CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)It’s decision time for Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper.
Over the next few weeks, Tepper will have to choose whether to remove the interim tag from Steve Wilks and make him the full-time coach, or to hire someone from outside the organization.
Tepper plans to explore his options.
General manager Scott Fitterer said Monday the Panthers will interview potential candidates beginning immediately, but said it ”won’t be a large group.”
Fitterer indicated he will be a part of the team’s hiring search committee, along with Tepper and Tepper’s wife, Nicole, the Panthers’ chief administrative officer.
He did not identify any candidates and gave no timetable for the hire.
”I think this is a very, very attractive job on the outside where people are looking at it like, this is a young team, this division is up for grabs here in the next few years – there’s no dominant quarterback,” Fitterer said. ”They look at our defense, they look at our offensive line, some of the pieces that we have, and the way we’re growing right now. And with a few tweaks here and there, this is a division that we can take over. That opportunity is there. It’s up to us to do it.”
Wilks is expected to interview with Tepper this week.
Carolina players overwhelmingly voiced their support for Wilks returning as coach. Wilks went 6-6 after inheriting a 1-4 team that was in disarray under Matt Rhule.
However, Wilks’ chances of getting the job may have taken a big hit when the Panthers surrendered an 11-point fourth quarter lead and lost 30-24 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17, eliminating them from postseason contention.
Fitterer said he thinks Wilks did a ”nice job” but was noncommittal on his future, saying, ”out of respect for the process, I don’t want to get too far into it.”
When Tepper named Wilks the interim coach, he said he would need to do an ”incredible job” to be promoted.
When asked if he thinks he’s done an incredible job, Wilks made light of the uncertainty of his situation.
”What I consider to be incredible, and the things I do around the house, my wife doesn’t see it that way,” Wilks said.
The Panthers once again enter the offseason with a major decision to make at quarterback.
Fitterer’s said soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Sam Darnold’s future will largely be determined by who’ll be the next head coach.
Darnold finished 4-2 as a starter in 2022, but his lackluster performance in the season finale against the Saints – he was 5 of 15 for 43 yards and two interceptions – was a reminder of why he’s not considered a top-tier NFL quarterback.
The Panthers let opening day starter Baker Mayfield go during the season. P.J. Walker also started at QB, while rookie third-round pick Matt Corral suffered a season-ending foot injury in the preseason.
It’s possible the Panthers will use the No. 9 overall pick to draft a quarterback.
When asked if he’d be willing to re-sign with the Panthers if they draft a QB, Darnold said Monday, ”That’s a great question. Right now I’m doing everything I can to have conversations with my agent and the guys upstairs (in the front office) before I can start to answer questions like that.”
When the Panthers traded away star running back Christian McCaffrey, there were plenty of questions about who’d pick up the slack. D’Onta Foreman proved more than capable, rushing for 914 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
”I’m very proud of myself,” said Foreman, who will be an unrestricted free agent. ”I worked tremendously hard to put myself in a position like this. I think a lot of people doubted me and counted me out early, but I’m used to that.”
One thing the Panthers will have to take into account when deciding whether to re-sign Foreman is his injury history. This is the first time he’s made it through a full season injury-free.
GETTING HIS KICKS
Eddy Pineiro converted 94.3% (33 of 35) of his field goals – No. 1 in the NFL among kickers with at least 25 attempts. That included 19 straight to close the season and a game-winning 42-yarder to beat New Orleans on Sunday.
That bodes well for Pineiro’s bank account. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent.
If the Panthers let Piniero leave, they could go back to Zane Gonzalez, who was kicking extremely well before suffering a season-ending injury in the preseason.
”I haven’t talked to them about (returning) yet,” Pineiro said. ”I was talking to my special teams coach (Chris Tabor) and he wants me to come back. But let’s see what happens. I would love to be back.”
Two years ago, the Panthers addressed their defense by drafting cornerback Jaycee Horn No. 8 overall. Last year, the Panthers set about improving the offensive line, selecting tackle Ickey Ekwonu at No. 6.
Both moves worked out.
Fitterer suggested the Panthers could have more of a ”sexy draft” this spring by targeting ”explosive” players. Along with a quarterback, the Panthers want to add a vertical threat at wide receiver, a pass-catching tight end and a pass-rushing defensive end.
The Panthers said right guard Austin Corbett tore an ACL and left guard Brady Christensen broke an ankle on Sunday. Both starters are expected back by training camp.
After hiring a coach, the Panthers will turn their attention to free agency and the draft, where they will have the ninth overall pick.
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