Dave Canales says Panthers will “be in the hunt” for NFC South title

ORLANDO, Fla. — Dave Canales took over a Panthers team that finished 2-15 for the worst record in the NFL last season, but a busy first few weeks of free agency has him confident that Carolina can compete in the NFC South in his first year in Charlotte.

“I think we’re going to be competitive for the division this year,” Canales said Tuesday at the NFL meetings in Orlando. “What I’m saying is, if we play good football, if we can get the football right like we believe we can, and we can take care of the football, let the numbers take care of themselves, we’ll be in the hunt. We’ll be in every single game, which will give us an opportunity to be in the hunt for the division at the end.”

That would be an impressive step forward with a first-year head coach. Carolina lost seven games by 14 points or more last season, matching the most in the league, but Canales sees the Panthers’ potential growth even as he sees the entire division improving.

“I think we got better,” said Canales, who was in the division last year as the Bucs’ offensive coordinator. “I think that the whole division, if you look across the teams, adding Klint Kubiak to New Orleans, [where] Dennis Allen’s already fantastic as far as the defense; you look at Tampa adding a guy like Liam Coen, making sure that they got Baker [Mayfield] and Mike [Evans] back, Antoine Winfield, huge pieces there, some of the youth that they drafted on defense last year. They’re going to be tough to deal with. 

“Going to Atlanta, I have the highest respect for Raheem [Morris]. Went against him for years. He’s a fantastic coach. They add Kirk Cousins. If you look at some of the availability of targets down the field that Desmond [Ridder] wasn’t able to capitalize on, I see Kirk really being able to hit those. It’s like, this is a dangerous division, you know?”

Canales includes his own team in that projection, citing his influence on offense and the return of defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero. Carolina has had a massive overhaul on defense, trading Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Burns to the Giants and corner Donte Jackson to the Steelers and losing linebacker Frankie Luvu and outside linebacker Yetur Gross-Matos in free agency.

The Panthers have been busy adding players on both sides of the ball, and the new defense got a boost Thursday with the addition of veteran pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, who is from Rock Hill, S.C., and played at South Carolina. It will be a homecoming for Clowney, 31, who matched a career high with 9.5 sacks for the Ravens last season. Before the Clowney addition, Canales addressed the importance of adding another pass-rusher opposite new signee D.J. Wonnum.

“Would you love to have somebody on the other side that scares the daylights out of people? Absolutely,” Canales said. “I think there’s a factor to really make it an elite pass-rush group. I wouldn’t say we’re there right now, but I think that would put us into a situation where you felt great about the outside.”

There were also glaring areas for improvement on offense to help the development of QB Bryce Young, and the Panthers have addressed those, too. They spent $153 million on a pair of free-agent guards in Robert Hunt and Damien Lewis. Adding downfield threats at receiver was a priority, and the Panthers traded for Diontae Johnson from the Steelers and could use one of their high second-round picks — No. 33 and 39 — on a prospect from a deep group of receivers in this draft.

If the Panthers were to make a surprising rise in 2024, it would only match that of their head coach in the past 14 months. The longtime Seahawks assistant got his first shot at being a coordinator and playcaller in Tampa, helped the Bucs to a third straight division title, then made another leap in getting the Panthers job. He’s still months away from his first training camp, but he has tried to be involved in all aspects of Carolina’s offseason makeover.

“I’m all over the place. I like to be involved with this, involved with that, curious about things I don’t know about,” Canales said. “Being able to sit with the defensive staff for two-to-four hours, I kind of split up the day where schematically, we do offense in the mornings, defense in the afternoons, and then we flip-flop. That part of it allowed me to really take notes, learn, grow. … Free agency really hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t prepared for that part of it emotionally. I didn’t even coach the guys that ended up going other places, but I felt the emotional connection.”

Canales is already invested in a team and a franchise he joined only two months ago, and he’s seeking a stability the franchise has sorely missed. Counting interim coaches, he’s their seventh coach in less than five years, the others contributing to six straight losing seasons and a low mark in 2023. The Panthers have remarkable turnarounds in their short history, going from 1-15 in 2001 to seven wins in 2002 and the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. 

It might not be as dramatic this time around, but Canales is eager to find out.

“Every one of those games is going to be a huge opportunity for us to become us, to see what version of football we want to play,” he said. “We want to walk off that field saying, ‘This is Panthers football.’ It’s tough. It’s fast. It’s physical. It’s a really intelligent style of play. That’s kind of going to be our approach.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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