Carolina Panthers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Panthers started last season 6-2, but fell completely out of playoff contention, losing 7 straight games before winning week 17 against a Saints team that was resting starters for the playoffs in a meaningless game. Why they did fall off so suddenly? Well part of it was bad luck, as 5 of those 7 losses came by a touchdown or less, including 3 losses by a field goal or less and at least one loss came as a result of missed kicks.

Part of it was also a drop off in quarterback play. Cam Newton completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in the first 8 games of the season, but he played the rest of the season through an injured shoulder, still completing 68.8% of his passes for an average of 7.22 YPA, but totaling just 9 touchdowns to 9 interceptions in his final 6 games, before being shut down for the season and replaced for the final two games of the season with backups Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen, who weren’t better. Newton also ran significantly less down the stretch, with 73 carries for 342 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first 8 games of the season, as opposed to 28 carries for 146 yards and 0 touchdowns in his final 6 games.

Newton had surgery on that shoulder this off-season and there was originally some concern about his status for 2019, but his recovery has gone well and he has been cleared to throw at minicamp, meaning there’s no doubt about his week 1 status. If healthy, Newton has obvious bounce back potential in his age 30 season in 2019. In his career, he’s completed 59.7% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 182 touchdowns, and 107 interceptions, while adding 5.18 yards per carry and 58 touchdowns on 929 carries. His playing style seems like it would make him more susceptible to injury, but he’s missed just 6 starts in 8 seasons in the league. Assuming his shoulder issues are behind him, there’s no reason he can’t regain his old form in 2019.

The Panthers added additional insurance behind Newton when they took West Virginia quarterback Will Grier in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft this off-season. Also still on the roster are Heinicke and Allen, who combined to complete 61.3% of their passes for an average of 6.28 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in their first career starts in week 16 and week 17 respectively last season. Grier’s addition isn’t a good sign for their roster chances, but they will likely still have the opportunity to battle for a backup job. The Panthers are obviously hoping their backups don’t see the field in 2019.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Even when he was playing hurt, Cam Newton still was completing passes at a career best rate last season. His 67.9% completion percentage for the season exceeded his previous career high by a whopping 6.2%. The Panthers hired experienced play caller Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator last off-season and he made a deliberate effort to get Newton more short completions and to get the ball out of his hands quicker so he doesn’t take as many hits. That will obviously remain important with Newton coming off of shoulder surgery.

The biggest thing Turner did was making 2017 8th overall pick running back Christian McCaffrey a bigger part of the passing game. McCaffrey had a 80/651/6 receiving slash line as a rookie in 2017, but took things to the next level in 2018, leading this team in receptions (107), receiving yards (867), and receiving touchdowns (6), while catching 86.3% of the targets thrown his way and not dropping a single pass all season. That obviously had a big effect on Newton’s completion percentage.

McCaffrey also took his game to the next level as a runner, averaging 5.01 yards per carry and scoring 7 times on 219 carries, after averaging 3.72 yards per carry and scoring 2 times on 117 carries as a rookie. Overall, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back overall. McCaffrey is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the high level he played at in 2018, but he has the talent to be one of the best all-around backs in the league for years to come, still only in his age 23 season.

In addition to having an every down back’s skill set, McCaffrey has the stamina to literally play almost every snap, playing 91.2% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps in 2018, including 8 games where he played every single offensive snap. If he ever were to miss time with injury, the Panthers would likely turn to a timeshare of Cameron Artis-Payne, a 2015 5th round pick with 128 career touches, and 5th round rookie Jordan Scarlett. Scarlett has the talent to exceed his draft stock, falling primarily because of off-the-field issues, but the Panthers would obviously be in a lot of trouble if McCaffrey were to miss time with injury. As long as McCaffrey is healthy, don’t expect many available touches for backups.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

After McCaffrey, Cam Newton’s favorite target last season was #1 wide receiver DJ Moore, who finished with 55/788/2 slash line. That’s pretty impressive considering he didn’t become a starter until the 7th game of the season. From that point on, he had 42 catches for 597 yards and 1 touchdown in 10 games, a 67/955/2 slash line extrapolated across 16 games. On the season, he averaged 1.81 yards per route run, 33rd in the NFL among qualifying wide receivers. The 24th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Moore has a huge upside and is still only going into his age 22 season. He could easily take another step forward in 2019, now locked in to a starting role.

The rest of the wide receiver depth chart is unsettled. Devin Funchess was 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver last season with a 44/549/4 slash line, but he signed with the Colts this off-season. Funchess was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and showed flashes of brilliance, but he never topped a 63/840/8 slash line in 4 seasons in Carolina and played just 94 snaps in 4 games after week 11 last season, after falling down the depth chart. It’s not a surprise that the Panthers didn’t bring him back this off-season.

Curtis Samuel was the beneficiary of Funchess’ reduced role down the stretch. After playing just 112 snaps through week 11, Samuel was close to an every down player in the final 6 games of the season, playing 355 snaps and catching 22 passes for 315 yards and 2 touchdowns. Over a 16 game season, that extrapolates to a 59/840/5 slash line. Samuel is still unproven with 54 total catches in 2 seasons in the league, but he went in the 2nd round in 2017 and could easily continue developing into a starting caliber receiver. He’s probably the favorite for the #2 receiver job in 2019.

The rest of this wide receiver group is all mediocre veterans, with Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright returning and Chris Hogan coming in as a free agent. Smith and Wright are going into their age 30 seasons, while Hogan is going into his age 32 season. Smith was once a feared deep threat, but he’s caught just 106 of 209 targets (50.7%) in the past 4 seasons, including just 11 catches as a situational deep threat in 2018. Wright actually set a career high in catches in 2018, but still only caught 43 passes and isn’t anything more than a slot specialist. Hogan, meanwhile, has never topped 41 catches in a season despite spending 3 seasons with Tom Brady. Wright’s ability on the slot makes him the favorite for the #3 receiver job, with Smith and Hogan serving as rotational reserves.

With a thin group at wide receiver, the Panthers could run more two tight end sets in 2019 to compensate. Tight end Greg Olsen used to be Newton’s favorite target, leading the team in receiving for 4 straight seasons from 2013-2016, including 1000+ yard seasons in 2014-2016, but injuries and age have caught up with him in recent years. He’s managed just 44 catches for 482 yards and 5 touchdowns combined in the past 2 seasons, while missing 16 of 32 games due to recurring foot problems. Now going into his age 34 season, his best days appear to be behind him, but he could remain a capable starter if he can stay on the field.

With Olsen out, Ian Thomas was the Panthers’ primary pass catching tight end in 2018, posting a 36/333/2 slash line on the season, including 28 catches for 268 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 7 games Olsen missed. Thomas was only a rookie last season and the 4th round pick showed the potential to develop into a starting tight end long-term, but as long as Olsen is healthy he should play ahead of Thomas. The Panthers could use both at the same time to create mismatches and they also have pure blocking tight end Chris Manhertz (5 career catches) in the mix for snaps on run plays as well. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this receiving corps, so expect a heavy dose of checkdowns to Christian McCaffrey again in 2019.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Cam Newton already takes enough hits as ball carrier, so protecting him from taking additional hits in the pocket is obviously important, especially with Newton going into his 30s and coming off of shoulder surgery. The Panthers had pretty underwhelming offensive line play in 2018 though. They were better in 2017, but lost left guard Andrew Norwell in free agency last off-season and then lost both projected week 1 starting offensive tackles to season ending injuries, with left tackle Matt Kalil missing the entire season and right tackle Daryl Williams missing all but 56 week 1 snaps. Those injuries definitely didn’t help this offensive line, as they had to turn to mediocre veterans Chris Clark and Marshall Newhouse at left tackle and at right tackle they had to turn to Taylor Moton, who they were hoping would replace Norwell at left guard.

Matt Kalil is no longer with the team, but was never more than an average starter even when healthy. Clark and Newhouse weren’t terrible in Kalil’s absence last season, but neither one was re-signed this off-season, with the Panthers shooting higher at the left tackle position with 37th overall pick Greg Little, who they traded up to acquire. Little has first round upside, but work ethic concerns and a horrible combine performance dropped him to day 2. He profiles as a boom or bust prospect and might not necessarily be an upgrade as a rookie.

Daryl Williams, meanwhile, returns to the team on 1-year, 6 million dollar deal, after not finding a multi-year deal to his liking in free agency this off-season. Moton played well in his absence though, finishing 12th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, so Williams will kick inside to left guard. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Moton barely played as a rookie (70 snaps), but he has the talent to continue developing into one of the best right tackles in the league, still only in his age 25 season. If Little struggles on the blindside, it’s possible they flip their offensive tackles, but Moton might not be as good of a fit on the blindside, so that’s probably not something they want to do.

Williams wouldn’t be a great fit on the blindside either, but he has obvious bounce back potential at left guard if he can stay healthy. He was PFF’s 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2017 before last year’s injury plagued season. A position change complicates matters and he’s only a one-year wonder, earning average grades from PFF in his other 3 seasons in the league (17 starts total), but he could easily be an above average starter at left guard in 2019. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Greg Van Roten, a 2012 undrafted free agent who was mediocre in the first 16 starts of his career in 2019. He’ll be a backup this season and would only see action if there’s an injury ahead of him on the depth chart.

The Panthers also have a new starter at center. The off-season retirement of long-term Panther Ryan Kalil, who made 145 starts in 12 seasons with the Panthers, left a big hole, but they filled it quickly in free agent with ex-Bronco center Matt Paradis, who comes in on a 3-year, 29.03 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money, but it could easily prove to be a great value, as Paradis gets less annually than lesser players like Ryan Jensen and Mitch Morse have gotten in the past two off-seasons and he is only the 5th highest paid center in terms of average annual salary.

Paradis’ deflated value probably is partially because he’s coming off of a broken leg that ended his 2018 season after 9 games, but he made 57 consecutive starts in 4 seasons prior to that, so he’s hardly an injury prone player and he’s finished in the top-8 among centers on PFF in 3 straight seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Paradis is older than most first time free agents, but interior offensive linemen tend to age better than other positions, so he could easily continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons.

With Kalil gone, right guard Trai Turner is now the longest tenured offensive lineman the Panthers have, as he’s made 67 starts in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2014. Turner isn’t quite as good as his contract, which makes him the 5th highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual value (4 years, 45 million), but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-25 at his position. He’s also still only in his age 26 season, despite his experience, so he should remain an above average starter for years to come. It’s risky that the Panthers are planning on starting a rookie at left tackle, but this is otherwise a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Panthers’ defense struggled in 2018, finishing 25th in first down rate allowed at 37.97%. Head coach Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator, took over the play calling for the final 4 weeks of the season, but it didn’t make much of a difference. The Panthers kept defensive coordinator Eric Washington this off-season, but Rivera will remain as the play caller and will transition this defense to a 3-4 base, which is what Rivera traditionally ran back when he was a defensive coordinator. It’s extra responsibilities for the head coach, but having Norv Turner as the “head coach” of the offense allows Rivera to be more involved defensively.

Their biggest problem on defense last season was their inability to get to the quarterback, as they finished 27th in the NFL with just 36 sacks on the season. Simply switching schemes won’t fix that problem, but the Panthers did add some players to help them get to the quarterback. Their biggest addition was a late one, signing former Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy after he was released by the Buccaneers in May, ahead of a non-guaranteed 13 million dollar salary.

McCoy is going into his age 31 season and coming off of a down season by his standards, but he still could prove to be a smart signing on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal with incentives worth another 2 million. He still finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked interior defender and had 6 sacks, 12 hits, and an 8.5% pressure rate on the season, down from his 10.5% pressure rate from 2013-2017, but still pretty impressive for an interior rusher. He also fills a big need for the Panthers as a base defensive end in their new 3-4 defense and gives them a much needed interior pass rusher in sub packages.

Kawaan Short will be the other interior rusher in sub packages and will also be a base defensive end. Short is also coming off of a down year rushing the passer, with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and an 8.9% pressure rate on the season. From 2015-2017, he had 24.5 sacks, 34 hits, and 11.1% pressure rate. A bounce back year from him would be a big help to this defense, but now going into his age 30 season his best days might be behind him. He should still be a solid pass rusher at the very least and he’s also still one of the better run stuffing defensive tackles in the league, finishing 20th overall among interior defenders on PFF in 2018, but his days of being a dominant interior rusher could be in the past.

The player who probably benefits the most from the scheme change is Dontari Poe, who spent the first 5 seasons of his career as a 3-4 nose tackle in Kansas City from 2012-2016. Poe was known for his ability to stay on the field for close to every snap in Kansas City, despite his mammoth size at 6-3 346, averaging 55.9 snaps per game in his final 4 seasons with the Chiefs, but with McCoy and Short as the primary interior rushers in Carolina, Poe may struggle to even match the 515 snaps he played last season. He’s not much of a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 17 hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate in the past 4 seasons, but he’s a strong run stuffer who has earned an above average grade in that aspect from PFF in 3 of the past 4 seasons. He’ll primarily be a base package nose tackle in 2019, where he is a great fit, but could also see a few sub package snaps as well.

Kyle Love and Vernon Butler return in reserve roles, after playing 467 snaps and 329 snaps respectively last season. With McCoy added to the mix, they may have a tough time even matching those snap totals in 2019. Butler was actually a first round pick back in 2016, but he’s barely seen the field in 3 seasons in the league, averaging 22.8 snaps per game in 38 career games, while not making a single start. The Panthers already declined his 5th year option for 2020 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t end up making the final 53. If he does make the final roster, the big 6-4 330 pounder will serve as a situational run stuffer and backup nose tackle.

Love, meanwhile, is a career journeyman who has started just 31 of 100 games with 4 teams, but he’s actually coming off of a pretty solid season, setting a career best PFF grade in his 9th season in the league in 2018. Going into his age 33 season, his age is obviously a concern and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he couldn’t match the best season of his career, but he should be ahead of Butler for snaps. Like Butler, Love is primarily a run stuffer on 6-1 310, earning PFF’s 31st highest run stuffing grade in 2018. This defensive line has a lot of potential, especially if McCoy and Short can turn back the clock a little bit. In 2017, they would have been arguably the best interior defender duo in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Panthers also needed to add help at the edge defender position this off-season. Edge defender Mario Addison led this team with 9 sacks and fellow edge defender Julius Peppers was 2nd with 5, but Peppers retired this off-season and their 3rd edge defender, Wes Horton, finished as Pro Football Focus’ 112th ranked edge defender out of 113 qualifying on 471 snaps in 2018 and managed just 1.5 sacks and no quarterback hits all season. To replace them (Horton also signed with the Saints this off-season), the Panthers used the 16th overall pick on Florida State’s Brian Burns and signed veteran Bruce Irvin. Along with Addison, those will be their top-3 edge defenders in 2019.

Addison has been their best edge rusher the past two seasons and could easily be their best again in 2019. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s totalled 20 sacks and 5 hits, with a 12.2% pressure rate. Addison is a late bloomer who made just 4 starts in his first 6 seasons in the league prior to the last two seasons, but he’s always been a good situational pass rusher, with a career 12.4% pressure rate. His age is becoming a concern in his age 32 season, but he could easily continue being an above average pass rusher in 2019.

Irvin, meanwhile, earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first 6 seasons in the league prior to 2018, but he struggled last season, spending the first 8 games of the season in Oakland, before getting released and signing with the Falcons. He was better in Atlanta than in Oakland, but he’s also going into his age 32 season, so his age is a concern too. Addison and Irvin both being over 30 is likely one of the reasons why Burns was their selection at 16. He’s raw and undersized, but freakishly athletic and could contribute as a situational pass rusher immediately. They’ll need him to in a thin group.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Panthers are entering a new era at linebacker. Not only are they converting schemes, but they lost veteran linebacker Thomas Davis to the Chargers this off-season, after 14 seasons in Carolina. It’s not a surprise that they lost him though and, at one point, it seemed likely that Davis would retire, rather than play his age 36 season in 2019. In fact, the Panthers actually prepared for this day 4 years ago, when they selected Shaq Thompson with the 25th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

With Davis ahead of him, Thompson has been limited to 38.1 snaps per game in 4 seasons in the league, working as a 3rd linebacker in base packages and occasionally even as a slot cornerback in sub packages, as the Panthers got creative with ways to leave him on the field in passing situations. A freak athlete at 6-0 230, Thompson has the ability to develop into an above average coverage linebacker, run stuffer, and blitzer and has earned average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, including a 33th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on 599 snaps in 2018. Still only in his age 25 season, Thompson has obvious breakdown potential now that he’s finally in an every down role.

Thompson will start inside in this 3-4 defense next to perennial Pro-Bowler Luke Kuechly, who remains a constant in this group. Kuechly has never played in a 3-4 defense, but it’s hard to imagine the scheme change affecting him negatively. Kuechly has finished in the top-3 among off ball linebackers on PFF in 5 straight seasons and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 28 season. He’s one of the best defensive players in the entire NFL. The Panthers don’t have much depth behind Kuechly and Thompson, but it shouldn’t be needed, as this could be one of the best off ball linebacker duos in the NFL this season.

Grade: A

Secondary

The Panthers’ secondary was their weakest defensive group in 2018 and things don’t look better in 2019. Safety Mike Adams and slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn are no longer with the team, after playing 938 snaps and 630 snaps respectively in 2018. Neither player played well and they won’t really be missed, but the Panthers didn’t do anything to replace either one of them. They do have 2018 3rd round pick Rashaan Gaulden waiting in the wings after playing just 143 snaps as a rookie, but he can only fill one of those spots and is no guarantee to be an upgrade in his first extended action.

It looks like Gaulden is going to end up playing at safety, where he’d start next to Eric Reid. Reid has made 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league with the 49ers and Panthers and he’s a solid starter, earning average or better grades from Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons, but he hasn’t finished higher than 43rd among safeties since his rookie year in 2013. If someone else doesn’t step up in this group, Reid could easily be Carolina’s best defensive back this season, which is not what you want.

With Gaulden likely playing safety, a pair of veterans coming off of injury will compete for the Panthers’ 3rd cornerback job. Ross Cockrell missed all of 2018 with a badly broken leg, while Kevon Seymour missed the entire season with a shoulder injury. Cockrell is likely the favorite for the job and he earned above average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2015-2017 (32 starts in 47 games), but Seymour was potentially going to start in this secondary in 2018 before the injury, so he can’t be ruled out. Seymour has played just 603 nondescript snaps since being drafted in the 6th round in 2016 though, so Cockrell probably has more upside if he’s past last year’s brutal injury.

James Bradberry and Donte Jackson return as the two starting outside cornerbacks. Bradberry was selected in the 2nd round in 2016 and has made 45 starts in 3 seasons since, but he’s been average at best as a starter and finished last season 59th among cornerbacks on PFF. In his age 26 season and the final year of his rookie contract, Bradberry has the upside to be better in 2019, but that’s far from a guarantee. Jackson, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2018 and finished as PFF’s 66th ranked cornerback in 16 rookie year starts. He’s also a candidate to take a step forward in 2019. Depending on who wins the 3rd cornerback job, Jackson could see more action as a slot cornerback in sub packages this season. There’s upside here if young players can take a step forward and Cockrell can return to form after his injury, but on paper this is an underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Panthers collapsed in a big way in 2018, finishing 7-9 after a 6-2 start, but they still finished the season 12th in first down rate differential at +1.69%, 2nd best among non-playoff teams behind the Steelers. Many of their late season losses were close and likely would have been wins if they had a healthy Cam Newton, which they should in 2019. The defense is also trending upwards after a mediocre 2018 season. They probably aren’t good enough to overtake the Saints in the NFC South unless Drew Brees drops off significantly at age 40, but they should be very much in the mix for a wild card spot. 

Prediction: 9-7, 3rd in NFC South

Team Score: 75.11 (14th in NFL)

Offensive Score: 76.16

Defensive Score: 74.06

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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