Every team who loses in the Super Bowl has one hope in common – that the Super Bowl hangover doesn’t derail their subsequent season. The Carolina Panthers hoped they could play 2016 like they did 2015. Well, they didn’t. Through a combination of injuries, slightly baffling personnel decisions, and general regression to the mean, the Panthers’ 2016 season went far the other way, going from a 15-1 record to a top-10 pick in the draft.
The flipside of that is, finishing 4th in the NFC South means the Panthers have the easiest schedule in that division. They also have the youngest quarterback we can be sure is a franchise quarterback, and around the roster are spots of a developing young nucleus. The Panthers are built to either compete every year, or to flounder in the middle of the pack for years to come.
Everybody unbothered by his skin colour loved 2015 Cam Newton. He played like the consummate showman – big play threat with hands and feet, entertainer on the sideline, big grin. He looked like he was enjoying football. He was a redzone machine. Then it all went wrong. Injury, offensive line collapses, poor receiver performances and no supporting run game hit in 2016. Newton can win a game or two on his own, but not a season. It’s a reminder while Newton may be the best dual-threat in the league, he’s a top-10 not a top-5 QB. And you’d think, given Carolina need him healthy, that he’ll run less every year. The hope is his passing picks up the slack.
So, that running game. Jonathan Stewart is still a bruising back, but he’s worn down through years of action. Enter 8th-overall pick and should’ve-been-Heisman-winner Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey is, depending on your point of view, a one-dimensional passing down back or the most complete offensive skill position player in years. Maybe he can he handle a feature-back workload. Maybe he can consistently run between the tackles at NFL level. He does look like an elite receiving back. McCaffrey could be a modern, game-breaking running back in the Le’Veon Bell/David Johnson mode. Maybe not quite as a rookie though.
Just as well really, as the receiving corps is underwhelming. Kelvin Benjamin is underrated and unfairly maligned because of his size. He’s a decent bet for 1,200 receiving yards. Elsewhere, Greg Olsen is a top-5 tight end and a star, but the existing roster (Devin Funchess, Brenton Bersin) looks weak. Enter second-round pick Curtis Samuel, who’s the more receive-y alternative to the more run-y McCaffrey, and more of which anon.
It’s been so long since the Carolina Panthers had good offensive tackles. So, they gave Matt Kalil $11m/year over 5 years. Kalil had a good rookie season in 2012, but he’s been abysmal and injury-prone since. Carolina will be hoping playing alongside his brother improves him. Right tackle is either mediocre third-year player Daryl Williams or unknown third-round pick Taylor Moton. The interior is the strength – center Ryan Kalil and left guard Trai Turner are Pro Bowl-caliber. Right guard Andrew Norwell is no slouch either.
Ousted GM (why? For what good reason?) Dave Gettleman loved his defensive linemen, as the roster shows. Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short are as good an interior duo as the league has – Short is so much fun against the pass. With former first-round pick Vernon Butler backing up, it’s a stacked group. End was a bit weaker last year, as journeyman Mario Addison was the standout player. Veteran Charles Johnson is starting to show his age, and it’s to be hoped returning legend Julius Peppers can contribute a little in his 16th season in the NFL.
Defensive end being a comparative weak point has been manageable because of the Carolina Panthers’ ability to get pressure from the linebacker position. Former DPOY Luke Kuechly is hopefully recovered from the horrific concussion he sustained last season. Seeing him in tears, perhaps fearing for his career, was one of the more moving moments of the 2017 season. Alongside Kuechly, Thomas Davis is somehow still a good player at age 34. Shaq Thompson played well in his second year. I’m intrigued to see rookie Ben Boulware, who went undrafted despite winning the Jack Lambert award (best linebacker in college football) and being awarded MVP of the College Football playoff.
It may have been Gettleman’s playing hardball with star corner Josh Norman that lead to his sacking. Norman shone in Washington, and Carolina’s corners struggled early. Progress was made though – James Bradberry comes into 2017 having been the top-ranked rookie corner by PFF in 2016. Alongside Bradberry, Daryl Worley improved down the stretch, but looks more like a complementary piece as yet, which is more than can be said for Zack Sanchez. Captain Munnerlyn is back to man the slot though, and he should remain a decent piece.
Another element of that Super Bowl run was ball-hawking safeties, particularly free safety Kurt Coleman, who co-led the league in interceptions. Coleman was back to his previous, middling standard in 2016. Carolina have paired Coleman with veteran Mike Adams. Adams has been an excellent player but is now 36 years old. I realise Ron Rivera’s scheme tries to scrimp on the secondary – every team has to scrimp somewhere – but if the pass rush doesn’t excel, this group will be left exposed.
Players To Watch
Kawaan Short is one of the most fun defensive players to watch in the league. A human-shaped wrecking ball, he ploughs through interior O-linemen like it’s going out of fashion. Watch for Short to get his shoulders free from any guard’s grab, then to use his strength to drive them back towards the quarterback. If you collapse the pocket from the inside, you give a quarterback fits! Short’s power and consistency is part of what will help protect this secondary.
It’s been an odd career so far for Kelvin Benjamin. As a rookie, he was thrust straight into the #1 WR slot, and notched up plenty of yards while looking inconsistent and dropping too many passes. Then, he tore his ACL and missed all of 2015. In 2016 he looked sluggish and hesitant. But it’s often two years removed from an ACL tear that players are back to their best. Benjamin gained a little timber in the offseason and was roundly mocked for it, but looked back in fighting shape in the first preseason game. We’ll be watching to see if the big-bodied receiver can finally be that reliable, near-elite possession receiver.
I’m cheating here by listing two, but I’m fascinated by how Ron Rivera will use Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. Whatever else he is, McCaffrey is definitely a weapon who can do everything from between-the-tackles running to playing as an outside receiver. Opponents will tie themselves in knots trying to counter him on any given play. Samuel is similar, standing sub-6 feet tall with bags of lateral agility. He’s more receiver than running back, but, if used wisely and paired up against the right defenders, he’s still a matchup nightmare.
W1 @ 49ers // W2 vs Bills // W3 vs Saints // W4 @ Patriots // W5 @ Lions // W6 vs Eagles // W7 @ Bears // W8 @ Bucs // W9 vs Falcons // W10 vs Dolphins // W11 BYE
W12 @ Jets // W13 @ Saints // W14 vs Vikings // W15 vs Packers // W16 vs Bucs // W17 @ Falcons