Carolina Panthers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers have had some strong seasons in recent years, going 12-4 in 2013 and 15-1 in 2015, but they haven’t done a good job of following up those seasons, falling to 7-8-1 in 2014 and 6-10 in 2016. Their 9 win decline from 2015 to 2016 was the biggest in the league. What happened? Part of it is just that they weren’t quite as good as their record in 2015 or quite as bad as their record in 2016, as they went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015 and just 2-6 in those type of games in 2016. However, they were still significantly worse from 2015 to 2016. After finishing 3rd in first down rate and first down rate allowed in 2015, they fell to 22nd and 15th in those two metrics respectively in 2016.

The biggest single difference between the two seasons was that Cam Newton played at an MVP level in 2015, but did not come close to doing so in 2016. Newton finished the 2015 season 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while rushing for another 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on 132 carries (4.82 YPC). In 2016, he fell to 18th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, completing 52.9% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, while rushing for 359 yards and 4 touchdowns on 90 carries (3.99 YPC).

While 2016 was the lowest rated season of his career, his performance last season was much more in line with the rest of his career than 2015 was. He finished 14th, 11th, 15th, and 8th among quarterbacks in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, so his 2015 MVP season looks like an obvious outlier when you look at his career as a whole. He also had off-season shoulder surgery and could miss the entire off-season. He’s unlikely to miss any games, but all that missed practice hurts his chances of a bounce back season.

Newton is starting to pile up the injuries and is no longer a spring chicken, going into his age 28 season. All of the injuries he’s suffered are not a surprise, given how much he runs with the football and how many hits he takes as a result. Last season, he had a career low 90 carries, after topping 103 in his first 5 seasons in the league, and that could become a trend, as the Panthers try to preserve Newton long-term. The problem is running the ball is such an important part of his game, so his transition to more of a pocket passer might not be good for this offense. It’s very possible Newton doesn’t age nearly as well as guys like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Brett Favre, but he should have several solid seasons left in the tank.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Another thing that really hurt this offense was all of the injuries they had on the offensive line last season. They had the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury of any offensive line in the league. Michael Oher was supposed to be their left tackle, following a solid 2015 season, after which he was rewarded with a 3-year, 21.6 million dollar extension. However, he was limited to 232 snaps in 3 games by concussions. When he went down, the Panthers had to move right tackle Mike Remmers to left tackle, where he struggled, finishing 51st out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, and they had to plug in 2015 4th round pick Daryl Williams at right tackle. The first-time starter was alright, but also finished below average, 45th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, and also missed some time with injury, finishing with just 10 starts.

Oher has still yet to get clearance to return from his concussions and there’s some serious doubt about his long-term future. Oher has had some alright seasons, but has been very inconsistent throughout his career and the Panthers seem to have moved on, signing ex-Viking Matt Kalil to a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He will take over as the new left tackle, though he too is coming off an injury plagued season, missing all but 2 games last season with a hip injury.

Kalil made all 64 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to 2016, but has dealt with several nagging injuries and off-season surgeries over the years and hasn’t finished above average since his rookie season in 2012. Kalil was the 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but is already going into his age 28 season, so he’s no spring chicken anymore. Now the 12th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary, Kalil was definitely overpaid this off-season, by a Carolina team that desperately needed left tackle help.

Remmers signed with Minnesota on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season, so Williams is penciled in as the starting right tackle again in 2017. He’s an underwhelming option though, so he’ll face competition from 2nd round rookie Taylor Moton, who was a solid pick at #64 overall and profiles as a long-term starter. It might be best for him to sit a year though, so Williams should be considered the favorite for the job. If Oher were to return from injury, he’d probably start at right tackle, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on him ever playing again.

The Panthers also were without starting center Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil’s brother, for the final 8 games of last season with a shoulder injury. He was replaced by veteran journeyman Gino Gradkowski, but then he got injured and was replaced by inexperienced 2014 undrafted free agent Tyler Larsen. Neither Gradkowski or Larsen played well, so Kalil will be a welcome re-addition. Kalil wasn’t great in 2016, finishing 18th among centers on Pro Football Focus, but he still finished above average for the 7th time in 8 years. Kalil is going into his age 32 season, so he might be on the decline a little bit, but he should remain a solid starter for at least the next couple of seasons.

It is fortunate both of the Panthers’ starting guards played all 16 games last season because they have one of the best guard duos in the NFL in Andrew Norwell (left guard) and Trai Turner (right guard). Both were worse in 2016 than they were in 2015 though, especially Turner, who fell to a career worst 47th out of 72 eligible guards, after finishing 23rd at the position as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and 7th at the position in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. He is only going into his age 24 season has obvious bounce back potential in his 4th season in the league. He could still be one of the highest paid guards in the NFL on his next contract, going into the final season of his rookie deal.

Norwell is also going into his 4th season in the league and the final season of his rookie deal. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2014, Norwell is much more consistent that Turner, finishing last season 11th among guards, after finishing 15th in 2014 and 8th in 2015. Also very young, going into his age 26 season, he could have his best season yet in 2016 and will also be very expensive to keep long-term. The Panthers have been hesitant to offer big extensions, so there’s a good chance that one or both of the Panthers’ guards leave in free agency next off-season. For now, they are one of the best guard duos in the NFL on an offensive line that should be a lot healthier and more effective in 2017.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The one benefit of the Panthers having a down season in 2016 is that they were able to get a high pick. That used that high pick, 8th overall, to upgrade their backfield, taking Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. For years, the Panthers have been a one-back offense led by Jonathan Stewart, with Cam Newton effectively being the #2 running back because of how often he takes off with the ball. They want to limit Newton’s carries though and Stewart is going into his age 30 season with a history of injury. Adding McCaffrey gives them a much needed other option out of the backfield

Stewart is still under contract for a reasonable 8 million total over the next couple of seasons, so he could remain on the team through 2018. He’ll see a sharp decrease in carries though, after averaging 17.69 carries per game over the past 2 seasons. That may help him stay healthy as he gets into the later years of his career, as he’s missed 26 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and hasn’t played more than 13 games in a season since 2011. He has a career 4.42 YPC average, but he seems to be breaking down. Stewart is a power back at 5-10 235 and has just one season with more than 25 catches in 9 seasons in the league, while McCaffrey is a speedster at 5-11 202 and impressive receiving ability, so they complement each other well. They may split carries to start the season, but McCaffrey should at least have the bigger part of a timeshare by the end of the season.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

McCaffrey should see a lot of targets though, not just out of the backfield, but also lined up in the slot from time to time. The Panthers also used their 2nd round pick on a similar player in Curtis Samuel, who can be a speedster out of the backfield and also line up as a receiver. The Panthers are so thin at receiver that both should have roles in the passing game. It wouldn’t surprise me if they finished the season 3rd and 4th respectively on this team in catches, behind #1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen.

Ted Ginn and Corey Brown were their #2 and #3 receivers last season in terms of snaps played with 687 and 587 respectively. Neither was a great player, but they didn’t do much to replace them. Last year’s #4 wide receiver Devin Funchess is likely penciled into the #2 receiver role and they have no depth behind him and Kelvin Benjamin. The only other wide receiver on the roster with any experience is veteran free agent addition Charles Johnson, who has just 60 catches over the past 3 seasons. It’s very possible McCaffrey and Samuel could be their de facto #3 and #4 wide receivers. McCaffrey can also return kicks and punts, so he’ll get the ball often in a variety of different roles as a rookie, even with Stewart still on the roster.

Given how thin they are at the position, the Panthers need Devin Funchess to be better than he’s been and break out as an every down receiver opposite Benjamin in his 3rd season in the league. A second round pick in 2015, Funchess hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league, spending each of his first 2 seasons in the league as the #4 receiver and failing to impress in limited action. He played 493 snaps as a rookie and then 494 snaps in his 2nd season in the league and he has caught just 54 passes combined between the two seasons. Going into his age 23 season, Funchess still has upside, but it’s very possible he never puts it together.

The Panthers will need Kelvin Benjamin to have a strong season too. Benjamin returned to play all 16 games in 2016, after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL, but did not have the numbers many were expecting him to have, catching 63 passes for 941 yards and 7 touchdowns. The 2014 1st round pick had 73 catches for 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns as a rookie before the injury, but he actually played better in 2016. The only reason he went over 1000 yards as a rookie is because he got 146 targets. He received the 5th most targets in the league that season, but only finished 20th in receiving yards.

Benjamin was less productive overall in 2016, finishing 31st in the NFL in receiving yards, but also put up those numbers on just 118 targets (27th in the NFL), so he was much more efficient. After finishing slightly below average as a rookie, Benjamin was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked wide receiver in 2016 and his yards per target jumped from 6.90 to 7.97. Now another year removed from the injury, going into his age 26 season, Benjamin could be even better. He might not get that many more targets than 2016, as the Panthers are likely planning on being a run heavy offense in 2017, but he could get back over the 1000 yard threshold.

Tight end Greg Olsen is the favorite to lead this team in receiving for the 5th straight season. He is arguably the best overall tight end in the league and really bails out a thin receiving corps. Olsen has been an above average pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in all 10 seasons in the league, but he has been especially good in recent years, topping 800 yards in 5 straight seasons and 1000 yards in 3 straight seasons, while finishing in the top-6 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. Olsen is best as a receiver, but can also run block effectively and is one of the most durable players in the league, playing all in 144 games over the past 9 seasons. The only concern is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season. He could start declining soon, though he could easily have another strong season in 2017.

Outside of Newton, he is their most important offensive player. He’s made even more important by the fact that the Panthers have no depth behind him on the depth chart. Ed Dickson is locked into the #2 tight end job again, despite struggling on 480 snaps last season. He finished last season 52rd out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus, his first season outside of the bottom-10 tight ends since 2012. Olsen elevates this whole receiving corps by himself, but they still have a lot of problems. They need rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to be able to contribute in a big way in their first season in the league.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Panthers’ defensive line also took a big step back in 2016. In 2015, they were good because their stars played at a high level: defensive tackle Kawann Short, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and cornerback Josh Norman. In 2016, Norman was with the Redskins after signing there as a free agent last off-season, Kuechly missed 6 games with injuries, and Davis declined, leaving Short as the only one still on the team who was able to match his strong 2015 season. In fact, he was even better in 2016 than he was in 2015.

A 2013 2nd round pick, Short has played in all 64 games in his career and has improved in every season in the league, finishing 13th, 9th, 6th, and 2nd among defensive tackles in 2013-2016 respectively. The Panthers don’t like giving out big contracts, but made the wise decision to keep Short on a 5-year, 80.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, after initially franchise tagging him. He’s just the 7th highest paid defensive lineman in the league in average annual value, so the Panthers are getting good value with him. Still in the prime of his career at age 28, Short should be one of the best defensive tackles in the league again in 2017.

The Panthers also drafted a defensive tackle in the first round in 2013, taking Star Lotulelei 14th overall. He’s going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, but hasn’t been nearly as good as Short and is unlikely to be re-signed, with a ready made replacement in 2016 1st round pick Vernon Butler already on the roster. Lotulelei has started 59 games in 64 seasons in the league, but has struggled in the last 2 seasons, after flashing in his first 2 seasons in the league. The 6-3 311 pound Lotulelei has been better as a run stuffer than pass rusher in his career, but last season finished below average in both aspects and finished 74th out of 127 eligible interior defenders overall.

Vernon Butler is locked in as the #3 defensive tackle and the top reserve. He’ll likely be a starter in 2018 in place of Lotulelei, but he is too similar to Lotulelei to have a big role in 2017. The 6-4 323 pounder is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher and saw just 226 snaps as a rookie as a result. He should have a bigger role in 2017, especially since he should be healthier, after missing 6 games as a rookie, but his role is capped for now by the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. Given the Panthers’ lack of a plan to get him on the field in the first 2 seasons of his career, Butler was a weird selection with the 31st overall pick in 2016.

The Panthers also had a pair of free agents at defensive end, but brought Mario Addison and Charles Johnson back on deals worth 22.5 million over 3 years and 8 million over 2 years respectively and then brought back a familiar face, signing Julius Peppers to a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal. Peppers spent the first 8 seasons of his career in Carolina from 2002 to 2009, but spent the last 7 seasons with the Bears and Packers. With those three veterans locked into roles, the Panthers decided to move on from Kony Ealy, a bust as a 2014 2nd round pick, by sending him to New England in order to move up from 72 to 64 in the draft.

Mario Addison was the best of the trio last season and got the biggest contract this off-season, so he should be the favorite to lead the position in snaps. Addison only played 433 snaps in 14 games last season, fewer than both Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy, but he finished with a career high 9.5 sacks and was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Addison has only ever been a part-time player, with just 4 career starts, and he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he could prove to be a late bloomer. At the same time, last season was easily the highest rated season of his career and he could prove to be overwhelmed in his first full season as a starter in 2017, especially since he’s not that good against the run. Last season he only played on 99 run snaps, but he’ll have a tougher time avoiding run plays in a bigger role in 2017. He was a risky re-signing, but he could pan out.

Addison is actually the young one of the trio, though they did add Texas A&M’s Daeshon Hall in the 3rd round of the draft as insurance and a long-term developmental prospect. Julius Peppers is the oldest of the trio, going into his age 37 season and his 16th season in the league. He’s obviously not the player he was in his first stint with the Panthers, but the fact that he’s still in the league is a testament to the future Hall-of-Famer’s talent.

Peppers looked done in 2013 with the Bears, when he finished 40th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but he signed with the Packers that off-season and finished above average in all 3 seasons in Green Bay. He played 584 snaps for the Packers last season and hasn’t missed a game since 2007. His continued effectiveness at his age is questionable, but he wasn’t a bad signing by the Panthers because he wasn’t expensive.

Charles Johnson has actually played more seasons in a Panthers uniform than Peppers, as he’s spent all 10 career seasons in Carolina. He and Peppers were teammates from 2007-2009, though Johnson didn’t break out as a starter until 2010. Johnson has finished above average in 9 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and, even though he’s going into his age 31 season and on the decline, he still finished last season 15th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus.

Johnson played 41.7 snaps per game last season, but missed 3 games with injury and has a total of 10 games missed with injury over the last 2 seasons. That combined with his age and declining effectiveness make him a risky option going forward, but he could continue to be a solid starter. With Peppers coming in and Addison taking on a larger role, the Panthers could have Johnson on a snap count this season, which could help him stay effective.

The Panthers may also line up all three defensive ends on the defensive line at the same time with Short in some sub packages, in order to get their best pass rushers on the field in obvious passing situations. They don’t have another good interior pass rusher inside next to Short and both Johnson (6-2 275) and Peppers (6-7 295) have enough size to line up inside in passing situations. The rookie Daeshon Hall might also get a few snaps per game off the edge in passing situations and could see his role grow as the season goes in. The Panthers are pretty deep on the defensive line and are led by one of the best defensive linemen in the league in Kawann Short. They need a 2nd threat to emerge to take some of the pressure off him.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Panthers get middle linebacker Luke Kuechly back from injury, after he missed the final 6 games of last season with concussions. Kuechly was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked middle linebacker before the injury, so he’s a huge re-addition. He was a big part of why their defense was so good in 2015. The 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kuechly has been a top-8 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league and finished #1 in both 2014 and 2015, but concussions are becoming a concern. He’s missed 9 games between the last 2 seasons. If he can stay on the field, he should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, still in his early prime in his age 26 season, but he’s not a lock to play all 16 games anymore.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis was also a big part of why this defense was so good in 2015, but, unlike Kuechly, he’s unlikely to return to form. Davis is going into his age 34 season and has declined in every season since 2013. He finished last season 39th out of 87 eligible linebackers, solid, but not as good as he was in his prime and could continue declining in 2017. He’s owed just 4 million in the final year of his contract this season and he reportedly might hold out for an extension, but the Panthers are probably planning on letting him go next off-season anyway, so he’s highly unlikely to get what he wants. It’s a situation to keep an eye on.

The reason they’re likely moving on from Davis, in addition to the obvious age factor, is because they drafted his long-term replacement in the first round in 2015 when they selected Shaq Thompson 25th overall. Thompson only played 365 snaps as a rookie and 533 snaps last season, but has played very well when even the chance and looks like a future every down linebacker, still only going into his age 23 season. He outplayed Davis last season, albeit on fewer snaps, finishing 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He could start to cut into Davis’ sub snaps this season, but will open the season as the 3rd linebacker and a pure base package player, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in obvious passing situations. He gives them tremendous depth in a still strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

The loss of Josh Norman to the Redskins in free agency last off-season definitely hurt this defense. Rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley both had to start and, while they weren’t bad, veteran Leonard Johnson had to spend most of the season as the #3 cornerback and was horrendous, finishing 104th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 436 snaps. The Panthers turned to an old face this off-season to replace Johnson, bringing back veteran slot specialist Captain Munnerlyn, who spent the first 5 seasons of his career in Carolina from 2009-2013.

Munnerlyn, who spent the past 3 seasons in Minnesota, is already going into his 9th season in the league, but is still in his age 29 season, so he should still have a few good seasons left in the tank. He was a smart signing on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, with his best seasons coming in 2013, when he finished 10th among cornerbacks, and 2015, when he finished 18th among cornerbacks. At 5-9 182, he’s much better on the slot than outside and he should be very valuable for them in sub packages.

Bradberry and Worley remain the starters outside, now going into their 2nd seasons in the league. Bradberry actually had a pretty strong rookie season overall, finishing 20th among cornerbacks and making 13 starts. A 2nd round pick, Bradberry has a bright future and could develop into one of the better cornerbacks in the league long-term, but needs to prove himself again and avoid a sophomore slump. Worley, a 3rd round pick, wasn’t quite as good as Bradberry, but still finished above average and made 11 starts. He needs to continue developing, but looks like a future starter long-term. Their inexperience outside at cornerback is a concern, but they have plenty of talent and add a much needed slot specialist in Munnerlyn.

It also hurt this defense that safety Kurt Coleman did not play as well as he did in 2015, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked safety. Coleman finished 41st in 2016, which is still above average, but a significant decline from the season before. His 2015 season looks like a fluke when you look at his whole 7-year career, but he could continue being a solid starter in 2017, still only his age 29 season. He’ll be joined at safety by veteran Mike Adams, a free agent acquisition who will replace Tre Boston, a mediocre 10-game starter in 2016.

Adams is one of the oldest defensive starters in the league, going into his age 36 season, but he’s coming off of a strong season, finishing last season 19th among safeties on Pro Football Focus with the Colts. Adams has never been a great player, so last season was actually one of the best of his career. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2017 given his age, but he has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 6 seasons and could have one good more season left in the tank. He’s a risky starter, but could end up being a good addition. With him and Munnerlyn coming in and young players developing, this secondary should be improved in 2017.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Panthers had some bad luck last season with injuries and close losses, so they should be better in 2017. They’re not as talented as they were in 2015, but this is still a good roster. The Panthers declined by 9 wins from 2015 to 2016 and history shows that teams that decline by a large amount like that usually improve by about half that amount the following season. That would put the Panthers at about 10 or 11 wins in 2017. That’s definitely a possibility and they should be in the mix for a playoff spot at the very least.

Final update: Cam Newton didn’t play a lot in the pre-season as he returns from shoulder surgery, but the Panthers enter the season relatively healthy and should compete with the Falcons for the NFC South title.

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in NFC South

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