With Super Bowl 50 over and done with, it’s now time to move on towards the next season with the official new league year for 2016, beginning on March 9th. Unofficially however , the New Orleans Saints new season started after their final game against the Atlanta Falcons, but their season was over probably long before that, looking back in hindsight.
They wasted no time in getting busy — with a heavy presence at the Senior Bowl and then followed that up by letting cornerback Brandon Browner go in a surprising move, after seeing that they needed to move in another direction.
One of the Saints’ NFC South foes, the Carolina Panthers; may take some time to lick their wounds from their sound defeat in the game last night, but they are already behind the proverbial ‘8-ball’ for the 2016 season.
The NFL Scouting Combine begins in about two weeks, followed by countless college pro days and the NFL Draft that starts on April 28th.
With the start of the league year also comes free agency; and while the Saints are reported to be “actively” seeking to bolster their roster, the Panthers themselves will also need to be active in certain areas.
It was undeniable to many Who Dats that Carolina had the perfect storm of players if you will, much like the Saints did with their Super Bowl-winning season in 2009: with just the right amount of role players that complemented each other.
Much like the Saints saw some of their key players leave following that victory, we could see a slightly different Panthers team when the two face off in the next few years starting with some in 2016.
One player that is surely not going anywhere though is cornerback Josh Norman; who like many players have proved this in getting a contract: it’s not where you were drafted or what school you came from, but how you play.
Jan 24, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman (24) on the sideline during the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship football game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Drafted in the fifth round in 2012, Norman played out a 4-year, $2.299 million dollar contract that will be a payday this coming year.
To put it in perspective, the Philadelphia Eagles spent major bucks on former Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell with a 6-yr, $63 million dollar contract in 2015 — and he panned out about as well as his fellow ex-“Legion of Boom” brother Brandon Browner did for the Saints.
This could be a sticking point for the Panthers to shell out that much dough; and per ProFootballRumors.com, they have expressed the feeling that Norman could get the franchise tag until a deal is reached.
On the offensive side of the ball, fullback Mike Tolbert is scheduled to hit free agency as well; although he has said he’d like to come back with the team.
Jan 24, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) is introduced before the game against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship football game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Tolbert was a big-bellied nightmare for many teams his first year in Carolina, where he scored seven rushing touchdowns and was only a cap hit for $1.225 million after signing a 4-yr contract for $10 million.
But with his production declining the past seasons, a cap hit that soared to $3.425 million this season, plus two fumbles with one recovered by the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl — Tolbert might not return.
Flipping back to defense, two veteran presences that could also be gone are names that Louisiana natives know well, in cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman and safety Roman Harper.
Tillman was once thought to be on the Saints radar as a potential free agent acquisition this past year, when they were looking for help in the secondary.
The former University of Louisiana-Lafayette standout had a remarkable career with the Chicago Bears after they selected him with the 35th overall pick in 2003 and trademarked the “Peanut Punch” — where he aggressively punched the football from receivers and has 44 forced fumbles in his career to prove it.
Nov 2, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman (31) complains to the referee about offensive pass interference as Indianapolis Colts score during the second half of the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports
After a big payday in 2007 where he signed a 6-yr extension for $37 million, the Bears only offer him a one-year contract for $3.25 million in 2014.
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He then languished in free agency for a while before signing another one year deal with the Panthers for only $2 million.
It’s not that the Panthers, Bears, or any other team for that matter don’t want Tillman; but he’s 34 years old and has had the last three seasons marred with injuries, which culminated with a partially torn ACL in Week 17.
Rehabilitation has come a long way in recent years, but even for someone like Tillman that could be rough — leaving the Panthers reason to move on.
Harper is a bit more complicated after he signed a 5-yr, $10.625 million dollar contract in 2014 following his release from the Saints, but according to Spotrac.com and OverTheCap.com, the contract is now voided.
NFL.com is showing that he essentially signed a 2-yr deal that was worth $4.5 million that included a $1.5 million dollar signing bonus.
Dec 13, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers strong safety Roman Harper (41) reacts to a stop by the second team defense during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. The Carolina Panthers remain undefeated with a 38-0 win over Atlanta Falcons. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Of course Harper’s value comes in the shape of experience and leadership, two attributes that the Saints found out they sorely missed when they released him.
Speaking of sore spots, it didn’t help Saints fans any that “Hands of Stone” Harper not only signed with their NFC South opponent, but also had a breakout 2014 season with the Panthers that saw him snag four interceptions with one returned for a touchdown.
Yet Like Tillman, Harper is getting long in the tooth at 35-years old and his only defensive contribution for 2015 was 19 solo tackles and five passes defended.
It’s a wonder if the Panthers will look to resign him after a pretty quiet 2015 season defensively and he counted $1.8 million against their salary cap.
Jan 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short (99) sacks Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) in the first quarter during the NFC Divisional round playoff game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Also something the Panthers front office will have to think about is free agents for next year as well, when doling out money this year.
They will have many members of their squad that played lights out the last few seasons looking for a payday as well with defensive lineman Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei heading that bunch.
Players like these could garner an extension this offseason, if the Panthers want to get ahead of the game, seeing as how their ceiling can only go up.
For the Panthers — just like it did with the Saints — winning brings unwanted change and difference to a team; and just how much that will be, we’ll find out in the upcoming months…..