A year ago, the Panthers were dabbing their way to the Super Bowl with a combined 17-1 record.
Cam Newton was a media darling, the offense looked unstoppable at times and the defense unmovable.
Oh how quickly things changed.
The Panthers averaged 31.3 points scored in 2015 (tops in the league), against just 19.3 points given up (sixth best). That’s an average game margin of +12.0.
In 2016 those numbers changed drastically. The offense put up 23.1 points per game, good for only 15th. At the same time, the defense faltered even worse, ballooning to 25.1 points per game, 26th in the league. The team was -2 points per game, a swing of 14 points from the year before.
Still, maybe, just maybe, missing the playoffs was in the best interest of the team moving forward.
Not making the playoffs could really pay off in draft position this year.
I’m not saying the Panthers should blow up the team and turn into the Philadelphia Sixers, stockpiling high draft picks for years while putting up the league’s worst record.
However, consider this. The Panthers have the #8 pick in the draft this April. Had the team somehow managed to go 10-6 and top Detroit for a wild card, then the team would be picking at 22 or 23 (depending on tiebreakers with Miami). That’s a difference of 14 or 15 spots.
Two years ago, the Panthers staggered into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record. They knocked off Arizona in the first round, which was exciting, but then were dispatched by Seattle in the second round.
By the NFL’s seeding rules, any team that makes the playoffs has to wait until the non-playoff teams have picked in the draft to make their selection.
If the Panthers had lost one more game, the team would’ve picked 11th. Instead, the team plummeted to 25th. And not just in the first round, but for all seven rounds.
The Panthers wanted to take a tackle in the first round and had graded two or three out as being worthy of such a high pick. However, those men were gone by the time the team finally made a pick.
The first tackle off the board went at 13th to New Orleans, just half a game worse than Carolina at 7-9.
The Bengals went 10-5-1 and still picked four spots ahead of the Panthers and drafted a tackle. Since the Cardinals lost to Carolina in the first round, the Cards picked one spot ahead of Carolina and got themselves a tackle.
Team officials didn’t see another tackle worthy of a first-round pick. So, the Panthers chose outside linebacker Shaq Thompson, which could turn out to be a good pick as he looks like he could step up next season.
However, the team ended up not getting a replacement for Byron Bell in the draft and settled for Michael Oher in free agency.
Oher turned out to be a surprisingly effective pass blocker, but an ineffective run blocker. Still, team officials had to feel lucky he turned out as well as he did.
Then Oher suffered a concussion early in 2016 and missed the rest of the season. This has to be alarming for the team. Add in the fact that the man who stepped in (RT Mike Remmers) is a free agent, and this is a position of need.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the team will find a decent tackle at that spot.
Analyst Mel Kiper Jr. thinks this is a weak year for tackles. He sees only one going in the top 15 picks, and that one person might be gone by the time the Panthers come up.
Jacksonville is fourth and is in need of tackle help.
So are the Chargers in seventh position, though they also are in need of a WR and might want to make a big splash offensively as they move to Los Angeles.
And don’t forget that the Bills in 10th place need a tackle, too. We can’t discount that the team might be willing to trade up a few spots to pass Carolina.
Kiper thinks the Chargers will pick Cam Robinson one spot ahead of Carolina. Fellow analyst Daniel Jeremiah thinks Robinson could fall all the way out of the first round.
Both men think the team would be better off drafting a running back, but LSU’s Leonard Fournette would need somebody to open some holes.
This is the first of two columns on the Panthers. The second will focus on the team’s free agents and salary cap.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.