Carolina Panthers 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers had a breakout year last year, finally getting over their issues in close games (2-12 in the first two years of the Cam Newton era, 5-2 last season) and overall improving in terms of talent and level of play. They finished 12-4, winning the NFC South and getting the NFC’s #2 seed and a first round bye, before losing their first playoff game at home in a hard fought battle against the San Francisco 49ers. They finished 4th in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.51%. They were the only team in the league to finish in the top-6 in rate of moving the chains and rate of moving the chains allowed, moving the chains at a 75.00% rate (6th) and allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.49% rate (5th).

However, no team suffered more off-season losses than the Panthers this off-season. They lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs from that dominant defense, a combined 3200 snaps played. They lost all of their wide receivers who played a single snap last season, with the exception of Marvin McNutt, who played 4 snaps last season. They lost their top blocking tight end, Ben Hartsock. They also lost their best two offensive linemen, Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton. And they didn’t really have the ability to replace any of them this off-season because of cap reasons.

To make things worse, Cam Newton is coming off of serious off-season ankle surgery. It’s a minor issue in terms of his ability to be 100% this season, but it’s a major issue because of how much offensive turnover there has been this off-season. Missing practice time with a new offensive line and receiving corps could really hurt him and this offense. He’s back now for training camp, but he missed OTAs and minicamp.

In 3 years in the league, Newton has completed 59.8% for an average of 7.66 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 2032 yards and 28 touchdowns on 364 attempts, an average of 5.58 YPC. He’s gotten slightly better in quarterback rating in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league and he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th, 11th, and 15th ranked quarterback in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The Panthers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. He could easily have his worst statistical year this season though, as result of the lack of talent around him and the lack of chemistry he’ll have with them.

The Panthers are also in serious trouble if Newton has to miss regular season time. It’s unlikely, even after his ankle surgery, because he hasn’t missed a game in 3 years in the league. However, if he went down, they’d be stuck with backup quarterback Derek Anderson under center. Anderson has thrown 4 passes in 3 seasons as Newton’s backup since getting run out of Arizona. In his career, he’s completed 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 55 interceptions. Again, it’s unlikely he sees action, but it’s worth mentioning who Newton’s backup is considering Newton had serious off-season surgery.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The single biggest loss the Panthers suffered this off-season was left tackle Jordan Gross, who retired this off-season. Gross would have been going into his age 34 season this year, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle last season and he’ll be seriously missed. Also retired is left guard Travelle Wharton, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard last season. He would have been going into his age 33 season, but, like Gross, he’ll be seriously missed.

The good news is that Ryan Kalil is still here. He’s easily their best offensive lineman remaining. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center last season, in his first year back after being limited to 292 snaps in 5 games with a foot injury in 2012. Prior to the injury, he was one of the best centers in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2009, 7th ranked in 2010, and 7th ranked in 2011. Now that he’s healthy again, he’s gone back to being one of the best centers in the league.

The rest of the offensive line is a mess though. Nate Chandler is expected to be the blindside protector. The Panthers really like the 2012 undrafted free agent’s upside, but I don’t really understand that. There’s no evidence to suggest that he can be even close to a solid left tackle. He was a collegiate defensive tackle and played defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012, struggling on 131 snaps, before being converted to the offensive line in 2013. He looked like a converted undrafted defensive lineman, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 501 snaps. This will be his 2nd season as an offensive lineman, so he’ll be more familiar with it, but I don’t see him finding an easier time at left tackle.

Right tackle Byron Bell isn’t much better. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season in his 3rd year in the league, after going undrafted in 2011. Sadly, that was the best year of his career, as he graded out 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 69th out of 76 eligible in 2013. I don’t envision him turning into even an average starter in his 4th year in the league and he could easily regress back to 2011-2012 form and be even worse than he was last season.

Amini Silatolu returns from injury at left guard. Silatolu was a 2012 2nd round pick so he has talent and he looked good on 171 snaps in 3 games last season, but he tore his ACL week 3 and missed the rest of the season, which is how Wharton came into the lineup and stabilized their offensive line. Now Silatolu coming off of a serious injury and the only full season he has as a starter on his resume is 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. He’s fully expected to get his starting job back with Wharton gone and he has some upside, but he could easily struggle again.

The right guard position is a three-way battle. Chris Scott was the week 1 starter there last season, but ended being so bad that he was benched for converted defensive lineman Nate Chandler after 8 starts. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 506 snaps. Garry Williams made 7 starts at the position in 2012 and 2 starts at right tackle, but graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in terms of composite grade. It was only slightly below average, but he also graded out 52nd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2010, the other season in his career in which he saw significant action, making 11 starts at right tackle. Last season, he was limited to 15 snaps. The Panthers might just have to start 3rd round rookie Trai Turner week 1, which wouldn’t be ideal. Cam Newton is going to spend a lot of time under pressure this season thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in the league in front of him.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

As I mentioned, the Panthers lost every single wide receiver who played a snap for them last season except Marvin McNutt, who played 4 snaps. The Panthers’ wide receivers weren’t great last season (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon), but they had to re-tool the wide receiver position this off-season from scratch with little to no cap space to work with. As a result, they bargain shopped for veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery and drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round, 28th overall.

Avant was cut by the Eagles this off-season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pass catching grade, catching 38 passes on 71 attempts (53.5%) for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns on 462 routes run, an average of 0.97 yards per route run. Avant is a feisty run blocker in the slot, grading out above average as a run blocker in each of the past 6 seasons, but he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in 5 of those 6 seasons and now he’s going into his age 31 season. He’ll just be a slot receiver and a mediocre one at that.

Cotchery is expected to be one of the starting outside receivers. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he’s better than Avant. Cotchery was a very good wide receiver with the Jets from 2007-2009, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, catching a combined 210 passes for 2809 yards and 10 touchdowns, and maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver overall in 2009. However, he struggled mightily in 2010, grading out below average, including 101st out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade.

He ended up in Pittsburgh, where he played just a combined 553 snaps in 2011-2012. However, in 2013, he got a bigger role and caught 46 passes on 74 attempts (62.2%) for 607 yards and 10 touchdowns on 440 routes run, an average of 1.38 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th wide receiver, though he was only about average as a pass catcher. Most of his strong grade was as a result of him being Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked run blocking wide receiver. Like Avant, he’s consistently graded out as a strong run blocker, but he’s an average pass catcher at best and probably below average as he ages.

As a result, Kelvin Benjamin could be forced into the #1 wide receiver role. Benjamin certainly has talent, but he’s very raw, as he only played two seasons of college football and only had one season where he had meaningful production. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle anyway, even first round talents.  Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

Benjamin is rawer than most wide receivers drafted in the first round and was a very late first round pick. He could exceed those averages in terms of pure numbers because of the size of his role and the caliber of quarterback he has throwing to him, but he probably won’t play well or be that efficient. He showed himself to be incredibly athletic and physical both in college and at the combine (6-5 240 4.61 40), but he’s purely a deep threat at this point in his football career.

The good news is tight end Greg Olsen was their leading receiver last season and he’s still around. He will almost definitely lead them in receiving again this season. Last season, he caught 73 passes on 102 attempts (71.6%) for 816 yards and 6 touchdowns on 482 routes run, an average of 1.69 yards per route run. He ranked 9th among eligible tight ends in yards per route run and 4th in pure pass catching grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including above average as a pass catcher in all 7 seasons. He hasn’t always been a great run blocker, but there have been seasons in which he showed himself to be strong in that aspect. He’s an above average tight end and one of the Panthers’ best offensive players.

The Panthers will, however, miss blocking tight end Ben Hartsock. Hartsock is not a well-known player, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall tight end last season, despite playing just 324 snaps. He didn’t catch a single pass on 45 routes run and the 6-4 262 pounder has always been useless in the passing game, with 4 catches since 2009. However, he’s a dominant run blocker, grading out 1st in that aspect last season by a large margin, the only reason why he graded out #1 overall. Obviously take his #1 ranking with a grain of salt knowing that pass catching is more important to a football team, but know the Panthers will miss him.

The Panthers replaced him with Ed Dickson, who was actually Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end and their worst ranked run blocking tight end last season. Blocking isn’t his only issue, as he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league since getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He’s also graded out below average overall in 3 of 4 seasons, including last season and a 2010 season in which he ranked 61st out of 63 eligible. Not only is he a significant downgrade from Hartsock, but he’ll see a larger role as the Panthers than Hartsock did as the Panthers will go to more two-tight end sets this season, because of their lack of talent at wide receiver. The Panthers are in trouble in the receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

In addition to running more two-tight end sets this season, the Panthers will also call more run plays, given the sorry state of their receiving corps. The issue is the Panthers don’t have much talent at the running back position. Cam Newton does everything he can to make life easier for the Panthers’ running backs, both carrying the ball (an average of 121 carries for 677 yards and 9 touchdowns a season in 3 years in the league) and opening up running room for running backs, as defenses have to respect his deep ball and his ability to take off and run. In spite of that, the Panthers averaged just 4.19 yards per carry last season, including Cam Newton’s 5.27 yards per carry. They ran a lot last season (483 carries to 473 pass attempts), but they could run even more this season.

DeAngelo Williams will probably be the lead back again. Williams has had an impressive career, averaging 4.84 yards per carry over 1370 career carries. However, he’s now going into his age 31 season and has graded out below average in rushing grade on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, averaging just 4.22 yards per carry over those 2 seasons combined. He’s clearly declining and could decline even more this season. He’s also only gone over 200 carries 3 times in 8 seasons (including last season) and doesn’t offer much in the passing game, with 173 catches in 111 career games, including just 39 over the past 2 seasons combined.

Williams has had some issues with injuries in his career, but Jonathan Stewart has had even bigger problems with injuries. He only missed 2 games in his first 4 seasons combined, but he was consistently playing through injuries and it appears to have caught up with him over the past 2 seasons, as he’s missed a combined 17 games and carried the ball just a combined 141 times over those past 2 seasons. He’s also been limited to 3.66 yards per carry over the past 2 seasons.

He’s a talented player when healthy, averaging 4.64 yards per carry for his career, despite his struggles over the last 2 seasons, but he’s rarely healthy. He’s also only gone over 200 carries in a season once in 6 years in the league and he’s only caught 105 passes in 77 games. With Williams aging and the Panthers’ run blocking expected to be a lot worse this season with Gross, Wharton, and Hartsock gone, the Panthers really need Stewart to step up. I’m skeptical whether or not he can do that and the fact that he’s already nursing a significant hamstring injury a few days into training camp doesn’t quell my skepticism.

The Panthers’ best back might be fullback Mike Tolbert, who led Panther backs with 606 snaps played last season. He only averaged 3.57 yards per carry (361 rushing yards on 101 carries), but that’s partially because he was doing a lot of the dirty work and short yardage running. He picked up 2.02 yards per carry after contact and 31 first downs on 101 carries. He also was their best pass catching running back, catching 27 passes (which led Panther running backs) for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns.

He was also a strong blocker (both run and pass) and played as their 3rd down back, leading Panther running backs with 352 snaps on passing plays. The jack-of-all-traits had at least 100 carries, routes run, snaps in pass protection, and snaps as a lead blocker, grading out above average in all 4 aspects and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked fullback. This is nothing new for him as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked fullback in 2012 and graded out above average in 2 of his final 3 seasons in San Diego as both a running back and fullback from 2010-2012. For his career, the 5-9 243 pounder has averaged 3.94 yards per carry, picked up 136 first downs on 496 carries, scored 40 total touchdowns, and caught 163 passes for 1464 yards.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

I mentioned that the Panthers also lost essentially their entire secondary from 2013, in addition to all of their losses on offense. However, they can still have a very good defense this season. Their defensive front 7 is the best in the league and, while their secondary played well last season, all 4 of the players they lost (Michael Mitchell, Captain Munnerlyn, Quintin Mikell, Drayton Florence) were signed to close to minimum deals the previous off-season. Their defensive front 7 and the coaching of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (a finalist for the Washington head coaching job) probably made them look better than they were.

The best player on this defensive line and arguably on the whole defense is defensive end Greg Hardy, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end, after ranking 6th in that aspect in 2012. Hardy was franchise tagged as a result this off-season, though the Panthers have yet to reach a long-term deal with him. There is concern with Hardy because he was arrested this off-season and eventually found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend. Hardy is appealing the ruling and the NFL probably will wait until the appeal fails before suspending him, which means he should be fine for this season.

That being said, he fell to the 6th round of the draft in 2010 because of character concerns, primarily motivation issues, but the fact that this happened in the off-season right after he got franchise tagged is a serious concern. With 13.116 million guaranteed this season, there is concern that he might coast on-the-field as well, though there are obvious financial incentives for him giving 100% and putting up another dominant season, as he is set to hit free agency again next off-season. This could easily be his final season with the Panthers because of a combination of the Panthers’ rough cap situation and Hardy’s off-the-field problems.

The Panthers drafted Kony Ealy in the 2nd round, another sign that they might be preparing for life without Hardy in 2015. Ealy could have a significant role as a rookie, even behind Hardy and counterpart Charles Johnson, as an interior nickel rusher. The 6-4 273 pounder is a natural defensive end and that’s probably his position long-term, but he has the size to be an interior rusher in sub packages as a rookie. The selection of him in the 2nd round gives them even more talent on this defensive line and solidifies their depth.

Charles Johnson, as I mentioned, is the other defensive end opposite Hardy. He too could be entering his final year with the Panthers, owed 9.75 non-guaranteed in 2015 on a cap strapped team. Johnson signed a gargantuan 6-year, 76 million dollar deal with the Panthers following a breakout season in 2010 in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. That was his first season as a starter, so the Panthers were paying for a one-year wonder and it hasn’t quite paid off.

That isn’t to say he’s been bad, as he’s been a strong pass rusher, grading out 18th, 2nd, and 11th in pure pass rushing grade in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. However, he’s graded out below average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons and has overall not proven himself to be the player he was in 2010. He’s not going to be worth 9.75 million and 10.75 million in 2015 and 2016 respectively, his age 29 and his age 30 seasons respectively. For now, he’ll continue to be a strong pass rusher who struggles against the run.

Defensive tackle used to be a position of weakness for the Panthers but they turned it from a weakness to a strength with 2 draft picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, taking Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short in the first and 2nd round respectively. Both had fantastic rookie years, getting Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th and 13th ranked defensive tackles last season respectively. Both are obviously one year wonders, as they were just rookies, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one or both had an even better season this season.

Short is better than Lotulelei, not just because he ranked higher on fewer snaps (528 to 620), but because he was more well-rounded, while Lotulelei struggled as a pass rusher and excelled against the run. The 6-2 315 pounder might just be a pure two-down player (though an excellent one, grading out 5th overall against the run), which is how Kony Ealy’s role could come into play. Run stoppers are also less valuable than pass rushers in the NFL. That being said, he was a first round pick just last year so he could easily become at least a decent pass rusher and allow himself to stay on the field in every situation. Either way, Short is going to see a larger role this season. It’s an overall dominant defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Things are equally good in the linebacking corps. Luke Kuechly won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, though I don’t think he deserved it. Kuechly definitely had a great season, but he’s not nearly as flawless as people seem to think he is. Defensive Player of the Year usually goes to the best defensive player (or the most noticeably good defensive player) on a top defense, rather than the best defensive player in the league. Kuechly was definitely noticeable on a strong Carolina defense with 141 total tackles (115 solo, 26 assists).

As good as Kuechly is against the run, he can struggle in coverage. Only one middle linebacker (the Jets’ Demario Davis) allowed more completions than the 55 Kuechly allowed, as Davis allowed 56. Putting up a ton of tackles is great, but it’s an overrated stat because not all tackles are equal. If you’re tackling a guy after a 9 yard completion, you’re not doing a lot of good. Kuechly also missed 14 tackles, 6th at his position.

Kuechly had just 39 tackles for a “stop” against the run, meaning a tackle within 4 yards of the line of original line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. He did this on 325 run snaps, a rate of 12.0% that was 7th among eligible middle linebackers. That’s certainly not bad, but considering his run play is his best attribute, it’s hardly Defensive Player of the Year material and he was helped by a fantastic defensive line eating up blocks in front of him.

All this might sound like nitpicking, but nitpicking is what you have to do when picking a single defensive player for an award. Carolina certainly has a great defense and Kuechly is a big part of the reason why, but he has a fantastic supporting cast. You could make an argument that he’s not even the best defensive player on his team with the way Greg Hardy played last year. Hell, you could make an argument that he wasn’t even the best linebacker on his team with the way Thomas Davis played. Still, he’s a very good player who graded out 8th at his position last season and 7th in 2012.

Speaking of Davis, he also had a fantastic season last year. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, including #1 in coverage, as the 6-1 231 pounder looked as fluid as a safety in coverage and showed great closing speed after allowing a completion (the 7.1 yards per completion he allowed were 3rd best at his position). There’s definitely concern whether or not he keeps this up though, as he’s going into his age 31 season with 3 torn ACLs on his resume.

The fact that he’s even still able to play, let alone dominate like he did last season, is incredibly impressive, but his injury history is a serious elephant in the room with him. Thomas played a combined 9 games from 2009-2011 thanks to injuries. He’s missed just 1 game over the past 2 seasons, grading out 11th at his position in 2012 and then 3rd last season, so he could be fine going forward. He was also good prior to his injury, grading out above average in both 2007 and 2008. It’s just hard to expect a player to repeat the best season of his career at age 31 with essentially 3 seasons lost to injury in his career.

The 3rd linebacker is Chase Blackburn and he plays a largely irrelevant role as a base package player. The Panthers rarely use 3 linebackers. Blackburn graded out below average on 199 snaps after taking over the role mid-season from Jon Beason, who was traded to the Giants. His history is inconsistent, as he’s graded out below average in 4 of the last 7 seasons, but, again, it’s largely irrelevant. The other 6 players in the front 7 are all very good at what they do.

Grade: A

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Panthers lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs this off-season, a combined 3200 snaps walking out the door with Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Quentin Mikell, and Michael Mitchell. Munnerleyn and Florence were Pro Football Focus’ 10th and 19th ranked cornerbacks, while Mikell and Mitchell were Pro Football Focus’ 31st and 33rd ranked safeties. All 4 of those players were signed for close to the veteran’s minimum last off-season though, as the Panthers did a fantastic job finding bargains who fit their scheme and making them look better than they were with a combination of strong coaching and strong front 7 play. They’ll attempt to do the same again this off-season, which is easier said than done.

The one player who played a significant amount of snaps for the Panthers in the secondary last season who remains on the roster is Melvin White. Like the other 4, the Panthers found White in the bargain bin, but the undrafted rookie graded out only slightly below average on 693 snaps. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league or he could regress and show why he went undrafted in 2013. He’s expected to at least begin the season as a starter.

Free agent pickup Antoine Cason is expected to be the other starter. Cason fits the bargain hunting theme, but he might not work out. The 2008 1st round pick has largely been a bust in his career. He started out his career fine, grading out above average in each of his first 3 years in San Diego, but he graded out below average in his final 2 seasons, including 108th out of 113 eligible in his contract year in 2012. Last season, in Arizona, he was unable to establish a role and was limited to 169 snaps. He also graded out below average for the 3rd straight season. The Panthers are hoping he can bounce back and the last time he graded out above average he was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but that was in 2010 so those days could easily just be gone.

On the slot, the Panthers are expected to play Charles Godfrey. Godfrey was limited to 114 snaps last season by a torn Achilles suffered week 2. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008. He was especially bad in 2011 and 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011 and their 82nd ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2012 and now he’s coming off of a serious injury. The Panthers are hoping that by moving the collegiate cornerback to the slot they can turn his career around, but it’s a serious long shot. The Panthers have 5th round rookie Bene Benwikere as their 4th cornerback to turn to if anyone struggles, which highlights how bad their depth is at the position.

At safety, they have a three-way battle for the two starting jobs. 2nd year player Robert Lester might be the best of the bunch. Like White, Lester was an undrafted free agent last season and, though he only played 301 snaps, he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety last season. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He could be ready for a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and emerge as a solid starter or he could show why he went undrafted and either lose a position battle in training camp or win the job and struggle afterwards.

Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper are the veteran options, coming over from Atlanta and New Orleans respectively this off-season, after cutting cut. The Panthers are hoping DeCoud can return to 2009-2011 form, when the 2008 3rd round pick graded out above average in each of the first 3 seasons he was a starter in the league, which earned him the 5-year, 21 million dollar deal he was released from this off-season. DeCoud graded out below average in 2012 and 2013 after signing the deal and ranked 82nd out of 86 eligible in 2013. He should bounce back somewhat if he wins a starting job, but he could easily still struggle.

Harper, I think, is the worst option of the three, as he goes into his age 32 season. He was a very solid safety from 2007-2010, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, maxing out at 9th overall in 2007 and 2010 and earning himself a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal. Harper did not prove to be worth that deal, grading out below average as a starter in 2010 and 2011, ranking 86th out of 88 eligible in 2011. That got him benched and got his salary slashed. He played 374 snaps in 2013, grading out below average, and then was cut. He’s unlikely to bounce back and be even an average starter at his age. Overall, the Panthers need to work a miracle in the secondary. They did so last season, but they might not be as lucky this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

I don’t think it’s any question that the Panthers will decline this season. They simply lost too much. They’re easily the favorite to be this year’s team that goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs (there’s one almost every year). However, they might not be as bad as people think as they still have a lot of talent. As bad as their offensive line, receiving corps, secondary, and running backs are, they have an above average quarterback who happens to be one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the game and they have the league’s best defensive front 7.

It’ll be interesting to how this team fares as they are probably the top heaviest team in the NFL. They have 7-9 guys who could end up in my top-200 players list coming out next month, but they also have a number of guys in significant roles who simply don’t deserve to be in those roles. If I had to guess, they’ll still be the 2nd best team in the Cam Newton era record wise, meaning they’ll surpass the 6 wins they had in 2011 and the 7 wins they had in 2012. If I had to guess, they’re more likely to go over their 8 win odds makers projection than under (though a push is a really realistic possibility). I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: 8-8 3rd in NFC South

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