Dirk Koetter: Buccaneers view Panthers as model

When veteran defensive end Charles Johnsonaccepted less money to stay in Carolina after visiting Tampa Bay, new Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter realized the Panthers have built an exemplary NFL program worth emulating.

Koetter recently acknowledged that the Bucs are modeling their own operation after the franchise in Charlotte, which is coming off its second Super Bowl appearance.

"I told (general manager Jason Licht), they had one of their key free agents come back to them for less money," Koetter explained, via the Tampa Bay Times. "That's exactly as an organization you would want your guys to do. Right now Carolina has set the bar. You said it, it was a long time when no one could win (the NFC South) back to back and now they've won it three times in a row.

"There's always somebody you're chasing, whether they're in your division or not. You've got to give them their credit and we're going to do everything we can to knock him off."

It's certainly understandable that Koetter would view the Panthers as the gold standard. General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera have worked hand-in-glove, adding stability to the coaching staff while building through the draft, keeping the talent they've developed and signing bargain free agents for leadership and depth.

In reigning MVP Cam Newton and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Luke Kuechly, the Panthers are one of the few teams with the luxury of a franchise keystone on both sides of the ball.

It's not unrealistic for the Bucs to view second-year quarterback Jameis Winston and Pro Bowl linebacker Lavonte David as similar building blocks. Winston joined fellow No. 1 overall draft picks Newton and Andrew Luck as the only rookies in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards. Still just 26 years old, David is one of the NFL's underappreciated defensive stars.

While Tampa Bay's offense could rival Carolina's as soon as this season, the defense doesn't hold a candle to a Panthers unit that features a handful of difference-makers in Kuechly, Johnson, Thomas Davis, Kawann Short and Josh Norman -- with talented young players such as Star Lotulelei, Kony Ealy and Shaq Thompson on the rise.

If the Buccaneers are going to topple the Panthers in the NFC South, they need to hit on impact defensive players in the next two drafts. David and All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy have too often entered the battle short-handed over the past half-decade.

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