CHARLOTTE — The Panthers felt comfortable drafting and signing a handful of players with raw physical traits this offseason, in part because they believe they're in a good position to coach those kinds of players.
General manager Scott Fitterer pointed to that after the draft, when they chose the fastest player at last year's combine, the fastest defensive lineman, and a run-and-hit linebacker with a rare combination of size and speed on the third day.
"We are a draft‐and‐develop organization, and that is where we trust our coaches to get with these players and develop them," Fitterer said. "We have a vision for them. So once we get them here, they become ours. We can get them with the coaches, and put them in a position where they can excel."
And with some changes they made to the coaching staff this offseason, the team feels comfortable about their ability to develop those new guys.
Offensive line coach James Campen made a reputation in Green Bay coaching up mid-round picks and turning some of them into Pro Bowlers. Now he gets to work with first-rounder Ikem Ekwonu. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo has a reputation for identifying and developing young quarterbacks, which makes it easier to take Matt Corral in the third round and expect him to get better. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor walked in the door with a reputation for success in the return game, and when they didn't draft a returner over the weekend, they signed Pro Bowler Andre Roberts.
For head coach Matt Rhule, the added experience on this year's staff should be helpful as they put this collection of parts together.
They also added college coaching veteran Paul Pasqualoni to coach defensive line, and brought Steve Wilks back home to coach defensive backs, adding more guys to the staff with head coaching experience.
Rhule's first Panthers coaching staff had a combined 72 years of NFL experience when they started in 2020, with two assistants with 10 years of experience in the NFL (Jeff Nixon and Al Holcomb). This staff has a combined 151 years of experience, with 10 coaches with 10 or more years in the league (including Pasqualoni, though that doesn't count all of his years in the college game).
"Just like you're trying to improve your team, you're trying to improve your coaching staff," Rhule said earlier this offseason at the owners meetings. "I'm grateful to the guys I worked with. A lot of guys left us for jobs in the NFL, so they're great coaches, but the mindset that Ben brings is the mindset I think is important for us. What James Campen brings to the offensive line is important to us. I think any time you're able to add Steve Wilks, a guy who's been a head coach and a defensive coordinator, to add him to that room, to add Paul Pasqualoni to that room who's been a head coach in college and a defensive coordinator in the NFL, that just makes you stronger.
"I think it's a lot of credit to (defensive coordinator) Phil Snow, he's so secure in who he is, that you add a couple of coordinators to the room, and he loves it. I'm happy with where we are staff-wise. I think we have a good group of men who are ready to go."
He's not the only one. Owner David Tepper specifically mentioned the additions to the staff during a recent press conference.
"I want to thank Matt, compliment and thank him, for the real progress towards winning this season," Tepper said. "I want to compliment him on assembling a new staff that brings a lot more experience than we had with the old staff, including two former head coaches. Coach Wilks, who's going to be in the DB room. Coach McAdoo, offensive coordinator. Campen was a great hire as offensive line. Pasqualoni on the defensive line, and Tabor as special teams coordinator. I think all great hires. A wealth of experience. Excited about them. I think that just has to be recognized."
McAdoo in partcular will be a focus, considering the addition of a rookie quarterback this offseason.
He and Rhule have a number of connections from their respective days with the Giants, though they've never directly worked together. Rhule talked to McAdoo about jobs in the past, but was eager to add him this offseason, considering his experience as a play-caller and his success in that role in New York with Eli Manning.
"As I made the change with coordinator, I wanted someone that could come in and do for Sam Darnold and our quarterbacks what Ben did for Eli years ago," Rhule said. "He's so detailed, he's so organized, I said to myself, this is the right guy.
"I trust Ben. . . . I think he'll be really good for the culture of our offense."
Wilks is another known commodity, and plugging him back into a new staff here adds another layer of gravity.
"Him and Phil see the game the same way, so when you're a defensive coordinator, you want a secondary coach who coaches the way you see it," Rhule said. So a lot of experience, I don't think he'll be shook by anything. Him and Phil have a very common vision of how to play. So Phil can trust Steve to get that group to a high level. And it'll be great for Evan Cooper, who's a great coach, to have a guy like Steve who has experience, and he's been good to have around. He's already impressed me."
And with players hitting the field for the first time this week as they progress through the offseason program, that group gets a chance to put all that experience into play.