CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Four days after announcing the hire of Dave Canales, the Carolina Panthers still haven’t formally introduced their new head coach.
And it likely will be a few more days before Canales’ introductory news conference. This is a busy time for the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator.
Canales and recently promoted general manager Dan Morgan are expected to attend Senior Bowl practices this week in Mobile, Ala. The format of the all-star game has changed: All underclassmen are eligible, whereas previously, fourth-year juniors were the only underclassmen invited to Mobile.
But Canales and Morgan have more on their plate than getting a firsthand look at the 110-plus players at the Senior Bowl workouts. The Athletic looks at five things on the to-do list for the Panthers’ new decision-makers, who were colleagues for eight years with the Seattle Seahawks.
Panthers’ Dave Canales has one job: Get Bryce Young on track — he better not screw it up
Put together the coaching staff
This is Canales’ first task, and it could get sticky where defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero is concerned. The 43-year-old Evero was passed over for Carolina’s head-coaching position, but the Panthers want him to stay on as defensive coordinator.
Evero had a second interview for the Seahawks’ head-coaching vacancy Saturday, and multiple teams are interested in hiring him as defensive coordinator, according to a league source. But Evero remains under contract with the Panthers, who can block him from interviewing for lateral positions — and have with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. The Panthers finished fourth in total defense under Evero, who also oversaw a top-10 defense in 2022 with the Denver Broncos, who, like Carolina, had an in-season coaching change. With the Panthers facing a considerable rebuild, Evero might be inclined to go to a contending team to better enhance his head-coaching prospects.
Canales is expected to lean heavily on his Tampa Bay and Seattle connections in filling out his staff. Bucs receivers coach Brad Idzik, who came to Tampa with Canales from Seattle, is viewed as the front-runner for the Panthers’ offensive coordinator post. The Panthers have requested to speak with Seahawks assistant Tracy Smith for their special teams job, and Nate Carroll — son of former Seattle coach Pete Carroll — also has been mentioned as a strong possibility in Charlotte.
But the key is Evero. If Canales has to restock the defensive staff, it could be a tough process given Panthers owner David Tepper’s reputation for meddling and the team’s bleak outlook for 2024.
Ejiro Evero has interviewed with other teams but remains under contract with Carolina for another year. (Photo courtesy of the Carolina Panthers)
Finish the front-office restructure
OK, technically this falls under Tepper’s domain. And the next front-office move has been done for some time. As mentioned previously in this space, Tepper plans to bring in Kansas City Chiefs vice president of football operations Brandt Tilis as a salary-cap/contracts executive to replace Samir Suleiman and serve as something of a buffer between Canales/Morgan and ownership.
The model has been successful in San Francisco, where John Lynch is the president of football operations/GM (the same title Morgan has) and Paraag Marathe is the president of 49ers enterprises and EVP of football operations. So, what’s been holding up the move? Well, the Chiefs made a Super Bowl run, as they always do.
What happened with the Panthers? ‘Hunger Games’ culture, backstabbing and another fired coach
But it’s worth noting a couple of other staff moves related to Tepper. The Athletic confirmed Friday that Canales is not retaining special teams coordinator Chris Tabor or offensive line coach James Campen, who had considerable influence with Tepper after the owner strongly encouraged Frank Reich to hang on to them from Matt Rhule’s staff. The various allegiances led to dysfunction and a “Hunger Games” culture, with assistants undercutting other coaches and taking suggestions to management, which eventually culminated in the in-season firings of Reich, quarterbacks coach Josh McCown and running backs coach Duce Staley.
Look for at least one holdover on the offensive staff. Senior assistant Jim Caldwell, who sat in on interviews during the Panthers’ searches, is expected to be retained, according to a league source. Caldwell, the former Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts head coach, could be an asset to Canales, who had only one year of experience as a full-time coordinator.
Develop a plan for Bryce Young
The chaotic nature of the Panthers’ season affected the development of Young, whose rookie season featured a coaching change and three flip-flops in the offensive play calling. Tight end Hayden Hurst said Young had “too many voices” in his ear during a year in which the No. 1 pick finished with an NFL-worst passer rating and was next to last with a 59.8 completion percentage (ahead of only Tennessee Titans rookie Will Levis).
The porous pass protection and lack of receivers who could separate from coverage also contributed heavily to Young’s rookie struggles. But the coaches’ inability to get on the same page — even regarding the depth of Young’s dropbacks — didn’t help matters.
‘The Dave effect’: Dave Canales to bring positivity, energy to Panthers, his ex-players say
Enter Canales, whose last two quarterbacks either won Comeback Player of the Year (Geno Smith) or became a finalist for the award (Baker Mayfield). Smith said Friday it will be a different dynamic for Canales and Young, who will require more coaching than the veteran Smith needed. But the Seahawks’ quarterback said Canales has a knack for getting the best out of his players.
“His process is elite. And that’s something that’s more important to me than the results,” Smith said during a conference call. “Having an elite process and understanding how to get things done is very, very critical, especially when you’re going to a new team. Dave has a great understanding of himself, of what he wants to get done. He’ll learn the players he’s coaching, get to know them as men, get to know what motivates them, and then he’ll work from that.”
Bryce Young threw for 2,877 yards, 11 TDs and 10 interceptions in 16 starts as a rookie with the Panthers. (Jim Dedmon / USA Today)
Decide where they stand on Brian Burns
You might have heard: The Panthers don’t have a first-round pick this year. This also probably came across your social media feed: That pick now belongs to the Chicago Bears and is the first overall selection.
So Morgan can stand pat and wait to draft at the top of the second round, or the former Panthers linebacker can try to orchestrate a trade to get into the first round. Morgan was the assistant GM in 2022 when Scott Fitterer turned down the Los Angeles Rams’ offer of two future first-round picks and a Day 2 selection for edge rusher Burns, who at the time was amid his second consecutive Pro Bowl season.
The Panthers have since failed to get a long-term deal done with Burns, whose production dipped precipitously in 2023, when he said he was at times preoccupied with staying healthy as he and several of his defensive teammates dealt with injuries. Burns finished with eight sacks, just above his career low of 7 1/2 in his rookie season.
Burns is a strong candidate to receive the franchise tag, which is expected to cost more than $20 million in ’24. Morgan could choose to tag and trade Burns. The return wouldn’t be close to what the Rams offered, but the Panthers likely could get a first-round pick.
Get Young some help
This would be at the top of the list if we hadn’t arranged the items chronologically. Before Morgan and Canales decide whether Young is an upper-tier QB — we can assume Morgan does since he was part of the brain trust that picked Young over CJ Stroud — they first have to give him some better playmakers and pass blockers to evaluate him fairly.
Canales spent last season with Bucs wideout Mike Evans, a notorious Panthers-killer who’s a free agent this year. Morgan and Canales don’t have a direct connection to Tee Higgins, but they should also be in on the Bengals’ free-agent wideout. The list of free-agent receivers also includes Michael Pittman Jr. and Gabe Davis, the Buffalo Bills’ fourth-round pick in 2020 when Morgan was in Buffalo’s front office under Brandon Beane.
If the Panthers look at adding another receiving tight end, Canales is familiar with Noah Fant, who had several big seasons in Denver before being dealt to Seattle as part of the Russell Wilson trade. Fitterer failed to adequately address the interior line depth last year when starting guards Brady Christensen and Austin Corbett were coming back from surgeries.
The Panthers need to add a couple of linemen this offseason, potentially a tackle if they decide to slide Ikem Ekwonu inside. One interior guy to keep an eye on: Seattle guard Damien Lewis, a 2020 third-rounder from LSU who moves well despite carrying 326 pounds.
(Top photo of Dave Canales: Cliff Welch / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)