The Carolina Panthers may have won their division last year, but finishing with an 8-9-1 record means that there is still massive room for improvement. Head coach Ron Rivera has had a .500 record in four seasons with the Panthers and is always on the “hot seat.”
Not many teams can lose a player of Greg Hardy’s talent and still be one of the league’s most respected defensive units, but that’s what keeps Rivera employed. They have youth on this line with defensive tackle Star Lotullelei and defensive end Kony Ealy but it’s Charles Johnson, who needs to continue to be the veteran leader. By doing so, he needs to lead by example and although his pass rushing isn’t what it used to be, his work ethic hasn’t missed a step, which will be key in keeping this line motivated.
The line backing group in Carolina should be exciting to watch. Luke Kuechly is arguably the best linebacker in football while 11 year pro Thomas Davis is one of those guys who has found the Fountain of Youth, because he is just as fast and alert now as he was seven years ago. Rookie Shaq Thompson came into this draft as one of it’s better athletes. At Washington, he played linebacker as well as safety and running back. His versatility will keep him on the field as much as the other two linebackers and his speed will keep offensive lines in check as he can cause a lot of damaged in delayed blitz packages.
Veteran Charles Tillman, was one of the toughest and intelligent corner backs in the league, in his prime – but his injuries have limited his playing time, and although it was hard for the Chicago Bears to part ways with the fan favorite, the move had to be done. Rivera brought Tillman on to be the voice of leadership in a secondary that needs the help, but Tillman’s voice won’t be heard if he can’t be on that field. Josh Norman can’t be trusted across from Tillman and safety Roman Harper has lost a few steps. If the front seven of this defense turns out to be a monster – expect the Panthers to play with the possibility of putting rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson in at safety to help balance things out.
Ron Rivera likes to keep his offenses simple but this year he will need a lot of help from his offensive line that enters this season with a lot of questions. Last year they Panthers had an undrafted rookie and practice squad-lifer start on their line and this year they are expecting third round pick Trai Turner. Rob Rang of CBS Sports said of Turner: “Powerful run blocking will get Turner a chance in the NFL, but struggles in pass protection may make Turner’s conversion to the quickness and precision of the NFL difficult. ” Luckily for Turner the Panthers like to run a lot – the flip side of that is: “Who is running the ball?”
James Stewart has been on Carolina for his whole career and if people were to speak honestly on the career of Stewart – “unimpressive” would be the word to describe it. He’s a basic running back with basic abilities who never seemed to want to be the guy. Rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne has some explosiveness to his game and will most likely steal carries away from Stewart. Payne is an Auburn alum like Cam Newton and is used to run heavy offenses. Payne may be one of those players that “sneak up” on teams in the mid-season.
The issue with Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton is that, Newton was never given weapons at his disposal. Last year Carolina took Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first-round of the draft and he quickly gave them results. The big wide out, proved to be a hassle to corner backs and his strength made him a match-up nightmare. Teams seemed to catch up to Benjamin later in the year though, so keep an eye on him in the early going of 2015. The Panthers took Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess in this year’s draft. Funchess does a lot of what Benjamin does and provides another big target for Newton. Much like Benjamin, people are not sure of the kind of “motor” Funchess brings week to week though.
For all things considered, tight end Greg Olsen is the team’s best receiving option and is their best player on offense – period. His number of receptions and targets have gone up in each of his four seasons in Carolina and last year had his first 1000 yard season. With a healthy Cam Newton this season, expect those numbers to continue to increase as long as Benjamin proves he is worthy of being a number-one receiver.
Quarterback Cam Newton, was hampered by injuries all season long and even had a nasty car accident last season, that injured his back. Through it all, Cam Newton only missed two games last season and although it was a disappointing season from a statistical point of view, he gained the trust in his locker room and respect amongst his teammates, which was always an issue in Carolina.
There are so many “ifs” in this Carolina offense that it doesn’t quite stir confidence in the stomachs of Panthers fans. A healthy Cam Newton is one of the NFL’s dangerous weapons and his maturity has come a long way from his rookie campaign. Ron Rivera has pushed his luck before and he’ll try to do it again. Carolina should still be in competition for the division at least.
Predicted Record: 7-9
Predicted Pro Bowlers: Cam Newton, Greg Olson, Luke Kuechly