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Carolina Panthers

Ask The Old Guy: What to make of the combine?


INDIANAPOLIS — The scouting combine is not what is used to be, which is maybe for the best.

It's a bit of a blur. And with so many changes to the player schedules to make it a more digestible (for a television audience) event, it's a very different experience than it was five, 10, or 25 years ago. It's certainly more streamlined but also more packaged. It's still well-attended if not fully participated in. The top prospects rarely work out anymore, and when they do, it feels like news. They'll come and meet with teams and have interviews, but many won't test at all or even be weighed and measured.

But this week is honestly only vaguely about the part shown on television. Mostly, it's about the medical testing, the backroom meetings with agents about prospective free agents, or chatter among teams about trade possibilities. Basically, everything but what some lineman ran a 40-yard dash in or how many times a cornerback bench pressed 225 pounds.

But we come here every year because this thing is part scouting opportunity, part trade show, and part Shriner's Convention. Ike and Jonesy's is gone (the old school coaches still mourn). However, Prime is still there as a place for football people and the football-adjacent to gather to poison their bodies with intemperance and their minds with propaganda. It's full every night until the morning, and you can spot the ones who tried to hang in too long. (You know who you are.) I no longer go there, having found another preferred spot for refreshment, earlier and in moderation. Twice this week, a server asked if I wanted my High Life in the can, and twice I responded: "No ma'am, right here on this stool will be fine." Perhaps not coincidentally, it's popular among a certain subset of football guys, and I'll be damned if I share the name because I don't want young people to ruin it.

Let that sacred ground remain an Indianapolis mystery, and it is but one of many. Among the other questions that will haunt my memory long after I return home are:

— When exactly did quarter-zips become the official uniform of football guys? (#selfawareness, I have many, all free, which may explain it.)

— Why does the media continue to eat disappointing sandwiches? (Again, free.)
— What is the female equivalent of the bro-hug? (The pandemic is over; fist bumps must be passe, so it's once again the standard greeting of the draft industrial complex.)
— How many steaks are too many steaks to eat in a week? (Panthers consultant Terry Bradway once ate 14 meals at Shula's during one combine because he was having so many meetings he never left The Westin.)

Who has better hair than Sam Hartman? (Trick question, it's me.)
— Why do reporters still ask athletes if they met with the ________? (Everybody meets with everybody eventually.)
— How can we find people as tough and strong as Penn State defensive end Chop Robinson's mother? (He was 14 pounds at birth.)

So many questions, so little combine. So give me the hand-clasp, bring it in here for the one-armed real thing; we can whisper some dubious secrets, enjoy a lovely beverage, and check out the mail.


Hi Darin. I hope you are doing well. I'll keep it short. Considering we don't have a pick in the first round, who are some good fits for us from the guys likely left for round 2? Thanks. — LeeAnne, Lincolnton, NC

I'll give you kind of an answer and a little bit of a tease.

For one, Kassidy Hill put together a look at some positions of interest for the Panthers, with a corresponding list of interesting names at each one. It's not designed to be a reflection of team interest (when you're picking 33rd, there's only so scientific you can be), but rather a list of usual suspects and the reasons the Panthers are interested in the position as a whole. But in general, receivers, offensive linemen, pass-rushers, corners, it could go any number of ways.

It's barely March, so it's probably not responsible to try to get too deep into the weeds. And the Panthers aren't at a place in the draft order or progress toward an improved roster to be too specific right now. They're scouting the entire draft because that's the responsible thing to do.

But we have another project coming up soon that might be of interest to you. It's all about putting things into perspective, and it includes a photograph of Mel Kiper Jr.'s hair.

Stay tuned.

Adonai Mitchell


Hello Darin! This weekend, I watched the 1973 movie classic The Sting. Paul Newman is awesome! The Sting's stunning ending brought complete shock to me (yet laughter from my dad), and I was wondering if there are any combine surprises (like some unknown small college WR running a super-fast 40-yard dash time) in Indianapolis that the Panthers are looking at? Enjoy St. Elmo's Steakhouse! — Zach, Charlotte

The surprises in Indy aren't limited to workout numbers.

Sometimes, it's casual interactions that become important.

One Panthers coach once had such an unpleasant encounter with a player in an elevator that he vowed not to take that player in any round. He might have been correct. It was a character thing, and it's possible that it was proven prescient. When you're here, you should always assume someone is watching and making notes. (That goes for the Prime crowd, too.)

I enjoy St. Elmo's a great deal; it is venerable for a reason. But that shrimp cocktail has better PR than any team in the NFL. A little horseradish goes a long way, and their cocktail sauce is performatively hot. Many people enjoy it, and more power to them. When the proportions are just right, it's satisfying. When they're not, it's downright unpleasant and becomes like a trip to the dentist — something you should do a few times a year if you're an adult, but nothing anyone truly enjoys that much. 

Speaking of things you need to do, this is where we always say, GET BACK TO CLASS, ZACH.


Liked what we heard from Dan and Dave regarding what they're looking for. I especially was a fan of how they were on the same page and gave similar answers despite not being behind the lectern at the same time. Maybe the bar is just "that" low after the last few years, but I am hopeful that it's a sign they are in lockstep with an actual vision for the future. The only question I have is: how long will it take? Realistically, are we looking at a Dan Campbell rebuild or a DeMeco Ryans rebuild? — Nate, Charlotte

When Morgan and Canales did their Tuesday tour, they were asked about a lot of specifics. The most interesting things they said might have been some of their more thematic statements.

Morgan talked about building a roster with one eye two or three years down the road. Canales talked about watching enough 2023 Panthers film to be emotionally invested but not close enough to the players he's inherited to let those feelings cloud his judgment.

"Now, I have the benefit of not having the emotional connection to a lot of these guys, so I can come in objectively and just say that's good enough, that's not good enough," Canales said. "And I don't want to get into specifics about who I'm talking about in that regard, but that is my advantage right now."

As to how long it takes, that depends on several factors.

Canales was brought here to build a coherent offense. They didn't have one of those last year. That requires fortifying the line so it's not a revolving door every week and adding some receiving targets to help Bryce Young, but mostly creating something whole. The fundamental brokenness of the 2023 Panthers offense can't be understated. They're working on that part in staff meetings.

If they can make the needed personnel additions on both sides of the ball and keep some key parts, they can be competitive in the NFC South. The fact that's the division they play in is a big factor in any hope you're latching onto. In this division, everyone's a factor because no one is much more than decent. That is a low bar to clear too, but that's the bar they're in front of. That's also why their belief going into last year wasn't completely misguided. It wasn't a terrible roster; it was an injured roster at all the wrong spots and running an offense that was, in hindsight, obviously all wrong. Those are two big hurdles, and they tripped right over them.

It's reasonable to expect better, but how much better will depend on how intelligently they work in the next few months. We'll see.

Bonus points to Nate for correctly identifying the difference between a lectern and a podium (you stand on a podium, but behind a lectern). This puts him ahead of roughly 80 percent of the human population and 90 percent of the media. He's a true FOTM for knowing, and that's why he has the shirt to prove it.


Hey Darin. I'm sure everyone is mailing in their thoughts on the Brian Burns situation. I don't like feeling left out, so here's mine! I love Burns. He's a star, and if we can get him some help (so that offensive coordinators can't zero in on him), he should be a highlight reel every week. I absolutely hope we get him inked to a long-term deal this week. But if we can't, ...

Why not follow the same path that the Ravens did with Lamar Jackson? Tag him, but use the non-exclusive tag. He will be free to test the waters and see what his market value is. If he gets an offer and we feel it's worth paying him, we can match it. If not, we get two first-rounders. At least we would recoup some of the draft capital we traded away. — Chris, Greensboro, NC

The preference would be to get him signed to a long-term deal. Say whatever you want about the contract, but two key numbers — 25 years old with 46.0 sacks — stand out.

But if there's no deal to be made between now and next Tuesday, your thesis is a reasonable one, Chris. He's a valuable piece for the Panthers or others, so tagging him protects that value while giving them more time to negotiate.

It's also worth remembering that this defense works best when it has two pass-rushers, one on either side. So if you trade Burns, you're looking for two of them, and they're not cheap. So much of draft capital you add (and probably a significant amount of free agent money) will be spent replacing him if you deal him.

Again, their preference is to keep him for the long term, Morgan said as much this week. We'll see how it works out.

Brian Burns


How is cutting Donte Jackson considered a good move? Observers seem to think it's a foregone conclusion, and I don't really get that. He's not a shut-down guy, but I feel like he's a starter on most teams. There are not 63 better cornerbacks in the league. He's exactly the kind of guy they keep saying they want. He's definitely a dawg and seems to be well-respected in that locker room. I appreciate your insight, Darin. — Deric, Gastonia, NC

In a vacuum, Donte is absolutely a guy you want on the field. But in a vacuum, it's very dusty, and there's a lot of crumbs and dog hair.

Out in the real world, everything's connected. And per the previous question, tagging Burns seems like a likely outcome, but it impacts other moves. For instance, that $24.007 million tag value for one year tightens the budget up and takes away from other moves you could make. That's why they'd rather extend Burns to spread out the cap hits.

When you start looking at finances, the big numbers stand out, and Jackson has one. That's why a lot of the armchair cap guys probably want to just erase him from the balance sheet they printed off the internet. But if you take the number away, you're also taking the player, and they need the player or someone like him. And as with pass-rushers, good corners are seldom cheap. People bag on him for getting hurt, but he only missed one game last year, and that availability was important considering what was happening around him.

But it's also worth pointing out that all cap numbers are malleable. Brandt Tilis is said to be very good at his job, and he's going to have an opportunity to prove it in the coming weeks. Contracts can be structured and restructured any number of ways, to make the pieces fit together. That process is ongoing, as they're working on a lot of different fronts at once.

Donte Jackson


Could you explain the responsibility, interactions with the coaching staff, etc., of a passing game coordinator? We are confused. — Stephen, Columbia, SC

Fair question. In the scope of football history, it's a recent addition to the lexicon, born out of a desire to add more people to the efforts to find a solution. Staffs are way bigger than they used to be, and that's not always a bad thing.

But the title doesn't mean the same thing in every place. Ran into Nate Carroll recently and presented Stephen's question directly to him, and he grinned and replied, "I'll let you know when I know." He's not just being glib, the roles and responsibilities of Canales' staff are still being determined. Sometimes titles get ginned up for mundane HR reasons, too, as teams try to collect the right combination of people, and you need to make this guy a (fill in the blank) so you can add another guy to the staff. Carroll was a "senior offensive assistant" last year with the Seahawks. He's 36. Senior defensive assistant Dom Capers is 73. The language of titles is a living, breathing, thing.

Those who have coached with Canales say one of his gifts is actively listening. So what's happening now is he's gathering his offensive staff, including coordinator Brad Idzik, Carroll, quarterbacks coach Will Harriger, and the rest of them. They're talking through the offense at both a practical and philosophical level. They're learning each other (it helps that they all speak the same language) and figuring out who's good at what and how their aptitudes might complement each other.

At some point, they'll refine roles, and different guys will take the lead on different parts of the offense during the week of preparation (think third down, red zone, two-minute). Then, they work together on the whole thing.

It's not a simple answer right now, but the only honest answer is they're still working on it. And when they figure it out, Nate and Stephen will be the first to know.

Hello Darin, This is my first time writing, but I have been a PSL owner since team inception and an avid reader of ATOG for a while. I am a UM alum, so I'm excited to see what Dan can do - I can't wait to break out my 55 jerseys from the mothballs! Was excited when he was drafted and remember to this day the final play of the first game when Dan and Pep played together and ended the win with a blocked pass and INT.

Nothing really witty today - just a football observation and wondering if there is any meaning to it. After watching the playoffs, it's so obvious that our receiving corps is deficient - our wideouts rarely get early separation due to a lack of speed, and our tight ends are non-existent. The TEs in the final four had persistent and significant contributions. Feel bad for Bryce! Our offensive play calling had little variation and creativity this year. But I have noticed two tendencies about which I was hoping you could comment: (1) why does our right guard throw a left arm "punch" consistently just prior to the snap - seems almost like a signal to the D line to take off; and (2) have you noticed how frequently the ball is snapped by our offense as the 45 second clock is on 1 or 0? It seems like it would be another clue for the D line. It appeared to me that the playoff teams were much more prepared and only rarely snapped that late in the clock countdown. Possibly our QB's inexperience? Seems to me we need to be better prepared and more efficient. Hoping that comes with more snaps and experience. Critical but always a fan, of course, and hoping for some progress in 2024! Trying to be patient. — Scott, Charlotte NC

Love a good first-time long-time. And in case that 55 jersey smells a little off (mothballs are no joke), I'll make you this week's Friend Of The Mailbag and get the appropriate honorarium on the way so you'll have something fresh to wear.

As to your questions, there's kind of an overarching answer. Last year's offense was, to put it in technical football terms, a hot mess. Nothing about it was right from start to finish. Young gets a lot of criticism because the quarterback always does, but to put last year's failures on any one person is unfair because the problem was systemic. Everything, from cadences to design to luck, was off. The offensive line thing you mentioned isn't really a tell; that's how they signal a silent count, and they change it regularly to keep from being predictable. The problem is, there were too many guards giving those signals. When you have to play seven left guards and eight right guards in a season, the answer is not going to be good.

And yes, I also noticed that all those good offenses in the playoffs had big contributions from tight ends. They went out and signed Hayden Hurst last year, hoping to add to that position, and he suffered a concussion that caused him to miss the back half of the season. Getting more out of that spot this year would be a huge help for Young, whether it's Hurst, Tommy Tremble, or anyone else.

But getting the offense as a whole right is Canales' job, and it's a big one.

Tommy Tremble


Have heard lately Cam Newton regretting not diving for fourth quarter fumble in Super Bowl 50. A few weeks after the game, Denver's Super Bowl MVP Von Miller said he batted a loose ball toward Carolina's goal line. This is ILLEGALLY BATTING A LOOSE BALL!! The penalty for that is 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Cats had third-and-9, so penalty would have given them a first down. Why isn't this mentioned? RSVP, and thanks. — Al, Sebring, FL

What's the statute of limitations on a challenge, anyway? I remember that being a talking point in early 2016. 

Speaking of getting jammed in Super Bowl 50, former Panthers receiver Jerricho Cotchery was named head coach at Limestone University this week. And yes, he caught it.

But it was interesting hearing Cam acknowledge his regret over the loose fumble; it clearly still haunts him, as it does many people. He's growing as a media personality, and opening up about topics like that makes him an interesting listen.

He's also still Cam Newton, which is why you shouldn't try him at a flag football tournament. As I mentioned on Twitter the other day, a dump truck couldn't stop him, what made those cats think they could? But he's owning his part in it (and then some), because the high ground is the best place to be. The climb is steep, but the view is spectacular.

Cam Newton


With a new HC and GM, things look much more positive! Being the experienced football player that we all know I am (chuckling), I've been reviewing the Panthers' current roster and their performance and then looking at the top upcoming Free Agents. Being highly aggressive, here is the direction I'd recommend:

Brian Burns
Frankie Luvu

Chris Jones - DT
Antoine Winfield, Jr – S
Xavier McKinney - S
Mike Onwenu – OG
Bryce Huff – Edge
Robert Hunt – OG
Gabe Davis -WR
John Simpson – OG
Jonah Williams – OT
Conor Williams – OL

OK .... I'll be waiting for my contract in the mail soon! Talk to you soon! — Jim, Timberlake, NC

I think Jim must have been one of those cats who rolled up on Cam the other day and took a few shots to the noggin.

The salary cap went up to $255.4 million. It might need to be double that to sign all the guys Jim wants to sign. Also, he forgot JJ Jansen. Somebody has to snap.

The Panthers have some room to make moves. Not that kind of room. No one does.


And on that note, 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.

I really want to be in the NFL; it's been my dream for a long time. I'm 14 years old, and I've been working hard. Do you have any advice? — Jacob, Lincolnton, NC

Never stop working. That's true if you want to be an NFL player or be anywhere in an NFL organization. The grinders make themselves indispensable. Players get picked on talent. Everyone else rises to their eventual level on work ethic. As the man said, Keep Pounding, and best of luck to you Jacob.

Hello Darin, quick question for you. I realize the 2024 cap number for free agents and the draft, as well, and realistically, I can't expect the boys to go to the Super Bowl this season (I am optimistic, though). That being said, what does the cap situation look like going into the 2025 offseason? Also, just a quick note of appreciation for my FOTM T-shirt. I was having a bad day, came home to a package, and I was like ! ???? I opened it and wow, to my surprise, I saw the T-shirt. Made my day change for the better as well as seeing that evening that our defense coaches are staying intact. Huge thank you again: Keep Pounding. — David, Farmington, MO

You're welcome, David, and thanks for being part of the ATOG family.

Also, the 2025 cap situation isn't something to worry about at the moment, primarily because there are only about 20 guys under contract for 2025. And that doesn't include big names like Derrick Brown or Burns. They have a lot of room in the future, but the only thing better than having cap space is having good players. That's the goal of this offseason.

How do you get a St. Elmo's cocktail sauce stain out of the white quarter-zips favored by so many Hall of Fame selectors? — Kent, Glendale, AZ

By wearing the black one, of course.

Mystery solved. That's one, at least.

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