Carolina's offseason has certainly been interesting.
By far the biggest news story coming out of Carolina this year is the loss of almost every WR they had.
It looks like Jericho Cotchery will have a chance to stake a claim to be their new #1 WR. Like Steve Smith, Cotchery is a veteran with a plethora of experience. That's where the similarities end. To be fair, Cotchery might have had a career year last year, with 10 TDs and 602 yards. The 10 TDs are impressive, but stats can be decieving, as 9 of them came in the redzone.
There's nothing wrong with having a redzone target. But when your number 1 WR is mainly a redzone threat? That's not great - especially when your number 2 is Kelvin Benjamin.Kelvin Benjamin is a rookie, and the first thing you should know about him is he's 6ft5. He's the size of a TE with great hands, and any time the Panthers have it in the red-zone he should be the first person they think of. However, he's not a finished product yet. Understandably he lacks top class speed, which isn't always needed to become a great WR. But his route running is also a cause for concern, and he'll need to make significant progress if he's to be more
than another redzone threat this year.
The other two WRs the Panthers "boast" - if that's the right word - are Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Avant's heading into his 9th season now, but has yet to reach 700 yards. He had somewhat of a down year lastseason, with just 447 yards and 2 TDs. 500 yards is a slightly optimistic, but reasonable expectation for him. Underwood only had 24 receptions last year but he made the most of them, with 440 yards and 4 TDs. He's never had a huge role in a team so it will be interesting to see how much he can contribute this year; the Panthers certainly need him to have a big season.
Greg Olsen is the Panthers starting TE. He's likely to be their best contributor recieving wise. This actually isn't a knock on the calibre of their WRs - he's just a very good player. He had 816 yards and 6 TDs last year - ranking him 7th and 8th among TEs respectively. I can easily
see Olsen beating those numbers this season (or at least matching them). Their backup TE is Ed Dickson, and while he's not a terrible player the Panthers need to be hoping that Olsen stays healthy - Dickson's had just 498 yards and 1 TD in the last two seasons
Throwingto all these "targets" is Cam Newton, who's coming into his fourth season. He had his best season to date last year, with a completion rate of 61.7% and 24 TDs to 13 interceptions, with a QB rating of 88.8. That ranks him in basically the middle of the pack for everything as a passer.
Cam Newton, however, is much more than "just a passer". He led all QBs in rushing yards, with 587. He also led all QBs in rushing TDs, with 6. Not enough for you? He obliterated his rivals in first downs gained, with 38 compared to Kaepernick (who's second) with 25. To put that into perspective, starting HB Ray Rice had just 660 yards with 2 less TDs. This was in about a hundred more attempts. Cam Newton's running ability from the QB position is second to none. He's so good on the ground that he'd probably be a starting running back for some teams. He won't need agood selection of targets this year - if no-ones open he'll just take off for a first down himself.
Seeing as the Panthers are a running team, taking a look at their RBs might not be a bad idea. They use somewhat of a committee approach with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (although that's as much due to injury as it is to anything else). Last season Williams had 843 yards and 3 TDs in 15 games. 18th in total yardage? Again, not great. DeAngelo
Williams, to his credit, is a very solid and dependable runner, as he fumbled just once last year. But he's now 31 years old, and calling him anything more than a good running back would be stretching it.
Jonathan Stewart was only able to play 6 games and take 48 handoffs last season,with 180 yards and 0 TDs. His first two seasons in the league showed he clearly has talent, as he had nearly 2,000 yards and 20 TDs combined. Unfortunetely the injury bug has hit him since, and he's been struggling to play out the season. If he's able to stay healthy this year? This is a good, good group of running backs.
It doesn't help to have a pro bowl fullback helping them out. Mike Tolbert is possibly the best fullback in the league. He's a complete monster, whether it's when he's blocking or with the ball in his hands. He's yet another redzone threat, with 5 TDs last season. If the Panthers have anything less than the league-high success rate in the league I'll be
First though, they need to get up into the redzone. That means their offensive line needs to get the job done. The loss of star LT Jordan Gross means that two of Byron Bell, Nate Chandler and Garry Williams need to start at tackle. Oh dear.
It's telling that no team was willing to make an offer for Byron Bell before he resigned with the Panthers. It's a good thing Cam Newton's so mobile - with Bell protecting his blind side he'll need to be ready to run all over the place. Nate Chandler is a defensive tackle converted into an offensive lineman - while he's certainly showed some promise it's too much to expect that he'll be able to become a solid starter for 16 games so soon. That leaves Garry Williams, who had an up and down season at guard last year. The whole tackle situation is a mess, but Williams moving back to his prefered position should help restore at least a little bit of calm. However even with Ryan Kalil, Amini Silatolu and rookie Trai Turner don't fool yourself - this is a mess of a line with a lot of work to do.
Everyone knows the Panthers front 7 is good. But no-one - not even the Panthers themselves - know just how good it is.
At LE is Charles Johnson. Formally a third round pick he exploded onto the scene in 2010 and hasn't looked back, racking up 11 sacks last year. He's been so good recently that's slightly below average for him in his last four seasons. His partner at the DE position is Greg Hardy; he's called "The Kraken" for a reason. Hardy last year obtained 15 sacks, which was the third best for any player in the league.
Not sold by their ends? How about their two defensive tackles supporting them? Star Lotulelei was a first round draft pick last year and he played up to that hype, with 42 combined tackles and 3 sacks, as well as being an imposing figure whenever he took the field. These three defensive players alone had 29 sacks between them - that's just two less than entire teams had. Kawann Short will join him at DT - he was also a rookie last year, as the Panthers chose him in the second round. He didn't start a single game but still was a valuable contributor with 30 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a FF. He's now in the position to be a starter, and there's really no telling how good he can be.
The key figure in this front 7 has to be MLB Luke Kuechly. There's a reason he was picked in the first round of the 2012 draft. Last season he had 156 combined tackles (which ranked him 4th) and 4 interceptions (joint third among linebackers). He set the record for most tackles in one game with 26 tackles against the New Orleans Saints, leading them to a win and the NFC South title. As if that wasn't enough, he also got himself an interception. He's now coming into his third season in the league - if he was to set a record for tackles in a season no-one would bat an eyelid. Even if he was to regress this year, he'd still be a top 5 linebacker. That's how good he is.
At OLB is Thomas Davis. Everyone knows the story of his three ACL tears and how he's battled through them. "Battled" isn't the word - he turned in a performance that would make any fully healthy player proud. Most players who'd recovered from a third ACL tear would be over the moon to just get back on the field, regardless of stats. Not him. Davis had 123 combined tackles with 4 sacks and 2 interceptions. With the amount of tackles the Panthers defense is able to record, it seems like they're on defence 90% of each game.
At the other OLB will be AJ Klein and Chase Blackburn battling for snaps. Klein too was a rookie last year, but saw limited playing time. When he did see the field he made the most of it, with 21 combined tackles and 2 sacks in just 2 starts. We need to see more of him before making a judgement, but so far it seems like he has all the tools to be a very productive player for the Panthers. He's a veteran with similar levels of gametime and production to Klein - whichever one of them gets the nod will be more than just a player to fill a gap.
This front 7 is unbelievably good, and as much as I wondered whether the Bills had a better unit I just can't see anyone getting close. The Panthers led the league in sacks last year with 60 (3 more than the second place Rams) and look set to do it again.
Unfortunetely, their secondary isn't at the same level.
Antoine Cason has had a dire couple of seasons. After being benched for rookie Marcus Gilchrist for a game in his final year as a Charger he then had another poor season in Arizona, with just 14 tackles and 2 interceptions (which were in the same game). It seems Cason is past his best - even if Ron Rivera can work the same magic he did when Cason was under his leadership in San Diego an average season is about the best they can expect from him.
He'll be partnered with Melvin White. White was an UDFA last year and didn't have an awful season with a pair of interceptions to go along with a FF, but was far from consistent. This Panthers secondary simply isn't good enough to have players perform on and off, meaning I'm far from sold on him heading into this season. He has every opportunity to change my mind and has the talent to do so, but unless he can perform at the level he needs to for 16 games then the jury's still out.
Battling out for a starting role at SS is Roman Harper and Robert Lester. Harper is seemingly over the hill, which made it an easy decision for the Saints to release him. He only started 9 games last year, with just 27 solo tackles and a solitary interception. Considering how fast the game of football is becoming you can't afford to have a player past his prime at SS, which is why Robert Lester has a great chance at winning the job. He was an UDFA who made the most of his opportunites, with 3 interceptions in just 4 starts. It might not be two amazingly talented players battling it out for the job, but it will be interesting to see which one comes out on top. At FS is another veteran in Thomas Decoud. He can still produce at an average level, but the Panthers can't rely on him to change games.
Verdict: No. This was a pretty hard decision. The front 7 is absolutely incredible, and will easily win the Panthers games on their own. The problem is their supporting cast. The secondary is weak and the offence just isn't strong enough to pull the Panthers through. The Panthers could make the playoffs as a wildcard team, but they just aren't good enough to go all the way.
Not this year, at least.
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