A follower recently tweeted to me the following question: "Do you think the Panthers will make the playoffs this year?" I was initially taken aback, as my mailbag and mentions have been chalk-full of draft inquiries. As I sat and thought about it, I really had no answer. This required a deeper investigation.
If you have been following the NFL since its expansion to 32 teams, it is well known that the road to the playoffs goes through a team's division rivals. Yes, there are wild card spots, but if your team does not fare well against its in-division opponents, you can kiss your team's playoff chances goodbye. Thus, this article examines how the Panthers and the NFC South have done after 6 weeks of free agency, and if the moves made will catapult the Panthers into the playoffs next year. (This analysis is done pre-draft, so anything can happen before then. Keep in mind also that players whose contracts were resigned or not renewed were not listed.)
Just when it looked like the Falcons run game was slowing to a crawl, they pick up a hard-charging battering ram in Steven Jackson. (via cdn0.sbnation.com)
Gains: RB Steven Jackson, DE Osi Umenyiora
Losses: DE John Abraham, OT Tyson Clabo, CB Brent Grimes, QB Luke McCown, DB Chris Owens, CB Dunta Robinson, DE Lawrence Sidbury, OT Will Svitek, RB Michael Turner, DE Vance Walker
Where They Got Better: RB and pass-rushing DE. The Falcons replaced the slow, plodding Turner with the younger, more efficient Jackson. The same can be said at DE, were Umenyiora provides a younger pass rusher than the exiting Abraham.
Where They Need to Improve Through the Draft: Offensive line and secondary. Atlanta lost significant pieces on its offensive line (Clabo and Svitek) and secondary (Grimes and Robinson) without replacement. They will need to be competitive at these units to complete with pass-happy Saints and pass-rushing Panthers.
Analysis: The division champs took quite a beating in free agency, losing a heap of talent across the offensive line and secondary. It is safe to say that despite upgrades at RB and DE, the Falcons may have a hard time repeating as division champs if they do not stock up in this year's draft.
Outlook: WORSE. The Falcons took a step back in free agency, and may cost them the division title in 2013.
He may not be the best of pass catchers, but Ted Ginn was a huge upgrade for the Panthers return game. (via cdn1.sbnation.com)
Gains: LB Chase Blackburn, DT Colin Cole, CB Drayton Florence, WR Ted Ginn, Jr., WR Domenik Hixon, S Mike Mitchell, CB D.J. Moore
Losses: LB James Anderson, TE Gary Barnidge, DT Ron Edwards, CB Chris Gamble, WR Louis Murphy, LB Jason Phillips
Where They Got Better: Special Teams and Secondary depth. The Panthers have struggled in special teams that last two years, particularly at coverage and punt returns. Nearly all new players signed give the special teams quite a boost. And after a 2012 in which Josh Norman was benched, and the defense relied on James Dockery and Josh Thomas to cover receivers, Moore, Florence, and the returning Captain Munnerlyn should give the Panthers a quality secondary even if there is injury.
Where They Need to Improve Through the Draft: Defensive and offensive lines. Carolina lost DT Ron Edwards, who was a makeshift space eater on the inside. Without him returning, the already-poor run defense takes a hit. Second, a restructured contract/early out by Jordan Gross, and struggles by Geoff Hangartner and Byron Bell last year scream for help on the offensive line.
Analysis: For a team that finished 4-1 at the end of 2012 and had little to no salary cap space, the Panthers did very well for themselves. Upgrades to WR and special teams depth have long been needs and GM Dave Gettleman filled them quickly and cheaply.
Outlook: BETTER. The Panthers have gotten better at nearly all deficient positions from last year. Unless Cam regresses, you can count on an improvement in their 2013 record.
Ranking #31 in pass defense last year, the Saints made a huge acquisition in CB Keenan Lewis. (via cdn3.sbnation.com)
Gains: LB Victor Butler, DE Kenyon Coleman, CB Keenan Lewis, QB Luke McCown, OT Jason Smith, TE Benjamin Watson
Losses: OT Jermon Bushrod, LB Jonathan Casillas, QB Chase Daniel, DE Turk McBride, DB Johnny Patrick
Where They Got Better: Secondary. Keenan Lewis is a HUGE addition, and was considered by some to be the top corner on the free agent market.
Where They Need to Improve Through the Draft: Offensive line. Smith is downgrade from Bushrod.
Analysis: For every key position lost, the Saints made an equal or greater replacement. (Smith for Bushrod being the exception.) This team can be a force to be reckoned with, especially with the return of everyone for a full season, including head coach Sean Payton.
Outlook: PUSH. The Saints did not get significantly worse or better; but having Payton around made lead to more wins.
The Buccaneers did not waste any time in picking up Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson to bolster their secondary. (via cdn1.sbnation.com)
Where They Got Better: Safety and Wide Receiver. S Goldson was the crown jewel of their free agency class and brings a hard-nosed pedigree to the back half of the secondary. They also stocked up on wideouts, adding "the other" Steve Smith, Week 1 fantasy darling Ogletree. Losing Bennett does hurt, but he injured his rotator cuff and would have been out anyway. Replacing him and DT Miller with DT Landri and DE Selvie may not be as a huge drop-off as initially.
Where They Need to Improve Through the Draft: Offensive line and cornerback. Trueblood may be a significant loss for QB Josh Freeman's protection. And though the loss of Biggers' flew under the radar, he was a key contributor to the pass defense and no replacement was found.
Analysis: The Bucs, with their ginormous cap space, made cost-efficient decisions to add to an already good team. Save for Goldson, all acquisitions were depth-boosting, non-flashy picks. Could really pay off.
Outlook: BETTER. With a strong rookie class last year, and solid free agency pickups the last two years, the Buccaneers could be the surprise of the NFC South, especially if they have another excellent draft.
The Bottom Line
The competition in the NFC South is still going to be tough next year, as it always is. Optimistically speaking, the Falcons are slightly weaker, and were already a team the Panthers nearly swept last year. The Panthers did sweep the Saints, but since they return an equally talented team with a Super Bowl winning coach. And the team that the Panthers were swept by, the Buccaneers, just restocked, reloaded, and improved after free agency.
So will the Panthers make the playoffs? At this point, I have to say no. Their free agency acquisitions have not vaulted them into a "favorite," and the Saints and Bucs each added a potential Pro Bowler. For the Panthers to have a chance at making the playoffs, they will need to "win" the draft and have a better draft class that their division rivals.
What do you all think? In their current state, will the Panthers make the playoffs in 2013?