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3 players who must take the next step for the Carolina Panthers in 2019

Head coach Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers have taken major steps to craft a younger, faster roster over the past few seasons. The front office has also shown an affinity for players who show strong versatility (see Christian McCaffrey). Not so to the same extent of the Philadelphia 76ers mantra to “Trust the Process,” but Panthers fans have waited patiently to reap the yields of this change in philosophy the organization has openly undertaken for the last half of the decade.

This could be the year that real results begin to show, as long as some key players take the next step forward in their development and solidify their roles on the roster.

Let’s take a dive into the three young players who need to make the jump in 2019 to help return Carolina to prominence as a contender. 

3. DJ Moore, Wide Receiver

DJ Moore was arguably the most productive receiver from the 2018 draft class. As he was brought along in Norv Turner’s offense, Moore became increasingly involved and proved that his NFL ceiling is higher than that of the ball room they used to practice in.

Relative to his draft class, Moore finished second in total receptions and yards to Falcons rookie Calvin Ridley. In this case, Moore’s production should be seen in a vacuum, as the offensive philosophies between the Falcons and Panthers usually post a stark contrast in the passing game.

Ridley saw much more volume than Moore (with a fully healthy quarterback for sixteen games), but Moore was more efficient in his touches and overall production. 

Moore led all rookie receivers in overall grade by Pro Football Focus. Not the end-all indicator, but nothing to take lightly. In short, Moore had a fantastic rookie year and has established a firm platform from which to propel heading into year two. 

The former Maryland Terrapin provided Carolina with its best run-after-catch guy since future Hall of Famer Steve Smith. Moore was among the NFL’s elite in yards gained post reception and showed strong ability as a gadget run player. 

Versatility is key and this is great news for Carolina, but they need to see DJ Moore become more of a volume pass catcher to complement budding superstar wide out Curtis Samuel, who has the ability to blow the top off a defense.

In 2019, look for DJ Moore to be more of a downfield threat (assuming Cam Newton is healthy enough to feed him) and chain-mover. If he becomes a dependable option in the passing game, the Panthers offense could be a dark-horse juggernaut under a healthy, strong-armed Newton. 

2. Rashaan Gaulden, Safety/Nickel

On the other end of the spectrum from Moore is the disappointing rookie season of safety Rashaan Gaulden. The former Tennessee Volunteer hardly saw any action behind veteran safety Mike Adams, and didn’t produce much when he did. Gaulden recorded only 17 tackles and one pass defense through 15 games played in his rookie year. 

After the departure of the 38-year-old Adams this offseason, Carolina chose not to address the void left at free safety. Head coach Ron Rivera has been high on Gaulden through the preseason, lauding his fluidity among the schematic shift the Panthers have undergone on that side of the ball. Gaulden also has the range to compete with Corn Elder for the starting nickel spot, which will provide some slack if things don’t quickly click at safety. Again, the key here for the Panthers’ future is versatility. The more spots a player can occupy, the bigger a threat they are to opposing schemes.

With more question marks around him than any player on the Panthers roster, 2019 will prove to be crucial to the development of Gaulden. The second-year safety will need to impress at training camp in order to be trusted with the starting job opposite Eric Reid on the back end. If not, the Panthers will reluctantly dumpster dive for a band-aid free agent and take a loss on their 2018 third round pick. If nothing else with Gaulden, at least we will always cherish this photo:

1. Ian Thomas, Tight End

Ian Thomas was the first pick of the third day of the 2018 draft. As a raw prospect and late bloomer out of Indiana, Thomas’ athleticism made him a target to develop behind pro bowl tight end Greg Olsen. The Panthers brass just didn’t think he’d have to come along so soon.

After Olsen’s second consecutive season of freak injuries sidelined him for most of the year, Thomas was asked to step into quite a role during his first NFL season.

Considering how important Greg Olsen is to the Panthers offense, offensive coordinator Norv Turner needed to get creative in his implementation of the young tight end. He did, and Thomas showed more promise as the season went along.

The jury is out, but the prospect of what Thomas is capable of is truly exciting. What should be worrisome for the Panthers is that they have had to accelerate the development of the rookie in the absence of Olsen. Thomas finished the season with 333 receiving yards and two touchdowns, most of which came late in the season after Greg Olsen’s season ending foot injury. Thomas was impressive for a player who caught just 28 balls in his college career.

With Greg Olsen teetering towards retiring at any given moment, the future of the tight end position hinges on whether Ian Thomas can grasp the offense and become a contributor in time. If Olsen is able to stay healthy, Thomas should be one of the best backup tight ends in the NFL.  If Thomas is forced into a starting role early, he will need to learn quickly and take the next step for this Panthers offense to reach its full potential.