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When a team endures what the Carolina Panthers did this season there aren’t many positives that materialize. But the offseason provides an opportunity to correct mistakes, make necessary changes and identify in-house talent that is worth retaining.
General manager Scott Fitterer and his front office are entering their first full offseason in Carolina. When the games end their season begins. Fitterer inherited a situation he did not craft himself. He worked closely with coach Matt Rhule on every decision last year and together they made some mistakes.
But there have also been a handful of young Panthers players who emerged as real contributors. Players Fitterer and Rhule found late in the 2021 draft were forced into key reps at times this season. Their development will be vital to the Panthers improving next season.
Free agency can only solve so many problems. The Panthers must cultivate their young talent and build off the flashes several young players showcased.
Let’s explore five players who the Panthers should return next season and could play key roles going forward.
1. Tackle Brady Christensen
Best trait: His versatility
Must improve: Lower-body strength
Projected role next season: Starter
Christensen played four different positions this season but spent most of his time at tackle. The Panthers love his versatility. He has a future at either guard or tackle, which gives Carolina the flexibility to draft or sign free agent offensive line talent and then plug Christensen in accordingly.
Finding Christensen in the third round last season is one of Fitterer’s biggest wins last season. His development this season will be key. He must add lower-body strength regardless of what position he plays.
He wasn’t a reliable run blocker. That can change with improved technique and a stronger base. Christensen’s future is bright.
2. Cornerback Keith Taylor
Best trait: Poise and confidence
Must improve: Leverage in coverage
Projected role next season: Quality depth behind starters
He took his lumps against star receivers like Mike Evans, but Taylor showed he belongs in the league. His breakout game came in Week 6 against the Vikings. He recorded a team-high 10 tackles and forced three pass breakups as Minnesota tried exploiting the rookie.
Taylor knows how to play physically, using his long 6-foot-3 frame to bother receivers early in their route. Where he must improve is his technique in coverage. He thrives early but was exposed as routes developed.
It would be great for Taylor to spend another season developing behind Gilmore and Jackson, if Carolina can retain both.
3. Receiver Shi Smith
Best trait: Instant separation
Must improve: Returning punts
Projected role next season: Backup slot
Smith made three catches for 86 yards in Week 16 against the Saints, showcasing his ability to open quickly and pop a big play.
As a rookie, Smith showed he can create instant separation. Next, he must fine-tune the craft of playing slot receiver. He needs more releases and moves to get open in different ways rather than always relying on pure speed.
He and fellow rookie Terrace Marshall are both facing important offseasons. While Smith projects as strictly a slot receiver, Marshall should develop into a three-spot option. He can play inside or out but needs to learn to handle each position.
Marshall and Smith can grow together behind D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson. Becoming a reliable punt returner would also help Smith separate himself from his peers. He was such a talented player at South Carolina that the Gamecocks did not ask him to return punts. As a pro, it would benefit Smith if he became the Panthers starting punt returner.
4. Guard Deonte Brown
Best trait: Natural size and speed
Must improve: Learning pro game
Projected role next season: Backup with starter upside
Brown played just 30 snaps this year in what was a developmental season for the former Alabama standout. With such limited game tape, projecting what Brown can be is difficult.
This season, Brown said he spent his time learning from veterans in front of him. It took him a while to believe he belonged in the NFL. But when he played 29 snaps in the season finale at Tampa Bay it looked like he did.
Brown made several key blocks in the running game. He helped pop a long Chuba Hubbard run off the right side. He looked agile on the perimeter blocking a screen, as well. The performance he had against the Buccaneers should go a long way in improving his confidence. Sometimes that is all a young player needs.
His weight will be something to watch going into next season. If he can keep putting on good weight while learning the NFL game then the Panthers may have a future starting right guard.
He is still early in his development. It will help that Carolina will have a new offense this season. Brown will start from scratch with everyone else unlike a year ago.