Carolina Panthers 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers finished the 2014 season at 7-8-1, winning the division and making the playoffs purely because of how bad the rest of the division was. Last pre-season, the Panthers lost #1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the season with a torn ACL. Their outlook wasn’t looking great ahead into 2015. Instead, they won the first 14 games of the season and finished 15-1, the best record in the NFL. The Panthers did not win the Super Bowl, losing in the big game to the Denver Broncos, but they finished the regular season 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential and there’s no arguing that they were one of the top-2 or 3 teams in the league all season, a huge accomplishment for a team with such low expectations.

The Panthers were improved on both sides of the ball from 2014 to 2015, but probably the biggest reason for their breakout year in 2015 was the breakout year they got from franchise quarterback Cam Newton. The #1 overall pick in 2011, Newton had graded out above average in each of the first 4 seasons of his career from 2011 to 2014, but finished a career best 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015. Despite obvious issues in the receiving corps, Newton completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also was once again arguably the best running quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 636 yards and another 10 touchdowns on 132 carries (4.81 YPC). Largely as a result of Newton’s improved play, the Panthers went from 12th to 4th in rate of moving the chains from 2014 to 2015.

Even more exciting for Panthers fans is that he was significantly better throwing the ball in the 2nd half of the season than he was in the 1st half of the season. In the first 8 games of the season, he completed just 53.7% of his passes for an average of 7.40 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. The Panthers were winning, but were relying heavily on their defense and just 2 of their first 8 wins came by more than 8 points. They moved the chains at a rate of 70.79% in those 8 games, solid, but unspectacular.

Over the final 8 games of the season, that rate jumped to 79.29%, as Cam Newton completed 65.9% of his passes for an average of 8.10 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 1 interception, clinching an improbable MVP season in his 5th year in the league. The Panthers did lose a game down the stretch, but, even though they “only” went 7-1 in those final 8 games, they had 5 wins by more than 8 points and were not as reliant on their defense, which did slip up a little down the stretch. Newton struggled in the Super Bowl loss to Denver, but overall played well in the playoffs considering he was going against Seattle, Arizona, and Denver, three of the best defenses in the NFL. He completed 58.2% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in the playoffs, while adding 95 yards and another 2 scores on the ground on 27 carries.

With Kelvin Benjamin returning, it’s very possible that Newton continues his strong play from down the stretch and has an even better season in 2016. Immensely talented since the day he stepped into the league, Newton seems to have finally put it all together and turned into the top-5 quarterback that many saw as his upside coming out of Auburn 5 years ago. At the same time, it was worth remembering that he is a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level quarterback, so it’s also possible he slips up and “regresses to the mean” a little bit. Either way, the Panthers’ offense is in good hands.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the injury to Benjamin was a big hit to a receiving corps that was not very deep to begin with; Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen combined for 49.25% of the Panthers’ targets in 2014, most in the league by any two teammates, with both receivers topping 1000 yards in the process. Benjamin himself was targeted 146 times, 5th in the league, so it was a big role to fill in the offense. In Benjamin’s absence, Greg Olsen led the team in receiving yards, topping 1000 yards for the 2nd straight season, catching 77 passes for a career high 1104 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Olsen, a 2007 1st round pick, has graded out above average as a pass catcher in all 9 seasons he’s been in the league and above average overall in 8 of those 9 seasons. He’s really come into his own over the past few seasons though, topping 800 yards in 4 straight seasons and 1000 yards in 2 straight seasons, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end in 2015 and their 6th ranked tight end in 2014. Olsen is going into his age 31 season, but hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year and has shown no signs of slowing down. Cam Newton loves throwing to him and balls should keep coming his way, even with Benjamin returning.

Veteran Ted Ginn was the de facto #1 receiver last year, catching 44 passes for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns. The fact that it was Ginn in that role shows just how thin the Panthers were at wide receiver. Ginn played just 151 offensive snaps as the Cardinals’ #5 receiver in 2014 (the same Cardinals that the Panthers clobbered in the NFC Championship game in 2015) and signed with the Panthers on a cheap 2-year, 4.2 million dollar deal last off-season. Ginn graded out above average in 2013 for the Panthers, but that was the only above average season in his career. Primarily signed for his special teams ability, Ginn ended up playing 670 snaps and grading out above average again.

Ginn clearly has great chemistry with Cam Newton, as he’s a one-dimensional deep route runner and Newton consistently throws catchable deep balls, but it’s hard to trust that he’ll play well again in 2016, as he’s still graded out below average in 7 of 9 seasons in the league. Going into his age 31 season in 2016, the Panthers probably want Ginn to play much more of a complementary role; he still only caught 45.8% of his targets last season. WIth Benjamin returning, Ginn will compete with 2nd year player Devin Funchess. The 2015 2nd round pick flashed on 493 snaps as a rookie and is likely the favorite for the #2 job in 2016, pushing Ginn inside to the slot. Corey Brown, who actually led the Panther wide receivers in snaps played last season with 753, slides into the #4 role, where he’s a much better fit.

With Benjamin returning and Funchess possibly going into a breakout year, this is suddenly a much better group of wide receivers, even if Ginn disappoints. Benjamin wasn’t great as a rookie, grading out below average despite having 1000+ yards, as he finished 20th in receiving yards despite getting the 5th most targets. He’s also coming off of a serious knee injury. However, he’s a former 1st round pick who is only going into his age 25 season and his 3rd year in the league. He’s young enough to bounce back from the injury fairly easily and could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league.

Even if he doesn’t, it’ll be good to have him back, though don’t expect him to get the 5th most targets in the league again, as he did in 2014. The Panthers are a run heavy team with a dual threat quarterback and a great defense and have to get Greg Olsen a lot of targets. Plus guys that Benjamin didn’t have to compete with in 2014 like Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess will command targets. Fewer targets could lead to disappointing numbers overall from a fantasy football perspective, even if Benjamin actually plays better than he did as a rookie. He’s a massive reach in the 3rd round of drafts, where his ADP currently stands.

The only weakness in this receiving corps is the tight end depth, as veteran Ed Dickson returns as the #2 tight end. Olsen never gets hurt, but Dickson still played 598 snaps last season, primarily in two-tight end sets, and struggled mightily, finishing 58th out of 67 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus, especially struggling as a run blocker. That’s par for the course from him, as the veteran has graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, including 3 straight seasons in which he’s been in the bottom-10 among tight ends. He could be pushed for snaps by 7th round rookie Beau Sandland, but he probably wouldn’t be much of an improvement. It’s an improved receiving corps overall though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As mentioned, this is a run heavy offense, thanks to dual threat quarterback Cam Newton and a great defense supporting them. They joined the Vikings, Seahawks, and Bills as the only teams in the league to run more often than they passed in 2015 and led the league with 526 carries. Newton had 132 carries, right around his career average of 119.8 carries per season, but it wasn’t just Newton as running back Jonathan Stewart averaged 18.6 carries per game, 3rd most in the NFL behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Fullback Mike Tolbert also had 63 carries for 256 yards and a touchdown, though he’s a declining player, going into his age 31 season. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in back-to-back seasons.

Stewart got a big workload when he was on the field, but unfortunately he didn’t last the whole season, missing the final 3 games of the regular season with a foot injury, before returning for the playoffs. A 2008 1st round pick, injuries and durability issues have been the story of Stewart’s career. The 243 carries he had last season were a career high and he’s missed 25 games with injury in 8 seasons in the league, including 23 in the last 4 seasons. When healthy though, he’s a good player, grading out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league, including last season.

Stewart’s career numbers are good, as he’s rushed for 5814 yards and 36 touchdowns on 1283 carries (4.53 YPC). However, he was limited to just 4.09 yards per carry last season, falling just short of what could have been his 2nd 1000-yard rushing year. He also only caught 16 passes for 99 yards, right in line with his underwhelming career pass catching numbers: 146 catches for 1183 yards and 6 touchdowns in 103 games. Owed a non-guaranteed 6.25 million in his age 30 in 2017, it’s possible this is Stewart’s final season in Carolina.

The Panthers needed to find a long-term replacement and a short-term complement for Stewart this off-season, but, outside of two undrafted free agents, didn’t add a running back this off-season. That suggests they’re confident in 2015 5th round pick Cameron Artis-Payne’s long-term potential. Artis-Payne split snaps with veteran Fozzy Whitaker and fullback Mike Tolbert when Stewart missed the final 3 games of the season. Both Whitaker and Artis-Payne were underwhelming though, grading out below average and averaging 4.32 and 4.07 YPC on 25 and 45 carries respectively. Whitaker is a 2012 undrafted free agent with 123 career touches, while Artis-Payne is an underwhelming talent who is unlikely to make a 2nd year leap. The Panthers have a serious depth problem at running back.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The offensive line is the unit that’s had the biggest and quickest turnaround over the past couple of seasons for the Panthers and was a huge part of their success last season. The Panthers have a pair of 3rd year starters from the 2014 draft class upfront and both have been big parts of this turnaround, even though neither was a high pick. 2014 3rd round pick Trai Turner and 2014 undrafted free agent Andrew Norwell were Pro Football Focus’ 7th and 8th ranked guards respectively in 2015. Neither of them are one-year wonders either. They ranked 23rd and 15th on 673 snaps and 696 snaps respectively as rookies in 2014. They could be the best guard duo in the NFL in 2016.

Right tackle Mike Remmers, a 2012 undrafted free agent, is also going into his 3rd season as a starter. He isn’t quite as good, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, the only seasons in his career in which he’s seen any sort of significant action. He flashed on 367 snaps in 5 starts down the stretch in his 3rd year in the league in 2014, coinciding with the Panthers’ miraculous run to the playoffs that season, and then graded out just above average in 16 starts in 2015.

Remmers will remain the starter on the right side in his 3rd year in the league, with veteran Michael Oher opposite him on the left side. Like Remmers, Oher graded out above average in 2015 and, like Remmers, he was a great value, coming in on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal last off-season. Oher is not nearly as great of a value anymore, since the Panthers signed him to a 3-year, 21.6 million dollar extension this off-season with 9.5 million guaranteed. That could prove to be a mistake, as there was a reason he was available so inexpensively last off-season.

Oher had a strong rookie year, but graded out below average in every season from 2010-2014, including 68th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2013 and 75th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 2014. The Titans inexplicably signed him to a 4-year, 20 million extension after his terrible 2013 season and then cut him after one-year and 9 million after he struggled again in 2014. Highly inconsistent at best, the Panthers might end up regretting giving him this extension as much as Tennessee regretted giving him that “4-year” deal.

Center Ryan Kalil is the constant that has been with this team through good times and bad. Kalil has started 115 games in 9 years with the Panthers, since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2007. Kalil has graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, with the only exception coming in an injury plagued 2012 season. Going into his age 31 season, ihe’snot quite the same player he used to be, when he was one of the top few centers in the NFL, but he still graded out 11th among centers in 2014 and 12th among centers in 2015. He should grade out above average at the very least again in 2016 on an overall strong offensive line.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the defense was also much improved from 2014 to 2015, jumping from 18th in 2014 to 4th in 2015. Players like cornerback Josh Norman, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, outside linebacker Thomas Davis get more attention, but defensive tackle Kawann Short is as important to this defense as any of them. The Panthers used their first and second round picks on defensive tackles in 2013, taking Star Lotulelei in the first round and Kawann Short in the second round, but Short has definitely been the better player. Short has played in all 48 games over the past 3 seasons and has finished 13th, 9th, and 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively.

Lotulelei hasn’t been bad either, though he’s coming off of a down year, grading out below average for the first time in his career, especially struggling as a pass rusher. Lotulelei has bounce back potential, given that he ranked 17th among defensive tackles in 2013 and 24th in 2014, but he’s only once graded out above average as a pass rusher. The big 6-2 320 pounder is a great run stuffer at his best and even graded out above average on run snaps in last year’s down year, but might be best as a two-down player going forward.

Given that, it’s strange that the Panthers used a first round pick on a defensive tackle in Vernon Butler that is very similar to Lotulelei in skill set and frame at 6-4 323. The 5th year option on Lotulelei’s rookie contract was picked up by the Panthers this off-season, so Lotulelei is under team control fairly inexpensively for two seasons. Short is going into the final year of his contract, but the Panthers would use the franchise tag on him before letting him hit the open market, so neither figures to be going anywhere for a couple years, and Butler profiles as more of a replacement for Lotulelei than Short anyway.

The Panthers also signed veteran defensive tackle Paul Soliai, who is more of an early down run stuffer as well, at 6-4 344. Soliai is experienced, with 86 starts in 128 career games in 9 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in 6 of 9 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly above average on 357 snaps last season, but, going into his age 33 season, Soliai won’t have a big role in a crowded group of defensive tackles. It’s a deep group of defensive tackles, but the pieces don’t seem to fit well together.

As surprising as it was that the Panthers took a defensive tackle in the 1st round, it was equally surprising that they didn’t take a defensive end at all, given that defensive end was a much bigger position of need, following the retirement of Jared Allen. The Panthers will go into 2016 with the trio of Kony Ealy, Charles Johnson, and Mario Addison working in rotation at the two defensive end spots. Ealy led the position in snaps played with 648 last year and should be the starter on one side this year. Ealy, a 2014 2nd round pick, has graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but improved significantly from 2014 to 2015. In 2014, he finished 56th out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, but in 2015, he almost graded out above average. It’s not a guarantee, but he could easily have the best season of his career in 2016. He seems like a capable starter at the least.

The Panthers are hoping that Charles Johnson can be the starter on the other side. The 2007 3rd round pick has made 90 starts in 118 games in 9 seasons in the league, but was limited to 388 snaps in 9 games by injury last season. Going into his age 30 season, Johnson was let go this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 11 million dollar salary, but was brought back on a much cheaper 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. Given that he’s graded out above average in each of the last 8 seasons, including last year’s injury plagued season, it’s a great value. Gone are the days of him grading out #3 overall, like he did in 2011, but he’s still a capable starter at the very least as long as he can stay healthy; he missed just 6 games with injury in the 7 years prior to last season. Where he ends up beyond 2016 is unknown, but he should be an asset for the Panthers this year.

If he can’t stay healthy, Mario Addison would likely become the starter and will see snaps as the 3rd defensive end at the very least. Going into his 6th year in the league and already his age 29 season, Addison has averaged just 338 snaps per season over the first 5 seasons of his career. He’s also graded out below average in 3 of those 5 seasons, including last season. I thought the Panthers would bring in a young defensive end to compete with Addison for the #3 job and to potential be a long-term starter opposite Ealy, with Johnson’s status’ unclear long-term, but they did not. Still, it’s a strong defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Panthers’ linebacking corps if their best unit, led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL. Kuechly won Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, the only time someone other than JJ Watt has won that award in the past 4 seasons, but Kuechly’s best seasons have arguably been the last two, the two after his Defensive Player of the Year season. Kuechly has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked middle linebacker in each of the past 2 seasons and, though he missed 3 games with injury in 2015, he was Pro Football Focus’ highest ranked defensive player at any position, even after ahead of Watt.

A top-8 middle linebacker in each of the first 4 seasons of his career, Kuechly’s career is on a Patrick Willis/Ray Lewis type trajectory and it would not surprise me at all if he won another Defensive Player of the Year award or two before it’s all said and done and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Still only going into his age 25 season, the former 9th overall pick is one of the top few players in the NFL regardless of position. He’s also a bargain, signed for just 64.105 million over the next 6 seasons.

Thomas Davis obviously isn’t as good, but he’s still very valuable to this defense. The fact that Davis is still playing at a high level is borderline miraculous, considering he was limited to 9 games from 2009-2011 with 3 separate torn ACLs. Davis has missed just 2 games in the past 4 seasons and has graded out in the top-10 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. Davis is going into his age 33 season and did show some signs of declining in 2015, falling from 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 5th in 2014 to 10th last season, but he should have another couple strong seasons left in the tank.

It’s not even just Kuechly and Davis, as the Panthers also have 2015 1st round pick Shaq Thompson, opposite Davis at the other outside linebacker spot. Thompson played just 365 snaps as a rookie, but played really well in limited action and should have a larger role in his 2nd year in the league in 2016. Any role he has will be limited by the fact that Kuechly and Davis never come off the field and teams use sub packages with only two linebackers the majority of the time now, but the Panthers can find creative ways to keep all 3 linebackers on the field in sub packages. Thompson is an incredible athlete at 6-0 230 and could see some time at safety in certain situations. It’s probably the strongest 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

One reason Thompson seeing some time at safety makes some sense is because the Panthers lost veteran starting safety Roman Harper this off-season. However, 3rd year player Tre Boston is expected to take Harper’s starting job and has a chance to have a breakout year. Boston has graded out above average in each of his first two seasons in the league, on 369 and 222 snaps respectively, including a 2014 rookie season in which he finished 21st among safeties on Pro Football Focus, despite the limited playing time. He was just a 4th round pick in 2014 and he’s still unproven in a larger role, but he could easily be another mid-round steal by Panthers GM Dave Gettleman, who has really turned this team around.

The Panthers are also hoping that cornerback Bene Benwikere, a 5th round pick in 2014, can be one of those mid-round steals. Benwikere looked like a future star as a rookie, finishing 18th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, despite playing only 459 snaps. However, he couldn’t continue that in a larger role in 2015, grading out below average on 788 snaps. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, Benwikere is the Panthers’ de facto #1 cornerback, after losing Josh Norman (16 starts) and Charles Tillman (12 starts) this off-season.

Benwikere hasn’t played badly overall in his career and it’s possible he takes a leap forward in his 3rd year in the league, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Panthers are hoping he can be their next Josh Norman (a 2012 5th round pick who broke out in his 3rd year in the league), but, as of right now, he looks like a massive downgrade from the departed Norman, who was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked cornerback in 2015. Benwikere’s also currently still working back from a broken leg that ended his 2015 season early and has missed 9 games in 2 seasons in the league.

With Norman and Tillman gone, a trio of rookies and veteran Robert McClain will compete for playing time after Benwikere on the depth chart. The Panthers used a 2nd round pick on Samford’s James Bradberry, a 3rd round pick on West Virginia’s Daryl Worley, and a 5th round pick on Oklahoma’s Zack Sanchez. They’ll be hoping one or more of those players can have a strong rookie season, but it’s very hard to count on rookies, especially ones that weren’t high draft picks. Bradberry was a reach in the 2nd round, while Worley might end up at safety long-term. Sanchez is undersized and not yet NFL ready.

McClain might not be a better option though. A 6-year veteran, McClain was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback in 2012, but finished below average in the other 5 seasons. He’s bounced around from Carolina to Jacksonville to Atlanta to New England back to Carolina. Fifteen of his 17 career starts were in his 3 seasons in Atlanta, but he didn’t even last until final cuts in New England, before ending up back in Carolina, where he struggled mightily on 225 snaps between the regular season and post-season.

McClain doesn’t bring anything more than experience, but that could be enough for him to carve out a significant role among a group of cornerbacks that really lacks experience. It wouldn’t surprise me if they brought back Charles Tillman, as he wasn’t bad last season and is still available as a free agent, but it’s unclear what he has left in the tank, going into his age 35 season, coming off of a January torn ACL, and having missed 26 of 48 possible games in the past 3 seasons combined. He’s likely done.

Rounding out the secondary is the lone veteran starter, safety Kurt Coleman. Coleman had a major breakout year in his 6th year in the league in 2015, grading out 14th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Coleman, a 7th round pick in 2010, was a starter early in his career, but was clearly not ready for a starting role, grading out well below average in both 2011 and 2012, before moving back to a reserve role in 2013 and 2014. Coleman flashed on 396 snaps in 2014, but, besides 2015, that’s the only other season of his career in which he’s graded out above average.

He could have another strong season and prove to be a late bloomer, but he could also prove to be a one-year wonder. The Panthers will obviously be hoping it’s the former, as, with Norman gone, Coleman is now their best defensive back. He’s surrounded by inexperience and, though there is a lot of promise in this secondary, they’ll probably need the front 7 to mask their flaws as much as possible in 2016. Panther secondaries have annually exceeded expectations in recent years, thanks to a great defensive coaching staff led by defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, but the loss of Norman could prove to be too big.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers’ defense probably won’t be as good again in 2015, as the loss of Josh Norman should prove to be huge and leaves the secondary very thin. However, they have arguably the most talented offense in the league. They finished last season on fire and are much improved at wide receiver this season, after that position was their only real weakness on offense in 2015. Kelvin Benjamin returns, while 2nd year player Devin Funchess could have a breakout year in his first year as a starter. 2015 may prove to be the best year of Cam Newton’s career, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and has the most talented supporting cast of his career, especially if Jonathan Stewart can stay healthy. They should be able to move up and down the field easily, which will keep them among the top teams in the league. 15 wins is obviously unlikely again and they might not even win 12, especially against a tougher schedule, but they’re on the Super Bowl short list for sure.

Prediction: 12-4 1st in NFC South

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