Carolina Panthers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Cam Newton won the MVP in 2015, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while adding 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground on 132 carries. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked quarterback and led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. However, Newton had never had a season nearly that good in the past and has struggled to live up to that season in the two seasons since. Newton has never finished higher than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF in another season and has arguably played some of the worst football of his career over the past 2 seasons.

In 2016, he finished 25th out of 36 eligible quarterbacks and completed just 52.9% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. After posting a career best 99.4 quarterback rating in 2015 (10 points higher than any other season), Newton had a career worst 75.8 quarterback rating in 2016. He also posted some career worsts on the ground, averaging just 3.99 yards per carry on 90 carries and totaling 359 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career worsts.

Going into 2017, it was expected that diminished rushing production from him would be the new norm. Newton had never missed time with a significant injury, but he was coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and the Panthers wanted him to take fewer hits in order to preserve him long-term. Through the first 5 weeks of last season, he continued to post disappointing rushing numbers, as he had just 90 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 carries (3.10 YPC), but once he felt confident in his surgically repaired shoulder, he started taking off frequently again and actually ended the season with a career high in yards (754) and carries (139). The Panthers may have called fewer designed runs for him, but that did not stop him from taking off when he felt there was room to run.

While Newton’s rushing stats improved from 2016 to 2017, his passing stats really didn’t. His QB rating was higher than 2016, but not by much, as his 80.7 QB rating was the 2nd worst of his career. His completion percentage improved significantly from 2016 to 2017, but he still only completed 59.1% of his passes and his completion percentage only went up because he was attempting more shorter, high percentage passes. His YPA average was the worst of his career at 6.71 and his touchdown to interception ratio of 22 to 16 was not impressive either. He once again earned a negative overall grade from PFF.

Going into his age 29 season, Newton is still young, but it’s becoming clear that his 2015 performance will look like the outlier when his career is all said and done. On top of that, Newton may not age as well as other quarterbacks because of the amount of hits he takes and because of how reliant he is on his athleticism. In 2018, he should still have the type of season we’re used to from him, but he’ll need better play around him if this team is going to have a shot at making another deep post-season run in the loaded NFC.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Despite a standard at best season from Cam Newton, the Panthers still had a big leap in wins from 2016 to 2017, going 11-5 after a 6-10 season. They improved noticeably in first down rate differential, going from -1.72% to +1.85%, though that’s not as drastic of a leap as their record suggested. The big difference is they improved dramatically in close games. After going 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less in 2016, they finished 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2017, a big part of the reason why they had such an improved record.

The Panthers made the post-season at 11-5, but were one of the worst qualifying playoff teams. Their 11 wins came by a combined 98 points, while their 5 losses came by 62 points, giving them a point differential of +36 that ranked just 12th in the NFL, behind non-playoff teams like the Ravens and Chargers. Once in the post-season, they lost in their first game in New Orleans. They were definitely not a bad team in 2017, but they were not as good as their record suggested. They could easily have a couple fewer wins in 2018 without playing any worse.

On top of that, they had arguably the biggest free agent loss of any team this off-season, with left guard Andrew Norwell signing with the Jaguars for 66.5 million over 5 years. That contract makes Norwell the highest paid guard in the NFL, but it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. A hidden gem of a 2014 undrafted free agent, Norwell became a starter midway through his rookie season and never looked back, making 54 starts in 4 seasons with the Panthers and finishing in the top-12 among guards each of the past 3 seasons, including a career best #5 rank in 2017.

The Panthers effectively made the decision to let Norwell go last off-season, when they gave big contracts to free agent acquisition left tackle Matt Kalil and right guard Trai Turner, who was also heading into the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 along with Norwell. With center Ryan Kalil also on a contract that pays him well (7.125 million owed in 2018), it was hard to justify another large contract on the offensive line, especially with right tackle Daryl Williams going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. Norwell was talented enough to at least get the franchise tag from the Panthers, but the Panthers just didn’t want to commit any more money to the offensive line, so they just let him walk.

The Panthers seem to have made a mistake giving Turner and Kalil big contracts instead of Norwell. Turner is a talented guard as well, but he hasn’t been as good as Norwell. Turner went in the 3rd round in 2014 and has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, with his best coming in 2015 (4th), but he ranked just 24th in 2017 and 34th in 2016, so he’s not quite the consistent elite player that Norwell was. The Panthers re-signed him to a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. It’s not a bad contract, but the Panthers would have been better off keeping Norwell over him.

Kalil, on the other hand, looks like a complete waste of money just one year after being signed to a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal that pays him 25.6 million in the first two years of the deal. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kalil looked like a future franchise left tackle when he finished 28th among offensive tackles in 16 starts at left tackle for the Vikings in 2012, but he’s finished below average on PFF in every season since his rookie year and 2017 was arguably his worst season, as he finished 74th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles, after missing all but two games in 2016 with injury. Why the Panthers decided to pay him like a franchise left tackle is beyond me. It’s possible he’ll be cut next off-season if he does not bounce back in 2018.

Right tackle Daryl Williams is probably their best offensive lineman, which is a big difference from this point last year, when Williams was just a 2016 4th round pick with 12 underwhelming career starts. In fact, the Panthers used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft as competition for him, taking Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton, but Williams won the job and ran with it, finishing 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts. Williams is obviously a one-year wonder, but he could easily have another strong season again in 2018. He’ll probably be expensive to keep long-term, but, after losing Norwell this off-season, they can’t afford to lose Williams too.

With Williams locked in at right tackle, Moton will compete to replace Norwell at left guard. Moton profiled as a future starter coming out of college and, though guard is a new position for him, he could easily develop into a capable starter, after playing just 63 nondescript snaps as a rookie. His main competition will be Jeremiah Sirles, a veteran journeyman who has 15 career starts in 4 seasons with the Chargers and Vikings. Sirles has never received a positive grade from PFF since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and would be best as a reserve. He’ll likely only start if Moton struggles with the position switch this off-season.

Ryan Kalil, older brother of Matt Kalil, rounds out the offensive line at center. Ryan has had a much better career than Matt, making 5 Pro Bowls and 2 All-Pro teams in 11 seasons in the league. He also finished in the top-9 among centers on PFF in 6 seasons, with his most recent season in the top-9 coming in 2015, when he finished 3rd among centers. However, he’s been limited to just 14 underwhelming starts in the past two seasons and is unlikely to have a bounce back year in 2018 in his age 33 season. With only one more year left on his contract, Kalil has already announced he will be retiring after the season. He could have one more solid season left in him, but that’s far from a guarantee given his age and recent injury history. Backup Tyler Larsen was not bad in his absence last season, so there’s no guarantee he’ll even be an upgrade over him. His return won’t be enough to offset the loss of Norwell.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In addition to losing Andrew Norwell, the Panthers also lost wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, though that was a voluntary “loss,” as they sent him to the Bills at the trade deadline during the 2017 season for a 3rd round pick. At the time, it was a huge surprise. The Panthers were 5-3 at the time and very much in the playoff mix. Benjamin was their #1 receiver who totaled a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017.

Even if the Panthers were not planning on extending Benjamin beyond the final year of his contract in 2018, giving him up for a mere 3rd round pick with a year and a half left on his deal and with the team in playoff contention did not make a ton of sense. The Panthers claimed the move was made because they wanted to open up opportunities for other receivers, but Benjamin’s deep threat ability helped pull coverage away from other receivers, so that explanation never made any sense. There were likely issues going on behind the scenes that the general public was not aware of.

The Panthers do look like the early winners of the deal, but that’s primarily because Benjamin struggled with the Bills after joining mid-season, managing just 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown in 6 games. He dealt with nagging injury problems and never got on the same page with new quarterback Tyrod Taylor. In Benjamin’s absence, 3rd year player Devin Funchess did breakout a little bit to help compensate. He actually received fewer targets (53) in 8 games without Benjamin than he did in 8 games opposite him (58) and he caught fewer balls as a result (30 vs. 33), but his yards per reception average jumped from 10.8 to 16.1 and his yardage and touchdowns jumped from 357 yards and 3 touchdowns to 483 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Funchess enters the 2018 season as the #1 option. He could easily continue his strong play from the second half of last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he’s basically a one-year wonder and struggled earlier in his career. In 2016, he managed just a 23/371/4 slash line on 59 targets and finished 106th out of 119 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a talented former 2nd round pick and only going into his age 24 season, so he has obvious upside, but he’s been inconsistent thus far in his career and it’s premature to consider him a true #1 receiver.

The Panthers also used a first round pick on a wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Maryland’s DJ Moore with the 24th overall pick. Moore was the first wide receiver off the board in a weak wide receiver class, but he wasn’t a bad value at 24. Rookie receivers often take a year or two to develop, but Moore has the opportunity to start immediately with a good off-season. His main competition for playing time are 2017 2nd round pick Curtis Samuel and veteran journeyman Torrey Smith.

Samuel was a high pick, but is more of a hybrid running back/receiver than a true wideout. He played just 225 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, catching 15 passes for 115 yards and rushing for 64 yards on 4 carries. His best game came week 10 when he caught 5 passes for 45 yards on 40 snaps against the Dolphins, but he also broke his ankle in that game, which ended his season. Complications from that injury threaten to keep him out at least until training camp, which does not help his chances of earning a big role in 2018. With uncertain health and a non-traditional skill set, it’s unclear what his role will be this season.

Torrey Smith is the veteran of the bunch, although he hasn’t been good in years. Smith topped 750 yards in all 4 seasons with the Ravens, after they took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he hasn’t been nearly as good since leaving, averaging a 30/453/3 slash line over the past 3 seasons, first with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016 and then with the Eagles last season. He’s been especially bad over the past two seasons, finishing in the bottom-5 of wide receivers on PFF in both seasons.

The Panthers strangely decided to trade for him and his 5 million dollar salary, even surrendering a promising young defensive back (Daryl Worley) in the deal. They’re thin enough at wide receiver that he’s very much in the mix for a role and he’s still only going into his age 29 season, so there’s some theoretical bounce back potential here, but he hasn’t shown it in years. His skill set reminds of Ted Ginn, who has had success with Cam Newton in the past, so he’s a good fit, but the Panthers could have probably signed him for half of what he’s making if they had just waited for the Eagles to release him.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Panthers will need a bounce back year from tight end Greg Olsen, who had just 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in 2017 after three straight 1000+ yard seasons. Olsen broke his foot week 2 and was never the same. He was limited to 358 underwhelming snaps in 7 games. Going into his age 33 season in 2018, there’s some concern if he’ll ever return to his old form, but, even if he’s not quite his old form, he’s still a useful weapon. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but he finished in the top-2 in pass catching grade among tight ends in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

While Olsen was hurt last season, he briefly did some broadcasting work, hinting at a post-NFL career, and then he auditioned for Monday Night Football this off-season, though that might have mostly been a negotiating ploy, as he was trying to get an extension from the Panthers. He eventually did get that extension, worth 17.1 million over 2 years, which keeps him in Carolina through 2020, and now he says he’s committed to playing.

Even so, the Panthers needed to address the tight end position in the draft and did so by taking Ian Thomas with the 101th overall pick (4th round). Not only did they need a long-term successor for Olsen, but they needed someone to be their #2 tight end immediately. Ed Dickson led the team in tight end snaps last season with 870 in Olsen’s absence, but he’s no longer with the team. He finished last season 51st out of 72 eligible tight ends, so it’s not a huge loss, but Thomas is very raw, especially as a blocker, so he might not be an upgrade as a rookie. Blocking specialist Chris Manhertz will likely also be in the mix too, though he’s a pure blocker who blocked on 238 of 288 snaps last season and has just 3 catches in 3 seasons in the league. It’s an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Given how thin they are in the receiving corps, running back Christian McCaffrey will once again have to play a big role in the passing game. The 8th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey led the Panthers with 80 catches last season and finished second on the team with 651 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdown. McCaffrey is more of a hybrid than a traditional running back, playing 139 snaps on the slot and 59 snaps out wide and only carrying the ball 117 times.

McCaffrey actually only averaged 3.72 yards per carry on those 117 carries, though he got much better as his rookie year went on, averaging 4.68 yards per carry on 68 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. Even though he was a high pick, McCaffrey is unlikely to ever be a 300+ carry back, as the Panthers want to get him the ball 60-80 times in the passing game and he’s not built for 350 touches per year at 5-10 205. He’s an explosive playmaker who can line up all over the field, but the Panthers don’t want to wear him out.

It looked like McCaffrey would be in for a significantly larger role as a ball carrier when the Panthers let veteran running back Jonathan Stewart go and did not add a replacement for his 198 carries early in free agency or in the draft, but they signed ex-Bronco CJ Anderson a couple weeks after the draft. Anderson will likely take over most of Stewart’s vacated carries and he should be an upgrade.

Stewart was a plodding veteran that averaged just 3.43 yards per carry and finished 53rd among 60 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Anderson, on the other hand, is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 9th among running backs on PFF and totaling 1007 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 241 carries (4.18 YPC), despite playing on one of the worst offenses in the league in Denver. Anderson was only let go by the Broncos for salary reasons and is a great value on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal in Carolina.

Anderson doesn’t do much on passing downs, but neither did Stewart. He’s an excellent complement for McCaffrey. McCaffrey and Anderson are both talented runners, but they cap each other’s rushing production as long as both are healthy, as does the presence of Cam Newton, who is a sure bet to take off and run with the ball at least 100-120 times himself. The Panthers figure to once again be a run heavy team (490 carries to 501 pass attempts last season) and should get better production out of their backs with Anderson replacing Stewart and McCaffrey continuing to develop.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The reason the Panthers are able to be a run heavy team is because they have an above average defense that allows them run a more conservative offense. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly gets most of the attention, but defensive tackle Kawann Short is arguably just as important to this defense. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Short has finished well above average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, with his best play coming in the past 3 seasons. He’s finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in all 3 seasons, while totaling 24.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits and playing excellent run defense at 6-3 315. Outside of Aaron Donald, he’s arguably the best interior defensive lineman in football. Carolina wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 80.5 million dollar extension last off-season after franchise tagging him.

The Panthers also added defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the 2013 draft, taking him 14th overall in the first round, though he never came close to developing into the player Short did. Lotulelei signed with the Bills this off-season, but he won’t be missed, considering he finished 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF last season and considering the Panthers signed upgrade Dontari Poe to replace him. Poe comes in on a 3-year, 28 million dollar deal, which is actually less annually and in total money than Lotulelei got from the Bills (50 million over 5 years).

A 2012 first round pick, back problems forced Poe to settle for a one-year deal worth 8 million from the Falcons last off-season, as he couldn’t find the money on a long-term deal that he wanted. Poe finished as PFF’s 26th ranked defensive tackle on 784 snaps last season and didn’t miss a game with injury, so free agency went better for him the 2nd time around. Poe has been up and down in 6 seasons in the league and he’s dealt with several injuries, but he’s also only missed 2 games in his career, while averaging 850 snaps per season. At 6-3 346, Poe is built like a pure 3-4 nose tackle, but he has the versatility and the athleticism to play in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He’s a good fit in Carolina next to Short and should be an upgrade on Lotulelei.

The Panthers also have 2016 1st round pick Vernon Butler in the mix at defensive tackle. Butler was a strange selection, given that the Panthers already had Short and Lotulelei ahead of him on the depth chart, and the decision doesn’t look any better now, with Poe coming in on a long-term deal and Short locked up on a long-term deal. Butler has played just 520 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and doesn’t have an easy path to playing time in 2018. The Panthers’ decision to sign Poe suggests that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with Butler as a starter yet, which is a bad sign for his development as he heads into his 3rd season in the league. He has some potential, but won’t play a huge role as a reserve. Veteran journeyman Kyle Love (377 snaps in 2017) is also in the mix and may even continue playing ahead of Butler, even though Love is an underwhelming talent.

The Panthers are not quite as well off at defensive end as they are at defensive tackle, but they did have a pair of double digit sack guys in 2017, with Mario Addison and Julius Peppers both tallying 11 sacks. Addison was the better of the two overall, as he also had 3 hits and 43 hurries and finished 24th among 4-3 defensive ends last season in overall grade on PFF. Addison was underwhelming earlier in his career, but he proved to be a late bloomer. In addition to his strong 2017, he also finished 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s not good against the run at 6-3 255, but he should have another solid season rushing the passer.

Peppers, on the other hand, is far from a guarantee. His sack total was impressive last season, especially since he only played 499 snaps, but he was not as good as his sack total suggested, as he had just 5 additional quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries. He finished with an average grade from PFF. Even more of a concern is the fact that he’s going into his age 38 season. Peppers is a future Hall of Famer and still showed himself to have something left in the tank last season, but he’s hard to trust given his age. He’s one of the oldest defensive players in the league.

Charles Johnson was their top reserve last season, but he struggled mightily on 389 snaps and was released this off-season. Wes Horton (359 snaps in 2017) is still in the mix, but he’s never been anything more than a rotational player and has never earned a positive season grade from PFF in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2013. Instead, second year defensive end Daeshon Hall may be their top reserve. Hall was selected 77th overall by the Panthers in 2017 and has the tools to develop into a starter, though he’s kind of an unknown commodity after missing all but 9 snaps with injury as a rookie.

The Panthers also added another defensive end in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Mississippi’s Marquis Haynes in the 4th round. With Julius Peppers possibly entering his final season and Mario Addison also on the wrong side of 30, the Panthers are stocking up on developmental defensive ends. Unlike Hall, Haynes is undersized at 6-3 235 and will likely never be an every down defensive end, but he could develop into a useful situational pass rusher. The Panthers may also give him a look at linebacker because of his athleticism. It’s unclear what his rookie year role will be, but he has upside as a Bruce Irvin type hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. He adds depth to a talented defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly is an All-Pro caliber talent in this front seven. The 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kuechly has been one of the best linebackers in the league basically from week 1 of his rookie year. He’s finished in the top-8 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including 4 straight seasons in the top-2, and he has both a Defensive Rookie of the Year award and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Injuries have been a bit of an issue for him in recent years, as he’s missed 10 games in the past 3 seasons and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2014, but, when healthy, he’s one of the most impactful defensive players in the league. He’s a true three down linebacker with no weaknesses in his game.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis used to be a similar caliber linebacker and, at one point, he and Kuechly were arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL, but Davis is now going into his age 35 season and on the decline. Davis was PFF’s 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as recently as 2014 and finished 8th at his position in 2015, but he’s been about a league average starter in both 2016 and 2017. He’s already announced he plans to retire after the season.

The Panthers used the 25th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft with this scenario in mind, taking Shaq Thompson out of the University of Washington. Thompson has shown that first round talent, earning well above average grades in all 3 seasons in the league, but his 640 snaps in 2017 were a career high. He’s been mostly limited to a base package linebacker role behind Kuechly and Davis, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but the Panthers frequently kept him on the field against 3-wide sets as a slot cornerback in 2017, as he was simply too talented to take off the field. Davis has said he expects to play fewer snaps in his final season, suggesting Thompson may be close to an every down player at linebacker in 2018. More playing time at his natural position should be a good thing for him, as the 6-0 230 pounder struggled on the slot.

Thompson will be an every down player for the first 4 weeks of the season at least, as Thomas Davis will miss time with suspension after failing a drug test. When Davis returns, it will likely be to a reduced role, though he could easily still prove to be a useful player. David Mayo is expected to be the 3rd linebacker behind Kuechly and Thompson in Davis’ absence. A 5th round pick in 2015, Mayo saw 133 snaps last season when Kuechly was hurt and wasn’t bad. He may face competition from Marquis Haynes if they decide they want to try him as a linebacker, but Mayo should be able to hold down the fort in a base package role for the first month of the season. Even with Davis’ suspension, the Panthers have a strong linebacking corps, led by All-Pro Luke Kuechly and breakout candidate Shaq Thompson.

Grade: A

Secondary

While the Panthers still have a strong front 7, they’ve struggled in the secondary since losing cornerback Josh Norman after their Super Bowl season in 2015. To try to replace Norman, the Panthers used a pair of draft picks on cornerbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking James Bradberry in the 2nd round and Daryl Worley in the 3rd round. The results have been underwhelming. Both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus as rookies in 2016, in 13 and 11 starts respectively, but then both took a step both in their second season in the league in 2017. Worley was then shipped to the Eagles this off-season in the Panthers’ bizarre trade for Torrey Smith.

Bradberry remains and enters his third season in the league as the Panthers’ de facto #1 cornerback. He has the tools to develop into a top level cornerback, but has yet to show it consistently. The Panthers will be hoping he takes a leap forward in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee. Between Bradberry’s inconsistent play, Worley’s departure, and veteran slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s struggles in 2017, cornerback was an obvious position of need for the Panthers this off-season and they address it by adding another two cornerbacks in the draft and by signing veteran Ross Cockrell in free agency.

Bradberry is likely locked into a starting role outside, but the other starting outside spot and the top slot cornerback spot are up for grabs. Cockrell was a smart signing on a 2-year, 6.6 million dollar deal and is likely the favorite for the other starting job. He’s made 32 starts in the past 3 seasons, including all 16 with the Steelers in 2016, and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. He should be an upgrade on Worley if he wins the starting job.

Captain Munnerlyn was their primary slot cornerback last season, but he struggled, finishing 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and was limited to just 388 snaps on the season, with linebacker Shaq Thompson eating into his playing time on the slot as the season went on. Munnerlyn has been better in the past, earning a positive grade in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016, but he’s undersized at 5-9 195 and might not age well, going into his age 30 season. He’ll face plenty of competition for his natural slot role and doesn’t have the size to play outside consistently.

Second round rookie Donte Jackson will likely be Munnerlyn’s toughest competition, though last year’s 5th round pick Corn Elder could also be in the mix, as he’s a natural slot cornerback. Elder also missed all of last season with injury, so he’s not a lock for the final roster. The Panthers also used a 3rd round pick in this past draft on Rashaan Gaulden, but his lack of speed (4.63 40) may make him a better fit as a safety long-term, which is also a position of need for the Panthers.

Veterans Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams were the starters in 2017, making 12 starts and 16 starts respectively, but Coleman finished 82nd out of 89 eligible safeties and was subsequently let go this off-season, while Adams is going into his age 37 season and won’t be able to keep doing this for much longer. Adams is likely locked into one of the starting roles and played pretty well last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and is really up there in age, so he could easily struggle in 2018.

Veteran free agent acquisition Da’Norris Searcy is likely the favorite for the other starting spot, with Gaulden and possibly career special teamer Colin Jones providing competition. Searcy had 56 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but played just 365 underwhelming snaps for the Titans last season and is going into his age 30 season. He’s a solid box safety, but little else, so he’s not really an upgrade on Coleman. If he starts, it’s because the Panthers lack a better option. This secondary still has problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers went 11-5 in 2017, but needed to win a lot of close games to get there and they may not have the same success in close games in 2018. On top of that, they lost top offensive lineman Andrew Norwell in free agency. They upgraded running back and defensive tackle this off-season and could have a better linebacking corps with Shaq Thompson taking on an every down role, but they still have major issues in the receiving corps and in the secondary.

They do get tight end Greg Olsen back from injury, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the same upon his return given his age and the Panthers will also likely have to deal with other injuries, just because of the nature of the game. They had an average amount of adjusted games lost last season, so they can’t expect significantly better health in 2018. Olsen is also not their only starter who is well over 30 either, as they have 5 projected starters who are going into their age 33 season or older (Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Mike Adams). 

The Panthers will still be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they also play in the much tougher NFC and in arguably the toughest division in football, so it’s going to be tough for them to make it back. If they lose a lot of close games against a tough schedule, they could easily fall back under .500. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Final Prediction: The Panthers’ offensive line situation has gotten a lot worse since the last writeup, with both Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams going down with injuries. Williams may return early in the season, but Kalil is out indefinitely. Between that, the loss of Andrew Norwell, and the fact that they’re unlikely to do as well in close games, the Panthers are likely to have a down year in the loaded NFC.

Prediction: 6-10 3rd in NFC South

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