Now, I’m sure Rivera wishes that he could open up the medical cabinet and find the remedy for the Panthers’ ailments, but the truth lies in the tape — and the All-22 Coaches Film doesn’t paint a pretty picture. To be frank, Carolina looks nothing like the rock-solid squad that obliterated opponents with a high-octane, smashmouth offense and a suffocating defense that thrived on takeaways and splash plays.
This year, the offense has been stuck in neutral, as Cam Newton struggles to regain his MVP form. The sixth-year pro is completing just 57.9 percent of his throws with a 6:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and an 80.2 passer rating. Those numbers are pretty jarring, considering the stats that he produced a season ago (59.8 percent completion rate, 35:10 TD-to-INT ratio, 99.4 passer rating) while directing an offense that led the league in scoring at 31.2 points per game. Although Newton is pacing the team in rushing yards — which actually isn’t a good thing — the big-bodied playmaker is having a tough time finding his mojo. And now he’s out for Sunday’s game against the Bucs, having suffered a concussion in the loss to Atlanta.
The Panthers entered the 2016 season with a streak of 32 consecutive games over 100 rushing yards — the longest such stretch since 1976. Since that streak came to an end in early October, they have been held under the century mark five more times. Lead back Jonathan Stewart turned back the clock for a season-high 132 yards in Week 15, but has otherwise averaged a problematic 3.6 yards per carry. Due nearly $6 million in 2017, Stewart will be a 30-year-old back with too much mileage under his belt, diminishing speed and a lengthy injury history.
Whether or not Stewart is retained, general manager Dave Gettleman has to place a priority on finding his successor. Scat back Fozzy Whittaker is limited to change-of-pace duty and kickoff returns, while 2015 fifth-round pick Cameron Artis-Payne has yet to crack the rotation. It’s past time to add a dynamic playmaking element to this backfield.
The troubling optics of Jones’ 300-yard game against the Panthers last weekend apparently provided enough motivation for a complete shakeup. It would not have been surprising to see the 25-year-old bumped down a notch anyway in the wake of last week’s disaster, though Carolina seems more content moving on entirely. Coach Ron Rivera said earlier in the week that Benwikere was in an open competition for his spot.
Interestingly enough, Benwikere admitted to having some conditioning issues Sunday. He said that the Falcons would take Jones out of the game and ask whichever receiver replaced him to run a deep route against Benwikere. Then, they would put Jones back in and run the same thing, allowing the All-Pro receiver to get a step on the tired cornerback.
Peppers began his career with the Panthers as the No. 2 overall pick in 2002. After compiling 81 sacks in eight seasons in Carolina, the pass rusher spent four years with the Chicago Bears. After being released, Peppers almost returned to the Panthers in 2014 before the Green Bay Packers swooped in to snap up the veteran, where he spent the past three seasons.
Even at 37 years old, Peppers has plenty left in the tank. In a rotational role with Green Bay in 2016, Peppers compiled 7.5 sacks and was one of the Packers’ best pass rushers. He compiled 25 sacks the past three seasons playing as an outside linebacker.
The 25-year-old Ealy is coming off an up-and-down season that saw him log five starts over 16 appearances with five sacks along the way. Looming this week as a possible cut for the Panthers, the Super Bowl 50 standout gives New England a body on the edge to pair with Trey Flowers. The Patriots also have Shea McClellin and Rob Ninkovich to chase down quarterbacks in New England’s multiple-front defense.
It’s a low-cost move for coach Bill Belichick, who slipped down just eight spots in the draft from No. 64 to No. 72 to grab a player entering his prime.
Boston, a fourth-round pick in 2014, earned double-digit starts for the first time in his career last season, compiling 53 tackles, two interceptions, two sacks and seven passes defended. Boston was given a chance to hang onto the starting gig last season, but didn’t progress as a consistent backstop and was reportedly shopped in trade talks this offseason.
Parting ways with the 24-year-old Boston comes after Carolina added veteran safety Mike Adams in free agency.