32 NFL Teams in 16 Weeks: Carolina Panthers

After looking at the Saints eventful off-season, it’s time to look at what the Division winners from last year have done to improve on their losing record that somehow saw them into the playoffs. Can the Panthers make the post-season again this year? Can they finish the season with a better record than 7-9? Let’s take a look.

Previously in Carolina…

I would imagine Panthers fans have mixed feelings about last season. It never feels great to finish a season with a losing record, but it was just enough to make the playoffs (thanks to a tie with the Bengals) and even win a game in the post-season, albeit against a beaten up Cardinals team.Much like the Saints, Carolina had a patchy season until week 14, winning their 1st 2, then winning against Chicago in week 5, but then going 7 games winless before finally getting it together to win the last 4 games, which saw them come out of nowhere to take advantage of the Division that no one wanted to win.

It feels weird talking about the Panthers problems, when they did actually make it to the playoffs and looked pretty good doing it, but there were some definite issues. The biggest of which for me, was the offensive line, that was struggling to get over the retirement of left tackle Jordon Gross. Without a solid left tackle, the Panthers simply couldn’t keep Cam protected, leaving him battling injuries right from pre-season. The former number 1 overall pick had very little opportunity to get healthy from a nagging rib injury meaning he was in constant pain when taking the field. Jonathan Stewart’s health was patchy, leaving a few games where they were relying on Fozzy Whitaker to run the ball, but coming back from injury he did improve, staking his claim as the clear no. 1 in Carolina and really towards the end of the season played some of the best football of his career. The defence struggled at times too, a unit they have traditionally hung their hat on had an average points allowed per game of 23.9, which put them at 21st in the league and could have been worse not for a late push. This late push also meant that they didn’t end the season with a negative turnovers differential too. Up until game 11 they had created 15 turnovers, to giving away 19. In the space of 5 games they swung it round creating 26 for 23 giveaways.

I can go into a number of reasons why the Panthers found form at the end of the season, but the simple fact of the matter is that it all just seemed to click. The offensive and defensive line found form, Jonathan Stewart was healthy, the defensive backs began to play like one of the top units in the league and Cam Newton, when not recovering from a car crash had time to work some of his magic.

However after a convincing win in the playoffs against a husk of a Cardinals team, the Panthers deficiencies were highlighted by the Seahawks and the Panthers crashed out of the playoffs. Work was definitely needed.

So What’s Changed?

Not enough, well in my opinion anyway. Going into last off-season I made the point that replacing Jordan Gross would be their no. 1 priority, which they haven’t done 2 years on. Michael Oher has come in to play left tackle and to be fair the Panthers staff are fully on board with having Oher start on the blindside (couldn’t resist), but to me it feels like trying to fix a broken arm with a plaster; it just doesn’t work. Outside of Oher, the Panthers brought in Jonathan Martin through free agency and Daryl Williams in the 4th round of the draft. None of these are moves that go a long way to keep Cam healthy, which should have been the goal of the last 2 off seasons. I worry that this team just sees the playoff spot they got last season rather than the losing record.

Cam did get an extra weapon though in Devin Funchess another big target for a QB that has occasionally struggled with accuracy. Funchess, Olsen and Benjamin should make it pretty easy for Newton.

I didn’t really give draft grades on teams, but I would probably have graded the Panthers very low based on their 1st round pick. Not because I didn’t like the player ( I mean I wrote an article on how I think he’ll be a great player in the NFL), but because I didn’t see it as a position of need. I don’t tend to buy the ‘best player available’, mentality unless it’s from a stacked team with few needs. The Panthers had a glaring offensive line need and used a 1st round pick to take another line-backer. Despite my thoughts on the direction of the Panthers 1st round pick, I really think Shaq Thompson will make their defence better. Thompson’s versatility will be incredibly useful when going up against no-huddle offences and really what better line-backer pairing to learn from that Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly? Shaq Thompson is in a great position to succeed and could be an integral part of a line-backer corps that is already considered one of the best in the league.

Finally it went a little under the radar, but I really like the pickup of Charles Tillman. Yes, he’s entering the twilight of his career, but if he can stay healthy they’ve got yet another physical defensive back added to an exceptionally underrated group. Tillman should also bring some experience to a young group of cornerbacks. As a Bears fan, it’ll be weird to see him in another jersey, but really I couldn’t think of a better place for him to land.

Areas of Concern

I feel like I’ve already hammered home my point about how poor I think the offensive line will be and the way I believe it will affect the play of both Newton and Stewart, 2 players with patchy injury histories. Unless I’m completely wrong about Michael Oher, then we could have another rough season the former no. 1 pick and the running back that’s finally won the starting role. It seems a shame that a team that has so much talent on both sides of the ball, could be held back by a stubborn attitude towards the left tackle position.

What to Look Out For

On offence I think they have a lot of potential in their receivers, in particular last year’s 1st round pick Kelvin Benjamin. If he can stay healthy I think we might see the breakout season we nearly had last year. Funchess looks like he’ll be a decent number 2 and Cotchery as a 3rd option, rounds out a pretty solid group of receivers. Greg Olsen at tight end deserves a mention too, a player that I believe is the best all round tight end in the league. More on that though when we get to our top 10 tight ends in a couple of weeks.

I struggled to pick a standout unit on defence, so I didn’t.

The concern with the defensive line was that they’d struggle without Greg Hardy and for a few games they did. But eventually they pulled it together, with players like Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short playing exceptionally well, despite never really becoming household names. The same can’t be said for the line-backer pairing of Kuechly and Davis, who both continued their reign of destruction, with Kuechly in particular seemingly being absolutely everywhere. In my mind this was Kuechly’s standout year, despite winning defensive player of the year in 2013. I’ve already mentioned the addition of Shaq Thompson should mean we see him become a serious contender for defensive rookie of the year with a great deal of help from his fellow veteran line-backers. The defence from front to back is almost certainly the best in the NFC South and probably a top 5 unit in the league. The Panthers defence could definitely turn a few heads this year.

What to Expect

I struggle to believe this team can make the playoffs 3 years in a row. It feels like they have been running on the spot whilst the teams around them get better. The problems for me start and finish with the offensive line, so if that is the reason they don’t make the playoffs, I think they need to ask some serious questions about why that wasn’t addressed in the off season. That being said if I’m wrong about the offensive line issues and Cam can take advantage of his giant weapons AND the defence can play as well as they did last season, then there’s no reason they can’t win the NFC South. Personally though, I think they’re probably the 2nd best team.