Carolina Panthers 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers were one of the best teams in the whole NFL in 2013, winning 12 games and the NFC South and finishing the season 4th in rate of moving the chains differential. They were dominant on both sides of the ball, ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains and 5th in rate of moving the chains allowed. In 2014, the Panthers repeated as NFC South champions, the first time there had been a repeat winner in division history. However, they weren’t nearly as good as they finished at 7-8-1, one of just two teams to ever make the playoffs with a losing record. They were a little bit better than their record in rate of moving the chains, ranking 14th in rate of moving the chains differential, but they still weren’t great. They finished 12th in rate of moving the chains and 18th in rate of moving the chains allowed, both steep drop offs from 2013.

The reason for that is the Panthers lost a lot in free agency last off-season. Cam Newton had the worst quarterback rating of his career at 82.1, completing 58.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. However, a lot of that was the fault of his weak receiving corps and offensive line. Newton still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it 4 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average to start his career. He graded out 14th in 2011, 11th in 2012, and 15th in 2013.

Even though he was only average as a passer, he remained arguably the best running quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns on 103 attempts. In his career, he’s rushed for 2571 yards and 33 touchdowns on 467 attempts in just 4 seasons. On top of that, he’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 54 interceptions, despite generally having weak supporting casts. This off-season he signed a 5-year, 103.8 million dollar extension that locks him in as their franchise quarterback into the future.

Newton’s only issue last season was injuries, but he didn’t let it affect his play much. He only missed 2 games with injury (one of which was actually the result of a car accident), but he dealt with back, ankle, rib, and foot problems throughout the season. However, those were the first 2 games he’s missed with injury in his career. He takes a lot of hits from pass rushers as a result of a weak offensive line, but he generally is able to tough it out through them thanks to his 6-5 244 frame, much like Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, so I wouldn’t call him injury prone at all.

Newton was especially good in his final 4 games after the Panthers’ week 12 bye, as he was able to rest his whole body. He completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.39 yards per attempt, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over that tiny period, while rushing for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns on 39 attempts. He continued with that in the playoffs, completing 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 72 yards on 18 attempts. If the Panthers are able to protect Newton better and his supporting cast is able to be more helpful in 2015, the Panthers should be a much improved offense. Newton is one of their few offensive building blocks.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Of course, it wasn’t just Newton getting healthier that led to the Panthers’ improved offense after the bye. The Panthers moved the chains at a 77.38% rate in their final 5 games, allowing them to steal the division. That includes a game that Newton missed with injury, as backup Derek Anderson led them to move the chains at a 76.32% rate week 15, albiet against the hapless Buccaneers. One of the big improvements after the bye was a season ending injury to Nate Chandler, who graded out 68th among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 11 games at right tackle. He was put on IR during the bye.

It was addition by subtraction and allowed undrafted rookie Mike Remmers to step into the starting lineup. He impressed, grading out above average on 367 snaps in 5 starts. He enters the season as the favorite at right tackle, but he’s hard to trust. No one drafted him last off-season, which is still relevant because he’s still inexperienced. He also struggled mightily in the playoffs. He’s still far from being an established starter, but the Panthers don’t have another option and he has at least some upside.

The biggest issue on the offensive line last season was left tackle, as Byron Bell graded out 83rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 15 starts. The Panthers didn’t really do much to fix that position this off-season, replacing one of the worst tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons with another one of the worst tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons, Michael Oher. Oher was cut by the Titans this off-season 1 year into a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal, despite the fact that they paid him 9 million guaranteed for one season. The Panthers inexplicably signed him to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season, didn’t add any competition for him at left tackle through the tackle, and have spent the off-season talking him up. He didn’t deserve anything more than the veteran’s minimum this off-season.

The big contract the Titans gave Oher last off-season seemed doomed from the start. He was coming off of an awful season to end a generally disappointing 5-year tenure in Baltimore, after going in the first round in 2009. In 2013, his final year in Baltimore, he was Pro Football Focus 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. In 2014, his first year in Tennessee, Oher predictably struggled once again, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible in 11 games, before going down for the season with an injury. He hasn’t graded out above average since his rookie year in 2009.

Between his struggles and Remmers’ inexperience, the Panthers don’t have a strong group of tackles. The Panthers used a 4th round pick on offensive tackle Daryl Williams, but he doesn’t figure to be much of a help as a rookie. Poor tackle play was a big reason why the Panthers’ offensive line was so bad last season, as they ranked 30th on Pro Football Focus in team pass blocking grade and 22nd in run blocking grade. They really missed Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton, key players upfront on the 2013 team who retired last off-season. That’s a big part of why Newton sustained so many injuries. A poor offensive line is definitely not part of the recipe for keeping your highly paid franchise quarterback on the field for 16 games, even as big as Newton is.

Things are better on the interior. Amini Silatolu, a 2012 2nd round pick, played just 1 game after week 6 last season thanks to injury and, like Chandler, he was drastically outplayed by a rookie and seems to have lost his starting job permanently. Andrew Norwell, like Mike Remmers, was an undrafted rookie, but he graded out 15th among guards on 696 snaps in 10 starts so he’s a little bit more experienced than Norwell. Silatolu remains in the mix for the starting job, but is seen as a large underdog. After struggling as a starter as a rookie, Silatolu has been limited to 10 games in the past 2 seasons combined thanks to injury. Norwell is not a proven starter yet, but he’s the better option.

Another rookie played well at right guard too, this time one that was actually drafted. Trai Turner, a 3rd rounder out of LSU, graded out 23rd among guards despite playing just 673 snaps (9 starts in 13 games). He was significantly better than his eventual backup Fernando Velasco, who graded out below average on 407 snaps, so having Turner healthy and starting for the whole season should be a boost, but he’s also unproven. A lot is dependent on unproven young players (who generally weren’t drafted high) upfront for Carolina, which is concerning, but the Panthers played their best offensive football last season down the stretch, thanks largely to these rookies.

Ryan Kalil is the only proven veteran upfront for the Panthers, as the center is going into his 9th year in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in the 2007 NFL Draft. He’s made 100 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons (with the exception being an injury shortened 2012 season), including 11th last season. Still only going into his age 30 season, he’s one of the better centers in the NFL and definitely the Panthers’ best offensive lineman. It should be an improved offensive line this season, but that wouldn’t be saying much and they’re still very dependent on unproven young players.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cam Newton and the offensive line weren’t the only ones that played better after the bye last season for the Panthers. Running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 486 yards and a touchdown on 91 attempts in those 5 games (5.34 yards per carry). He was helped by Newton’s strong play and the offensive line’s strong play, but I think he was the single biggest reason why, after the bye, the 2014 Panthers resembled the 2013 Panthers in terms of their ability to move the chains consistently. The difference is Stewart was finally healthy, after missing 3 games with injury and being limited to 84 carries in 8 games before the bye because of injury.

Injuries have been a huge problem with him over the past 3 seasons. Not only did he miss those 3 games, but he also missed 17 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 respectively, making it 20 missed games in 3 seasons. He’s also never had more than 221 carries in a season. He’s a great running back when on the field though, with a 4.63 YPC average and 30 career rushing touchdowns on 1041 attempts, grading out above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He’s also only going into his age 28 season and coming off of a season where he averaged 4.62 yards per carry and graded out 7th at his position on Pro Football Focus. If he can stay healthy, he could have a strong year and go over 1000+ yards for only the 2nd time in his career, but that’s a big if.

The Panthers better hope he can stay healthy because their depth is suspect, after the release of DeAngelo Williams (1167 carries over the past 7 seasons) this off-season. Williams averaged just 3.53 yards per carry last season, so he won’t really be missed, but they don’t have a good alternative #2 back. 5th round rookie Cameron Artis-Payne could easily win the #2 job. His only veteran competition is Jordan Todman, who has rushed for just 450 yards and 3 touchdowns on 111 attempts (4.05 YPC) in 4 years in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2011. It’s not a good backup running back situation, especially for a team who is going to be counting on an injury prone back to have 250+ carries, which would be a career high.

Mike Tolbert is an experienced back who is decently well paid, set to make 2.45 million in the final year of a 4-year, 10 million dollar deal. The 5-9 243 pound fullback type only averages 3.81 yards per carry in his career and averaged just 2.11 yards per carry last season. Once a solid fullback (2nd in 2012 and 3rd in 2013), Tolbert was all the way down at 22nd out of 23 eligible fullbacks last season and looks like a declining player going into his age 30 season. He’s not a real candidate for serious carries. Cam Newton has a very good chance to finish in the top-2 among Panthers in rushing yards for the 4th straight season in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

In addition to the offensive line, another place the Panthers had serious losses last season was in the receiving corps. Both starting receivers from 2013, Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, left last off-season. Neither one of them was great in 2013, but both had better seasons elsewhere in 2014 and the Panthers didn’t do a great job of replacing them, leading to a poor receiving corps. A combination of a receiving corps that couldn’t consistently get open and an offensive line that couldn’t consistently protect long enough made life very tough Cam Newton in 2014.

It might sound weird to stay that Newton had a weak receiving corps because the Panthers were one of five teams with two 1000+ yard receivers (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Vincent Jackson/Mike Evans, Randall Cobb/Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders). However, that was largely because they didn’t have any receiving options after wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen. Those two received 49.25% of the Panthers targets, the highest percentage by any two teammates.

Benjamin had a big statistical year as a rookie, as the 6-5 240 pound first round pick caught 73 passes for 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, Benjamin didn’t actually play that well. That might sound weird, but any time you finish 20th among wide receivers in receiving yards and 5th among wide receivers in targets, you weren’t very efficient. He graded out 85th among 110 eligible wide receivers as a result. The good news is that Benjamin still has a bright future, only going into his age 24 season, and could definitely be improved in 2015. As I mentioned earlier, it’s tough for even the most talented of rookie receivers to transition to the NFL.

Benjamin was definitely the best of the Panthers’ wide receivers last season though, hence why he got so many targets. The Panthers’ next three wide receivers (Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Corey Brown) combined for just 4 more targets than Benjamin last season. Benjamin deserves credit for dealing with weekly double teams as a rookie. The Panthers added Devin Funchess in the 2nd round of the draft and he’s expected to start opposite Benjamin, moving the veteran Cotchery into more of a reserve role. He should have a lot of the same issues adjusting to the NFL quickly as Benjamin did and, talent wise, the 6-4 232 pound collegiate wide receiver/tight end is, at best, a poor man’s Benjamin, so he should have serious efficiency problems. Rated as a major reach by College Football Focus, Funchess is unlikely to be an asset as a rookie and maybe not ever.

Cotchery, meanwhile, will compete with Corey Brown for the #3 receiver job this off-season. Cotchery is the veteran of the bunch, while Brown is yet another undrafted free agent from the 2014 class, but the youngster would seem to have the advantage. He flashed last season, grading out slightly above average on 314 snaps as a rookie, catching 21 passes for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns and adding 8 carries for 93 yards on the year, taking over the #3 receiver job following the release of veteran Jason Avant.

The 5-11 180 pounder has obvious physical limitations and there’s a reason why no one drafted him, but he’s a nice niche player as a slot receiver/gadget player out of the backfield. Cotchery, meanwhile, was overstretched as a starting receiver last year, playing 803 snaps and grading out below average. He’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 5 seasons (averaging 545 snaps per season over that time period) and now heads into his age 33 season. He’s a depth receiver at best at this stage of his career.

The Panthers don’t just have depth problems at wide receiver; they do at tight end as well. The Panthers also really missed blocking tight end Ben Hartsock last season, after he retired as well (like Gross and Wharton). Ed Dickson was the #2 tight end in 2014 and really sucked. That’s no surprise, considering he has graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL (4 with the Ravens and the last one with the Panthers), since the Ravens drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s been especially bad in each of the past 2 seasons, grading out 63rd out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 60th out of 67 eligible last season. Why the Panthers re-signed him to a 3-year, 6.8 million dollar deal this off-season to play the same role again is beyond me.

Greg Olsen is the saving grace of this receiving corps and their best offensive weapon. Like Benjamin, he had a 1000+ yard season, but, unlike Benjamin, he didn’t need a ton of targets to do it. He finished 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards, only behind Rob Gronkowski, and 3rd in targets. A strong blocker and all-around tight end as well, Olsen was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end last season. This is nothing too new for him (although that was a career best), as he’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 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 8 seasons.

He’s not flashy, but he’s productive (3 straight seasons of 800+ receiving yards), he doesn’t have a weakness, and he’s a huge part of Carolina’s offense. He also hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2007. He’s going into his age 30 season, but, coming off the best season of his career, he’s showing no signs of declining any time soon. The Panthers clearly trust him long-term, giving him a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of a contract year where he was set to make just 5.5 million. He’s scheduled to make 28 million dollars total over the next 4 seasons. Other than him, the Panthers’ receivers are not a strong group at all though, which makes him all the more important.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Not unlike the offense, the defense also declined significantly from 2013 to 2014, and for the same reason, as the Panthers suffered a bunch of losses on defense. The losses were most numerous in the secondary and I’ll get to those, but the biggest loss was the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy was one of the best defensive players in the game in 2012 and 2013, leading to the Panthers giving him an 11.3 million dollar franchise tag to keep him away from free agency last off-season. However, Hardy ended up playing just 1 game, missing the final 15 with a team issued suspension, facing public pressure to keep Hardy off-the-field while he was being tried for domestic abuse. Hardy was not brought back this off-season, even though a jury threw out a judge’s conviction on a technicality.

In his absence, they didn’t fare well at his old defensive end spot, as Wes Horton, Mario Addison, and Kony Ealy graded out 49th, 39th, and 56th respectively out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Ealy was the worst of the bunch, despite playing just 368 snaps. No 4-3 defensive end played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. However, he’s the favorite for the starting job in 2015, thanks to his status as a 2014 2nd round pick. He still has upside, but his career is off to a bad start.

Charles Johnson is locked into the other starting spot once again. The 2007 3rd round pick has made 81 starts in 109 games in 8 years in the league and has graded out above average in the last 7, including 11th last season. He was re-signed to a monster 6-year, 76 million dollar deal 4 off-seasons ago and, while he hasn’t lived up to his outstanding 2011 season, when he graded out #3 among 4-3 defensive ends, he’s still been a huge asset for them. Only going into his age 29 season, I expect that to continue, but he’ll need to be a little bit more than just an asset to justify a 11 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, his age 30 season. This could be his 9th and final season in Carolina.

Wes Horton and Mario Addison return and will compete for the #3 defensive end job, which will rotate heavily with Kony. Horton, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out well below average on 174 snaps in 2013 and 475 snaps in 2014. He’s a long shot for the #3 job. The real battle will be between Addison and Frank Alexander, who is back on good terms with the team after missing 14 games with suspension last season, as a result of multiple failed drug tests.

Addison, a 2011 undrafted free agent, graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, but wasn’t very good in 2014 and has averaged just 240 snaps per season in his 4-year career. Alexander, meanwhile, played just 24 snaps last season, as a result of the aforementioned suspensions, and graded out below average both as a 4th round rookie in 2012 on 568 snaps and again 2013 on 239 snaps. Outside of Johnson, defensive end is a weak position for the Panthers.

Things are much better at defensive though, where Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will both start for the 3rd straight season, after the Panthers drafted them in the 1st and 2nd rounds respectively in the 2013 NFL Draft. Lotulelei has graded out 17th and 24th among defensive tackles in the last 2 seasons respectively, while Short has graded out 13th and 9th among defensive tackles over those 2 seasons. Short is the better of the two and one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, but Lotulelei is solid as well. They are a real strength on this team and they should continue to play well, as both are only going into their age 26 seasons.

Dwan Edwards remains as a veteran backup and will once again be the 3rd defensive tackle.  Edwards has graded out below average in each of the last 5 seasons, averaging 595 snaps per season over that time period. In 2014, he graded out 63rd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles on 591 snaps. Going into his age 34 season, things aren’t going to get better. The Panthers overpaid him on a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season. The depth isn’t ideal, but it’s a strong defensive line thanks to the presence of Short, Lotulelei, and Johnson.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Panthers shockingly drafted linebacker Shaq Thompson 25th overall. He wasn’t on a lot of people’s first round radar and he was rated as one of the worst picks of the first round by College Football Focus, who didn’t feel he was anything special as a prospect. The fact that it was seen as a surprise wasn’t just because it was such a reach, but because Thompson’s best attribute is his coverage ability at 6-0 228 an the Panthers already have two outstanding coverage linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. They don’t need a 3rd linebacker in sub packages.

Thompson is a raw athlete who can play both linebacker and safety and who also dabbled at running back in college, but he can’t play safety in sub packages. He could play there in base packages, but hasn’t seen much, if any action there this off-season, which suggests he’ll spend his rookie year as the 3rd linebacker, playing just in base packages as a run stopping specialist. Considering stopping the run is the undersized linebacker’s weakness, that’s not a good fit for his skill set and he might not even grade out above average in limited action like AJ Klein did in that role last season.

Klein, as the 3rd linebacker, played just 289 snaps last season because they frequently went to 3-cornerback sets last season, not trusting their secondary to be able to cover with 4 and trusting their linebackers to stop the run with 2. Thompson should play more than that this season, but I don’t see him playing much more than 500 snaps as a rookie. He just doesn’t fill a pressing need and simply adds to a strength. Long-term, his best case scenario is a poor man’s version of Thomas Davis, another undersized outside linebacker at 6-1 231, but in the short-term, I don’t see him being an asset.

Fortunately for the Panthers, Kuechly and Davis are so good. Kuechly, the 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has graded out 7th, 8th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and is among the best in the game at his position. Only going into his age 24 season, Kuechly might just be entering his prime. He’s owed just 13.2 million over the next 2 seasons, but the Panthers have plenty of incentive to get a long-term extension done with him over the next calendar year ahead of a 2016 contract year, so that deal could happen at some point soon. He’s expected to be the highest paid middle linebacker in NFL history.

Davis is older, already going into his age 32 season, but he’s been almost as good over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 5th in 2014. Davis has somewhat miraculously played in 46 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons combined, after being limited to 9 games total from 2009-2011 by 3 separate ACL tears. Davis has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, especially dominating over the past 2. You do worry about him going into his age 32 season with that kind of injury history, but he’s shown no signs of decline yet. The Kuechly/Davis duo is the best part of the Panthers and one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

As I mentioned, the part of the defense that had the most numerous losses from 2013 to 2014 was the secondary. The Panthers lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs, 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 in 2013, 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 in 2013 though, as the Panthers did a fantastic job finding cheap values. They attempted to do the same again last off-season, but that proved to be easier said than done. Their secondary was definitely worse in 2014 than 2013 and their whole defense was worse, in part, because of that.

They should have more continuity this season, as they only lost cornerback Antoine Cason and safety Thomas DeCoud this off-season. They both sucked last season anyway, grading out 97th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks and 74th out of 87 eligible safeties respectively on Pro Football Focus. In addition to the improved continuity, the Panthers should be better in the secondary this season because those two are gone, addition by subtraction. There’s a reason why both players remain unsigned as of this writing, as free agents.

Bene Benwikere was probably the Panthers’ best defensive back last season, a pleasant surprise on 459 snaps as a 5th round rookie. After grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked cornerback last season, despite the limited playing time, he is expected to get a chance as an every down starting cornerback in 2015. Like guys like Remmers and Norwell on offense, the fact that he fell to the 5th round of the draft isn’t irrelevant for him yet, because he’s so inexperienced, but he has solid upside and could be a solid starter in 2015.

Josh Norman will probably be the other starter, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback on 647 snaps last season. However, the 2012 5th round pick enters his contract year as a one-year wonder, after grading out 96th among 113 eligible cornerbacks on 788 snaps as a rookie and grading out below average on 103 snaps in an injury shortened 2013 season. He could be a solid starter again in 2015, but he’s really hard to trust because of his history.

Charles Tillman and Melvin White will compete for the #3 job this off-season, moving Benwikere to the slot in sub packages. Tillman was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback as recently as 2012, but was limited to 10 games in 2013 and 2014 respectively by two separate triceps tears. Heading into his age 34 season, Tillman’s best days are definitely behind him and he reportedly considered retirement this off-season, before the Panthers gave him a chance on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. They were likely the only team to offer him more than the minimum. Even if he’s healthy, he could lose out to Melvin White for the #3 job. White is a 2013 undrafted free agent has graded out below average on 697 snaps in 2013 and 522 snaps in 2014. Last season he was especially bad, grading out 94th among 108 eligible cornerbacks.

Meanwhile at safety, Tre Boston, another rookie who graded in limited action last season, will be taking over for DeCoud. He flashed on 369 snaps, grading out above average and 21st among safeties, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. The 2014 4th round pick is in the same boat as Benwikere. He’s flashed in limited action, but it’s hard to trust him in a starting role because of his inexperience and his draft status. However, like Benwikere should be an upgrade over Cason, I do expect Boston to be an upgrade over DeCoud.

Roman Harper is locked into the other starting job again. While the concern with Boston is that he’s too young and inexperienced, the concern with Harper is that he’s going into his age 33 season. While he graded out slightly below average last season, that might not be the case in 2015, especially since Harper really struggled in the seasons prior to arriving in Carolina. He graded out below average in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 86th among 88 eligible in 2012, which led to a significantly reduced role in 2013 (374 snaps) prior to his release from New Orleans. He’s really hard to trust. It’s once again a patchwork secondary, but they’ve done a solid job patching it together and they’re not quite going to be terrible as a unit.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers had arguably the strongest rookie class in the NFL last season. It’s not even just 1st round pick Kelvin Benjamin, and 2nd round pick Kony Ealy actually really struggled as a rookie. However, 5 players drafted in the 3rd round or later (or not drafted at all) figure to start for them this season and all 5 graded out above average last season, 3rd round guard Trai Turner, 4th round safety Tre Boston, 5th round cornerback Bene Benwikere, undrafted guard Andrew Norwell, and undrafted offensive tackle Mike Remmers.

That makes them a young team, relying on a lot of unproven players who weren’t regarded highly coming out of college, but those 5 will just need to complement their better players as, by my count, they have at least 7 of the top-200 players in the NFL, quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson, defensive tackle Kawaan Short, outside linebacker Thomas Davis, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. They should be better in 2015 than they were in 2014, especially given the way they closed out last season once all of their young talent started clicking.

That being said, they still have major holes at certain spots and I really don’t like what they did this off-season. They overpaid for washed up veterans like Michael Oher, Dwan Edwards, Ed Dickson, and Charles Tillman, all of whom weren’t worth more than minimum deals. I think they also reached majorly with their first 2 draft picks, Shaq Thompson and Devin Funchess, and they only had 5 draft picks overall. That being said, GM Dave Gettleman did a great job of finding values in the draft and in free agency in his first 2 seasons on the job, taking over a team that was in a lot of trouble cap-wise after the end of the Marty Hurney era. Perhaps he’ll surprise again. If he does, the Panthers should win the NFC South for the 3rd straight year, but I have them right on the borderline with the Saints. The Saints have the better quarterback, but the Panthers have the better team, so it’s tough. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Panthers after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Final Update (9/9/15): The Saints had a bunch of losses defensively over the past month, but the Panthers are in a position to take advantage. Kelvin Benjamin is out for the year and rookie Devin Funchess unsurprisingly still couldn’t nail down a starting job, meaning he, Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Ted Ginn will all action at wide receiver. Greg Olsen is Cam Newton’s only reliable pass catcher. On top of that, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei will miss time with a foot problem.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in NFC South

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