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The “Tank for Trevor” game plan has already been implemented by the Carolina Panthers.
OK, that may be a bit much. But the Panthers are clearly entering a rebuilding phase—which could result in the acquisition of Clemson quarterback and future No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
Their current standing with highly desirable pieces makes them a fascinating rebuilding project.
The Panthers haven’t hidden their desire to build a long-term vision instead of remaining in the 5-7 to 11-5 mediocrity spectrum the franchise has been stuck in over the last four years.
This became apparent when owner David Tepper hired Matt Rhule as Ron Rivera’s replacement.
“We have a shared vision,” Tepper told reporters while introducing Rhule as Carolina’s new head coach. “We know it’s not going to be a fast process. We’re willing to build something for the long term.
“Things could happen fast, and maybe they will because we’re so aligned. But we’re in a building process here, and sometimes you have to tear things down to build them up.”
An owner can’t be more transparent in today’s NFL. The organization appears more than willing to take the short-term hit necessary to improve its long-term health.
The difference between Carolina now and what’s been seen with recent teardowns in Cleveland and Miami is the amount of talent the Panthers could possibly leverage into a massive war chest of assets.
If the front office is willing to go all-in with Tepper’s supposed vision—the owner plans to push his investment toward becoming “more analytically focused,” according to The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrigue and Joseph Person—the team has the type of players it can turn into a windfall as good or better than the Dolphins orchestrated this past year with their nine first- and second-round picks over the next two drafts.
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At the same time, one wonders if the Panthers are capable of being as shrewd in negotiations after flipping five-time Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner to the Los Angeles Chargers for 31-year-old left tackle Russell Okung. Carolina dealt an elite interior blocker in a rare player-for-player swap for an older, more expensive and less durable option.
Why would Carolina consider such a move when Turner could have warranted more if the Panthers specifically requested draft picks in return? New offensive line coach Pat Meyer, who previously coached with the Chargers, pushed the front office to acquire his former left tackle, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
“My guy”-ism at its finest.
The juxtaposition between the previous two positions is intriguing because a team’s building plan is only as good as the organization’s willingness to move on from certain talent and those orchestrating potential deals.
Quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey present two significant pieces the Panthers could use as significant collateral to reposition the program for years to come.
Newton’s status remains in limbo, though.
The team hasn’t committed to the former league MVP, but NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported it plans to move forward with Newton as its starting quarterback “as of now.” Rapoport added Rhule has been “encouraged” by the 30-year-old’s rehab from last year’s season-ending foot injury.
Those reports surfaced two weeks after the team owner didn’t commit to Newton as the Panthers’ starter.
“Listen, I’m not a doctor,” Tepper told reporters. “I’ve said it a million times. Is he healthy? He’s not a doctor. There’s a lot of different things that can happen, but first is, is he healthy? Tell me that and then we can talk.”
On top of that, Rhule recently brought on quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. in a “partnership” role, according to Pro Football Talk’s Darin Gantt. This can be read in one of two ways. Either Whitfield’s previous history working with Newton prior to the 2011 NFL draft indicates a certain level of commitment to the quarterback, or the team wants an extra voice to help develop another young quarterback. At this point, Whitfield’s inclusion could legitimately mean either.
“The only thing that matters is getting him healthy,” Rhule told reporters of Newton. “I’m excited to have him here. I want him to be here. I want to coach him.”
Mixed messages aside, the Panthers hold arguably the biggest trump card regarding the quarterback market.
“Right now, they want to get him healthy and see what they are dealing with, but despite all the love being thrown Cam’s way publicly during combine week, insiders I spoke to think it’s less of a sure thing that Newton is the Panthers’ starting QB this season,” ESPN Matthew Berry reported.
The Washington Redskins may be hot and heavy after Newton if he becomes available because Rivera “absolutely loves” him, per Berry.
League sources told Rodrigue and Person the Panthers could wait until June to see where the trade market stands after free agency and the draft before strongly considering a potential Newton move. Desperation will drive up the price, whereas the Panthers don’t have to rush into anything even though Newton’s age—he turns 31 in two months—injury history and style of play, which could lead to further injury, don’t necessarily align with the organization’s preferred approach.
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No one is denying the quarterback’s ability, but Carolina should seriously consider the possibility of moving on from Newton since he’ll likely demand a significant return. The Panthers, meanwhile, already have Kyle Allen and Will Grier on the roster. The team could invest in another quarterback with this year’s seventh overall draft pick too.
Given how convoluted Newton’s situation is, a far more tantalizing trade option exists on Carolina’s roster.
If general manager Marty Hurney dangled McCaffrey to other teams, his market would eclipse Newton’s. Most franchises could use an offensive weapon like the 2019 first-team All-Pro more than a change from their current quarterback.
The running back’s availability is more speculative than anything, but the Panthers have reached the initial window after a player’s third season when the team can start negotiations for a long-term contract.
How Carolina values McCaffrey remains in question. This has nothing to do with his ability or production. McCaffrey is the best all-around running back in the game. Last year, he became the third player in league history to produce 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Even so, the depreciation of the running back position can’t be denied. As such, those within McCaffrey’s camp say they “will focus more on his versatility, particularly his abilities in the passing game,” during contract negotiations, per Rodrigue and Person.
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If the Panthers seriously consider moving McCaffrey, he would command multiple high-round draft picks they could use to set up the team for the next two or three years. The possibility should be strongly considered. As good as McCaffrey is—and he’s great—the Panthers could waste some of his prime years while building up the rest of the roster.
The current setup isn’t beneficial for either party beyond keeping a star player on the roster and letting him produce significant numbers in what could be meaningless games.
Teardowns take time because the franchise in question must flip tradeable assets to create both draft and financial flexibility. The goal is to rid the roster of excess spending on players not deemed part of the long-term foundation. Newton and McCaffrey are the headliners in Carolina, but others on the roster still hold some value.
Right tackle Taylor Moton enters the last year of his rookie deal. A weak free-agent offensive line class will drive his worth through the roof if he becomes available.
DJ Moore led the team with 1,175 receiving yards, but he may not be viewed as a true No. 1 target, as former Panther Steve Smith Sr. said during NFL Scouting Combine coverage. The 2018 first-round pick played well in his second season, but the team might consider moving him if interested parties offered a significant return.
Cornerback Donte Jackson looked like a future star during his rookie campaign, but the Panthers staff benched him last season. Other coaches always think they can get the most of a talented younger player who underperformed at a previous stop. Jackson warrants potential looks as a result.
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Last year’s second-round pick, offensive tackle Greg Little, is more of a project today than when he was drafted. According to Sports Radio WFNZ’s Kyle Bailey, the Panthers are interested in seeing Little at guard. But his value didn’t significantly depreciate as a tackle less than a year after being the 37th overall pick.
Veteran Kawann Short was once considered an elite defensive tackle. He’s now 31 years old and missed most of last season with a partially torn rotator cuff. Yet he’s being paid like an elite defensive tackle. A contender could look at Short as a trade target if the Panthers were willing to eat some of his contract. The seven-year veteran has a $12 million base salary and a $20.31 million salary-cap hit for the 2020 campaign.
Releasing someone like Dontari Poe can add to the team’s coffers. Carolina would save over $9.8 million with his departure.
Looking around the rest of the league, no other team is in the same position as the Panthers. Cleveland is now two seasons removed from its painful rebuild. The Dolphins exceeded expectations a year ago, but they’re still in Year 2 of their turnaround. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings have intriguing pieces if they decide to reset, but neither franchise seems committed to a rebuild. The Chargers don’t have players of Newton or McCaffrey’s caliber they’d likely part with to entice suitors.
Carolina stands as the most obvious and fascinating option when it comes to tearing the roster down and restarting. Thirty-one other franchises should be texting or calling Hurney on a regular basis to see how willing the Panthers are to wheel and deal.
Tepper is a venture capitalist. He understands taking on risk and making big investments to create the largest long-term return. This approach is exactly how the Panthers should operate after years of middling performances.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.