Luke Kuechly’s retirement could nudge Panthers toward rebuild

Darin Gantt

Panthers owner David Tepper is not one to sandbag.

While introducing new coach Matt Rhule last week, Tepper was practically bragging about his willingness to spend his way to success, and he spoke openly about the bright future of his team and its new program-builder.

But underneath the pomp of the day was a thread of uncertainty, with multiple references to short-term “pain.”

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“We have a shared vision,” Tepper said that afternoon. “We know it’s not going to be a fast process. We’re willing to build something for the long-term.

“Things could happen fast, and maybe they will because we’re so aligned. But we’re in a building process here, and sometimes you have to tear things down to build them up.”

Now with the sudden and startling news that linebacker Luke Kuechly was retiring after eight seasons, those words take on a new gravity.

While the Panthers lost eight straight to finish 5-11 last year, there was still what appeared to be a solid base of talent moving forward.

At a basic level, any team that included Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey should have had a pretty high floor. Now with Kuechly out, the considerations of Newton entering the final year of his contract take on a new meaning. Rhule was evasive when asked how the former MVP fits into his rebuilding program, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the Kuechly decision causes them to think of Newton as more of an asset to flip than a part of a future which could be years (and another contract) away.

The Panthers have a lengthy list of 14 unrestricted free agents, including high-end defensive starters including cornerback James Bradberry, pass-rushers Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and safety Tre Boston. They have an option they could decline on defensive tackle Dontari Poe which could set him free as well. Veteran tight end Greg Olsen said what sounded like goodbyes after the regular season, acknowledging the “writing on the wall.”

Now, they have a defensive core of linebacker Shaq Thompson, safety Eric Reid, and 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns, and a lot of question marks. Offensively, McCaffrey was sensational last year, and wide receiver D.J. Moore showed real progress while playing with an iffy quarterback situation.

Whatever decision they make about Newton will be huge on its own, but their former defensive player of the year walking away last night could play a significant role in how they approach it.

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