Looking ahead to 2022: Offensive renovation in order

CHARLOTTE — Clearly, the Panthers have more work to do on offense.

And in all honesty, it's probably more than they can do in one offseason.

After finishing 30th in the league in total offense, and ranking near the bottom in a number of key categories, the Panthers know they're looking at a major renovation in 2022.

There are some pieces on that side of the ball, but they're scattered, and to get to where they need to be offensively is going to take a concerted effort — but also time.

With no long-term answer at quarterback, not enough talent on the offensive line, and questions about maximizing the star running back and how to take advantage of some talented wideouts (including one in a contract year), it's a lot to work through. They know that, which is why this offseason is critical in laying the foundation for the future.

A major component of that will be the offensive coordinator hire, but the issues on that side of the ball go beyond coaching. With 22 unrestricted free agents, there's going to be plenty of movement this offseason, so let's dig into what they need to do on offense.

Taylor Moton

OFFENSIVE LINE

What they've got: Taylor Moton, Brady Christensen, Deonte Brown, Michael Jordan, Pat Elflein, Cameron Erving, Dennis Daley, Sam Tecklenburg, Mike Horton, Austen Pleasants, Aaron Monteiro.

In a perfect world, this group would contain two or three starters, and some of the young players who showed different degrees of promise would be fighting for backup roles. After allowing 52 sacks last year (fifth-most in the league), a good shuffling of the deck is in order.

Moton is a rock. He started every game this season, and he's dependable and good at his job, and there's no reason to think he won't be for some time.

Christensen played a lot for a rookie, and by the end of the year, did not look out of place. The third-round pick will almost certainly start somewhere on the line, but at the moment, they don't know where. That will depend largely on other acquisitions. If they load up at guard in free agency, a better grade of talent next to him could mean he's a capable left tackle. If they sign or draft a big-time left tackle, he could move inside and become the Travelle Wharton to the new guy's Jordan Gross.

Elflein started the year at guard, but was mostly accurately viewed as a long-term replacement at center, and that path is open to him now.

Beyond that, it's all projects and depth. Jordan played a lot of snaps and is good as a run-blocker, less so in pass protection. Brown played one snap of offense before the finale, so it's too soon to know how ready he is to take on a larger role.

If Erving goes into next year as their swing tackle, that would be a role consistent with his salary and their original intentions. He started at left tackle last year out of necessity at first, and has given some solid snaps when he's well. That hasn't been often enough to depend on him for a full season, but he has value.

What they don't: They lack certitude, for one thing. With no position coach at the moment, and with so many spots up for grabs, it's impossible to know what this group will look like by the summer.

They have three unrestricted free agents at the position (John Miller, Trent Scott, and Matt Paradis), and a lot of jobs to fill. The direction will also be set when they find a new offensive line coach, though that job will likely dovetail with the coordinator hire, since they need to be speaking off the same page when the season starts.

Offseason outlook: They're walking up to a buffet, so they can fill their plate a number of different ways.

There are big-ticket free agents such as left tackle Terron Armstead or guard Brandon Scherff (or even an old friend like Andrew Norwell) who'd make an immediate impact, and help set the tone for future moves. They could trade for help. But with the sixth overall pick in the draft, they're also in position to take a young tackle they could build around. Figuring out the direction is what's happening in the coming weeks, as they set their boards for free agency and then the draft. Adding at least two starters this offseason seems like a prerequisite, though they need to continue to build with younger players such as Christensen and Brown so this thing might stay fixed once it gets fixed.

Terrace Marshall Jr., Robby Anderson, DJ Moore

WIDE RECEIVERS

This is as close to a turn-key position group as they have. Moore's a star, with three straight 1,100-yard seasons. Anderson's coming off a down year, but his work in 2020 suggests that was as much about the general offensive malaise as himself. Marshall's an interesting case, as they eased him into the season to make sure he was physically well, and he ended the year on IR with a stress reaction in his foot they didn't want to get worse. He needs an offseason of on-field OTAs, because when he was on the field in the preseason and training camp he looked like a guy who would grow into a prominent role. That didn't happen, for several reasons. Smith has deep speed they like, and made a couple of plays. But he's also the kind of guy who could do himself some favors if he learned to return punts reliably. With his explosiveness, you can imagine him being dangerous in that area if he masters it this offseason. It would also help him get on the field (he was active for six games).

What they don't: It's tempting to say they "only" have two unrestricted free agents here in Brandon Zylstra and Alex Erickson. But when we're talking about Zylstra, he's never "only" one thing.

He's a capable receiver. He's a core special teamer. He's their backup kicker, as he showed in Buffalo. He's also the guy who can, in a pinch, do things like long snap. Zylstra has value far beyond the receiving stats on the back of his football card, and he's worth keeping around to provide stability on special teams.

Offseason outlook: Maybe they look for some developmental guys late in the draft, but they're fortunate enough at the top of the depth chart — with guys whose contracts are staggered — that they don't have to make it a priority.

The next big deal will be working on the future with Moore, who's playing on his fifth-year option for $11.1 million, and set for a lucrative extension. That's pretty high on the priority list.

Tommy Tremble

TIGHT ENDS

What they've got: Tommy Tremble, Stephen Sullivan, Giovanni Ricci, Colin Thompson.

They went out in free agency and signed Dan Arnold for a reason, and they still need a player who can make a difference in the passing game here. Tremble has promise and does a lot of different things, but there's not that one guy across the middle the quarterback can target. Sullivan's a guy they're grooming for the future, who has teased at big production since his days at LSU. Ricci made the switch to fullback this year and excelled on special teams. But without knowing the offensive plan, it's kind of hard to project his role.

What they don't: Ian Thomas is an unrestricted free agent, and it will be interesting to see if he gets the Chris Manhertz treatment in the market. (The former Panther signed a two-year, $6.65 million deal with the Jaguars last offseason.) Thomas had moments, but is still learning the game.

Offseason outlook: Depends on what comes up, and what the next coordinator wants to do. Based on priorities, they would likely need to find a blocking tight end, whether it's Thomas or someone like him. While they lack top-end talent like they do at receiver, it's farther down the list of offseason needs. But they missed Arnold when he was gone, so eventually finding a steady target would help whoever ends up playing quarterback.

Christian McCaffrey

RUNNING BACKS

What they've got: Christian McCaffrey, Chuba Hubbard, Spencer Brown.

Fair or unfair, McCaffrey has reached the point in his career where the question is not ability but availability. He talked this week about "tempering" his offseason workouts, after his second straight year of injuries (plural). When well, he's one of the league's best players. The problem is how to make a plan when you don't know how often he'll be well. No one works more to stay on the field, he's just been unfortunate with a few of these injuries (including an ankle when a linemen fell across his legs as he was being tackled).

Hubbard showed occasional flashes, but wasn't dependable enough as a receiver to take on a bigger role when McCaffrey was hurt. There are times when he looks like he's about to pop a long run, and he had a few, but there weren't enough of the tempo runs which the offense needed. If he got better as a pass-catcher, it would serve him and the offense well.

What they don't: Versatile reserve Ameer Abdullah played a decent-sized role after coming in midseason, primarily because he could be trusted to catch passes. He also returned kicks, and added some experience to a room that needed it. Not the first item on the offseason list, but he found a niche here, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him return.

Offseason outlook: General manager Scott Fitterer addressed the elephant in the room, referencing the regular and ubiquitous reports that McCaffrey was on the trade block. He said they'd listen to anything, but didn't plan on moving him. Honestly, they'd have to get good value to make it worth taking the dead money hit now that he's well into his contract extension. To move him now would cost significant cap space, so hanging onto him and hoping he can be on the field makes sense, since he's so good when he's out there. But they also need to add a reliable complement. He gets compared to Alvin Kamara a lot, and the Saints running back has been at his best when there's a Mark Ingram alongside. So finding someone to keep part of the load off McCaffrey, whether that's Hubbard or an outsider, would certainly help.

Sam Darnold

QUARTERBACKS

What they've got: Sam Darnold, P.J. Walker.

Might as well save the biggest question, and the most complicated situation, for last. Darnold's on the books for a guaranteed $18.9 million this year, so they may have no choice but hang onto him, and try to create the best possible situation around him. But that's not the only option; as the Panthers have said many times the plan is to keep looking for answers at the position until they find one.

Darnold played well enough at times this year. The first four games he was competent and efficient, but there were problems in the middle of the year that transcended the line or the absence of McCaffrey. Would making everything better around him help? It couldn't hurt, whether that's for him or someone else. Creating the situation for offensive success through coordinator, protection, and players would make it easier for any quarterback to have success.

Walker is a familiar commodity, and he can make plays on the run or with his arm. But he also turns the ball over way too often, and has a disturbing tendency to try to make big throws across his body, taking chances they can't afford when the margin of error is slim.

What they don't: Cam Newton is an unrestricted free agent, after his bittersweet comeback half-season. He was inspiring in Arizona, quite good against Washington, but never good enough at passing after that game to be considered a reliable starter (44.5 passer rating post-Washington). He admitted after the season that he'd consider being a backup somewhere, as long as winning was an attainable goal. Is that here? Who knows right now.

He has something to offer a team, even if he's not the bright shining star he once was. Head coach Matt Rhule raved about his leadership and dedication late in the year, one of the guys you can point to and show other players what work looks like. That has value, even if he's not in a starring role.

Offseason outlook: This could go a number of different ways. Or no way at all.

That could mean swinging for the fences for a trade. It could mean having their choice of quarterbacks with the No. 6 overall pick. Or it could also mean the answer doesn't come this year. They're not in a position to be able to deal for a $40 million a year quarterback and also rebuild the line the way it needs to be rebuilt at the same time, so maintaining flexibility — and fixing what you can fix when the opportunity arises — is key.

That's not to say they're out of the quarterback market — they absolutely are in it. But they have to make prudent choices, because they know the offensive talent isn't at a point where any one player makes all the difference. That's a hard truth, but it's the spot they're in.

It's going to be a wild offseason for them as they rebuild the offense — after spending most of the resources the previous two years on the other side of the ball. But fundamental change was also needed, and they're now embarking on a big job.

View select photos from the Panthers wide receivers and tight ends from 2021, including DJ Moore who topped 1,100 receiving yards for the third-straight season.

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