Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes the team’s biggest impact players next season might just be some of the ones already on the roster.
Rivera said Thursday the return of several key players from injured reserve could have a huge impact as Carolina sets out to win its first playoff game in six seasons.
The Panthers placed a franchise-record 18 players on injured reserve last year, including a handful of starters.
Rivera says he’s hoping for big contributions from returning players such as defensive tackle Ron Edwards, linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, wide receiver David Gettis and offensive tackle Jeff Otah, all of whom were lost early in the year to season-ending injuries.
After last year’s spending spree to re-sign core players, Carolina isn’t in position to be big player in free agency and in fact may even need to restructure a few contracts or cut a few players to get under the salary cap.
So their prize free agents may be the ones who return from crutches.
“That’s going to be really, really key for us to get those guys back on the field,” Rivera said in a telephone interview from Indianapolis.
The Panthers will have either the eighth or ninth pick in the NFL draft depending on the outcome of a coin flip with the Miami Dolphins.
Rivera said improving the defense is a priority, but stopped short of saying that’s where the Panthers will look to spend their first pick.
“There’s no doubt we have to improve on defense, but the caveat to that is the injuries we suffered early in the season,” Rivera said.
Edwards, a free agent pickup from Kansas City, was signed to a three-year contract to play nose tackle and take up blocks so Beason could run and make plays from his middle linebacker spot. But Edwards tore his triceps on the first day he was allowed to practice at training camp forcing the Panthers to start rookies Sione Fua and Terrell McClain at defensive tackle.
Beason struggled getting on the field during the lockout-shortened training camp period because of ankle tendinitis and then tore his Achilles in that same leg in the season opener.
The following week Davis tore the ACL in his knee for the third time in three seasons.
All three are under contract next season, although the Panthers are likely to cut Davis or at least restructure his contract since he’s due a whopping $8 million signing bonus in March.
“You lose all of those guys and then a few backups and it becomes awfully tough,” Rivera said. “I thought we could have done things a lot differently if we had certain guys healthy.”
Rivera isn’t tipping his hand in regards to the team’s top draft pick.
Defensive line, cornerback, linebacker and wide receiver are all considered positions of need.
“We have plenty of holes, so that’s something we have to gather information on here at the combines and go back to Charlotte and talk about,” Rivera said. “Right now I feel we have to look at several positions. I don’t want to get into which ones, but we have several needs. We still have to decide how we want to handle all of that and it’s very early in the process.”
Despite all of the injuries, the Panthers still finished 6-10 last season, a four-game improvement over the previous season under coach John Fox.
After watching tape of all 16 games, Rivera said overall he was pleased with the play of the offense, which ranked in the top five most of the season — a vast improvement from finishing dead last a year ago in total yards and points scored.
“I think overall it was pretty good, but we can still improve,” he said.
Offensively, Gettis, a starter in 2010 before tearing his ACL last summer, could have the biggest impact. Otah has chronic knee problems and will be a major question mark heading into the season.