasn't connecting, he was always there. Having one of your best friends 2,100 miles away isn't an ideal situation for support, especially among a group of people (men) who aren't given to asking for help. But on a lot of rough days, there'd inevitably be a text from him at just the right time, always a simple two-word "How's shit?" which is more poignant than profane, really. It's the opening a couple of adult males need to allow themselves to start a conversation about stuff that matters. We did, often by text. My small circle of friends back home knew that "talking to Kent" didn't always include actually talking, but it kept me afloat on more days than I could count. I still have all those texts, and won't ever delete them on purpose because there are a couple of albums' worth of great material in there. Sometimes I offered the same treatment to him, but this was never an even trade. He gave a lot more than he ever got back. That's kind of who he is.
We might not get to hang out at as many Super Bowls now (to the eternal sadness of the dive bar industrial complex), but he gets to be a husband and a father and a grandpa more often now and has big plans that involve yard work. He's already bored. He's also got a guest bedroom that he's promised out, and I know some people who are going to take him up on it.
The business will miss him. They don't make beat writers like they used to, even when they get old and become columnists. He's one of the best friends a reader will ever have. But he's mostly one of the best friends you could ever ask for.
Hi Darin! Love the column. I was excited to see JJ Jansen get an extension so he can pad the stats on his "Longest Tenured Panther" crown. But it also serves as a decent setup for "Old Guy" jokes, of which I'm sure you have some favorites. For Jansen, I was thinking, "JJ is so old, his jersey number is the same as his Social Security number." Any contributions you'd like to make the old guy joke offering, I'd love to hear. Thanks, and Keep Pounding! — Forest, Holly Springs, NC
Arizona-native Jansen (who grew up reading Somers, because Jansen is the kind of guy who read newspapers when they were still a thing) also always comes along at just the right time. Because I think we all needed some comic relief in this Mailbag after that last tear-jerker (#selfawareness).
There are a lot of great one-liners about JJ, and he is quite possibly old enough to have a double-digit Social Security number. I swear, I ran into his BFF Johnny Hekker today, and said: "JJ is so old, __," and Hekker replied: "His Social Security number is 1." So there you go Forest, you are exactly as funny as an All-Decade punter. There's also this beauty, which I wish I had written.
But any jokes aside, what he's done in his career is remarkable. Long snappers have a next-to-no margin of error. If you make more than one mistake a year, you become expendable in a hurry. So the fact we can list JJ's bad snaps by memory shows you that he's been very good for a very long time.
In addition to breaking the Panthers' all-time record for games played (previously held by JJ Jansen) in last year's finale, he's also climbing the league's all-time list.
He's tied for 134th in NFL history with 226 games played, alongside Hall of Famers Paul Krause and Emmitt Smith. If he stays healthy, he'll pass three Hall of Famers in September (Kevin Greene, Ray Lewis, Rickey Jackson), and could pass a lot of other dudes including Dan Marino, and be tied for 70th all-time by the end of the season. If he plays the four more years he's hoping to, he'd be 17th on that list.
In all seriousness, that's amazing.
Thanks for all your insight and humorous dialogue! First timer here! I'm military serving in Alabama/Georgia, which my family calls Georgiabama, but Charlotte is our "home!" Super excited about the new hire of our coach but have not heard too much about re-signing any of the major contributors from last year's team. Any idea about re-signing certain running backs, receivers, or offensive linemen? Once again, thanks for all you do! — Scott, Phenix City, AL
We're getting close to the time when that's a possibility.
Of the Panthers' full list of free agents, there are a couple of guys who are some degree of priority (beyond Jansen, who is already re-signed for another year).
Center Bradley Bozeman is likely near the top of that list.
With right guard Austin Corbett rehabbing his torn ACL, keeping Bozeman around would help maintain the stability they found up front last year (using just two starting lineups all year, after they used 13 different groups in 17 games in 2021).
Bozeman will be an unrestricted free agent on March 15, but the Panthers could ostensibly keep him at any point before then. It's something they'd like to do, but it probably wouldn't happen before the combine.
And a few of the new assistants mentioned D'Onta Foreman as someone they'd want to bring back. Duce Staley was with the Lions last year so that 320 yards the Panthers ran for left a mark. "We got our ass whooped," Staley said flatly.
The Panthers have a few other free agents of interest, but they also have a lot of incumbent starters under contract, so they go into the offseason with fewer holes to fill — other than quarterback, of course.
During the press conferences, it was noted that the staff hadn't started player evaluations, but they had already made the decision to switch to a 3-4 defense. What's the impetus to make the switch to the new defense without conducting proper player evaluations? Was it something from the top down, scheme familiarity, or something else? — Kayin, West Columbia, SC
Base defensive alignment is a thing that's easy to make too much of. As Reich mentioned, teams are only in base personnel about 20 percent of the time.
But mostly, it's what defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero knows best, and he has one of the defense's great mentors in Dom Capers alongside.
So while it's not not a big deal, it's not as big a transition as some people are making it out to be. They'd probably want a bigger defensive end (think a Henry Anderson-sized player) to help with run defense. But mostly, the outside guys, such as Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu, would fit just fine in either system.
Howdy Darin, I appreciate your writing, as I look forward to reading your article. I have a couple of questions and one phrase for ya! Can you please explain "dead cap space, "please and thank you. Second, how does that relate to the Panthers' salary cap situation? Oh, just so you don't have to say it, don't mind if I do — ZACH GO BACK TO CLASS! — David, Farmington, MO
To make a long story short, dead cap is the amount of space they have to account for tied up in players no longer on the roster. There are big chunks sitting there for Christian McCaffrey and Robby Anderson, for instance. But it's considerably less than they've dragged around in the past.
But it's also part of the process you account for. They carried over an extra $10 million in space from last year into this season, and the cap continues to go up. Also, you can create cap space reasonably easily, and they restructured a deal Friday to do just that.
The Panthers aren't in a cap position to go wild in free agency, but they also don't need to go wild in free agency. Other than Bozeman, Foreman, Darnold, and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis, the rest of the starters are already under contract.
Let's go lightning round, brought to you by the patron saint of the lightning round Jeff from Fuquay-Varina, to close it out this week.
Do you think the Panthers will make it to the Super Bowl any time soon? — Steven, Isabella, MI
Depends on how you define soon, and how right they get the quarterback question. Also, they've been twice in 28 years, which is better than some teams can say.
Will Matt Corral be any part of the Panthers' future after his injury? Everyone is saying we're going to trade up for a top-five quarterback. If we were to trade, who would YOU want it to be? I'd either go with CJ Stroud or Anthony Richardson — Matt, West Jefferson, NC
Thank God, the weekly Matt Corral question. I was beginning to worry. If I had the chance to trade for a top-five quarterback, I think I'd go with Joe Burrow.
Have the Panthers ever thought about hiring Luke Kuechly as a linebacker coach or Steve Smith as a wide receivers coach? — Bobby, Darlington, SC
I could see Luke coaching someday because he's always going to be attached to the game in some fashion. It would be funny to see 89 as a coach, mainly to see how he'd handle a young 89. Somewhere in the great beyond, the late Richard Williamson would enjoy watching that.
Who decides how much assistant coaches get paid? — Patrick, Charlotte
Capitalism does. It's an open market situation, so their agents and the team negotiate. There's no cap for coaches, so you can spend as much as you want.
What are your predictions for wins and losses next season? — Skylar, Bloomfield, NM
There will be some of each. If I'm wrong, I'll either send you a free T-shirt, or see if I can get you added to the coaching staff.