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Off-season Outlook: Carolina Panthers

The NFC champion Panthers have work to do. Here's a look at their 2016 off-season outlook and the things they need to do in order to get to their second straight Super Bowl. 

Yes, Super Bowl 50 just ended, but the NFL never sleeps. It’s time to take a look at what every team must do this spring for a better season in 2016. We’ll start with the defending NFC champion Panthers, who have some pressing decisions to make before they can fantasize about a Super Bowl return trip.

Potential free agents

DE Frank Alexander, WR Brenton Bersin, WR Jerricho Cotchery, CB Cortland Finnegan, G Tyrone Green, WR Stephen Hill, S Roman Harper, LB Ben Jacobs, LS J.J. Jansen, DT Kyle Love, CB Josh Norman, P Brad Nortman, OT Mike Remmers, G Chris Scott, G Amini Silatolu, CB Charles Tillman, FB Mike Tolbert, G Fernando Velasco, QB Joe Webb.

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Player(s) that must be re-signed: Josh Norman and ... Mike Tolbert? Roman Harper?

Norman will be the main focus for Carolina. He delivered a remarkable fourth NFL season, even jumping into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation for a bit. As such, he’s set to rake in the dough as a free agent. The Panthers do have the franchise tag in their back pocket, which they may have to use if they don’t feel comfortable breaking the bank on a long-term deal. Worth noting: Norman will turn 29 in December.

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With Tolbert coming off a Pro Bowl and All-Pro season, it would be a bit of surprise to see the Panthers not try to re-sign him. He is a versatile piece out of the backfield as a runner (62 carries), receiver (18 catches) and blocker. But is he irreplaceable? He played less than 40% of Carolina’s snaps, and the presence of Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart have eliminated his role as a goal-line vulture—he scored just once this season.

Harper, on the other hand, was on the field for roughly 85% of Carolina’s defensive snaps. He is a steady veteran in a relatively young secondary, so it is quite plausible that the Panthers hand him a cost-effective one- or two-year deal. Again, though, if the topic is players who must be re-signed, Harper does not fall into that category. One half of the Panthers’ overachieving safety tandem, Kurt Coleman, is under contract through 2016. The NFC champs could survive if they lost Harper.

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Most important position to improve: Offensive tackle

No kidding. The Panthers’ tackles were a weak spot before the Super Bowl, and they were a soul-crushing deficiency during it. Right tackle Mike Remmers is about to hit the market; left tackle Michael Oher has one year left on his contract, at a $4.5 million cap number, but the Panthers would upgrade there if the right opportunity came along.

At least part of the issue plaguing the Panthers was a lack of depth. They couldn’t pull Remmers from the lineup last Sunday because there wasn’t really a viable option to throw out there. They need to add multiple bodies to their OT list.

Other positions to improve: Wide receiver, defensive end, cornerback, safety

Assuming Kelvin Benjamin returns for the 2016 season, the receiver spot will be in decent shape. Benjamin, Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown would make for a solid group, plus Jerricho Cotchery (contract voided) and Stephen Hill (restricted free agency) could be back—Cam Newton talked last month about Hill’s as-yet-untapped potential.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to find another capable pass catcher. 

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There are a lot of moving parts on defense, starting with Harper and Norman. Will Jared Allen call it a career? How about Cortland Finnegan or Charles Tillman? The Panthers also have to cross their fingers that Kony Ealy can maintain the effort he showed in the Super Bowl against Denver, because that development would make their pass rush far more formidable.

Carolina appears to have around eight defensive starters already in place for next season, barring a surprise. As one might expect from a 15–1 Super Bowl runner-up, minor tweaks will be the name of the game.

Top priority this off-season: Make sure Cam has enough to work with.

Newton drew his fair share of criticism for the Super Bowl (both due to his play and his postgame reaction), but he was far from the only person responsible for the offense’s no-show against Denver. He was under constant pressure off the edge, while none of his receivers could find space on a consistent basis. 

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This was not the league’s No. 1 scoring offense by accident, though. The interior of the line—namely guard Trai Turner—is outstanding. Jonathan Stewart also happens to be a near-perfect complement to Newton’s own running ability, and he has been an ideal fit in Mike Shula’s scheme. Add in a receiving corps that welcomes back Benjamin, and the sun is out.

But the Panthers cannot allow themselves to land in a situation again next postseason where they’re outmatched at several spots on offense. GM Dave Gettleman must find somewhere between one and three tackles in the coming months. Adding another receiver and possibly some running back depth behind Stewart wouldn’t hurt, either.