Super Bowl 51 Contenders: Carolina Panthers

Could it be third time lucky for the Carolina Panthers as they will enter the 2016 season as one of the favourites to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Panthers were the team to beat for much of 2015, however, they fell short last year against the impressive Denver Broncos defence as Cam Newton struggled to connect with his sub-par receivers as the Broncos managed to get home quickly. 2015 was truly a remarkable year for Cam Newton as he managed to turn receivers such as Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown into household names. Yet with Kelvin Benjamin returning from injury and Carolina’s star men on both Offence and Defence still young and under contract for years to come, do not be surprised to see the Panthers on this list for many more years to come.

 

The Offence:

The Carolina Panthers boast a high-powered Offence that last year fired the Panthers all the way into the Superbowl and only appeared to slow down twice throughout the season. Only on two occasions last year did the Panthers fail to eclipse 20 points in a game and both of these resulted in losses (week 16 @ Atlanta; Superbowl vs. Denver). The Panthers have a young emerging star in Kelvin Benjamin and Cam Newton is coming off an MVP year. Alongside a young but talented Offensive Line, the Panthers will hope that their offense can fire them back to the Super Bowl in 2016.

 

The Quarterback

The first thing that you historically need to win a Superbowl is a ‘franchise’ Quarterback. That usually means a steady pair of shoulders who won’t turn the ball over and can win games through their performance alone. Carolina undoubtedly has one of these in Cam Newton who last year demonstrated that along with his freak athleticism, he understood the position and could go through his reads and throw open his deep threat receivers. Cam is unique in the League in that he is built in the mould of a Linebacker with the height of an Offensive Linemen, yet he can plough over Defenders like a Running Back. The Panthers combined this running threat with RB Jonathon Stewart and amassed the 2nd most amount of rushing yards in 2015. Despite ranking 24th in passing yards they were ranked tied 3rd in Passing Touchdowns (35, only 1 TD behind 1st).

 

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Troy Machir/ SportingNews

 

Cam Newton is coming off an MVP year and many will hope that with the return of his favourite target Kelvin Benjamin who he connected with 73 times for 1,008 yards and 9 Touchdowns in the Wide outs rookie season. It is clear that everything seemed to click for Cam in his fifth year as a Pro as he finally took a huge step forward in silencing critics about his ability to stay in the pocket and connect with his receivers. In 2015 Cam posted his highest TD total, Quarterback rating and lowest interception number as a Pro. It is clear that with the unique skill set Cam possesses, going into 2016 he will be just as much a nightmare match up problem for opposing Defensive Co-ordinators as he was in 2015.

 

Rushing attack

2015 saw the former first round pick Jonathon Stewart recapture some of the early career success he posted as a rookie and sophomore. He posted 989 yards with six Touchdowns. The Panthers also have able backups in Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne. The Panthers are also one of the few teams who still regularly use the Full Back position and 2015 saw Mike Tolbert earn his second Pro Bowl. The Panthers appear to have followed the recipe set by the Seattle Seahawks in previous years as they have become a smash-mouth run the football offense that also plays tough Defense. It was this offensive philosophy alongside utilising QB Cam Newton’s unique skill set that caused Defenses to play both the run and read-option leading to the Panthers posting the second highest rushing yards per game total in 2015. The Panthers also ranked second in total rushing yards, but first in attempts and joint first with 19 Touchdowns. Despite Stewart entering his ninth year as a Pro, there will still be opportunities for him to take the ball to the house as teams are forced to play the read-option as well as play outside contain which opens up lanes through the middle for the Panthers backfield to exploit.

 

Film Study: A good example of this in action was Carolina’s playoff game against Seattle last season. The first play of the game was clearly designed as a run play as a Tight End has been brought in to act as a sixth linemen while the Panthers have both a RB and a FB in the backfield. The Panthers then have one WR and TE Greg Olsen to the left side. The Seahawks have loaded the box, yet despite this you will see no.51 Bruce Irvin for the Seahawks containing on the right hand side. This is to cover the potential threat of either the read-option or a play action bootleg. This play was the very first play the Panthers ran in the game and set the tone for the whole game. The Seahawks bit down on the strong side where there was an additional TE acting as a third tackle, while Stewart was patient and bounced out to the left hand side before following some good blocks up field for 59 yards. By having Cam at QB the Panthers are already playing against 10 Defenders as one is tasked with containing in case of the read-option while Richard Sherman appeared to be playing press and Strong Safety, Kam Chancellor was determined to come down and bump and interrupt Greg Olsen’s route. On their opening play the Panthers had essentially eliminated three Seahawks defenders, while their formation also meant that when Stewart eventually did bust it up the gut of the weak side, following some good blocks he was clear to the races. Watch the clip below and see how by using clever formations and understanding the respect opposing Defenses have to give Cam Newton, the Panthers’ used their strong Offensive Line to create a big plays that Carolina will hope they can continue to use and run their way all the way back to the Super Bowl in 2016.

 

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Source: Vice Sports

 

Receiving threat

The return of Kelvin Benjamin will undoubtedly help the Panthers chances of eclipsing their 2015 feat, as they will attempt to finally bring a Super Bowl to Carolina. Kelvin Benjamin hit the ground running as a rookie as he went over 1,000 yards and built an immediate chemistry with QB Cam Newton. With Benjamin’s injury in the 2015 season I will admit that I had doubts (extremely large ones) about whether Carolina would be able to get it done Offensively as Cam lost arguably his greatest weapon on Offence. However, Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown all proved that they could be relied upon to put up both yards and points while the seasoned veteran Greg Olsen always poses problems at Tight End. The Panthers will hope that with the return of Benjamin, players who in 2015 managed to create separation and get open for Cam will have an easier job in 2016. This is because opposing teams will now use their no.1 corners to cover Benjamin while Olsen will also draw attention going to work through the middle. The Panthers will hope that alongside their dominant running game, they will able to create the same openings through the passing game for Benjamin to exploit and to improve upon the 3,873 passing yards they put up in the 2015 regular season.

 

It all starts upfront: The Offensive Line

The Panthers offensive line before last season was not a well-known unit with only Centre Ryan Kalil and former first round pick and star of the film ‘The Blind Side’ Michael Oher being household names amongst NFL fans. However, last season Pro Football Focus graded the Panther’s O-Line as the second best unit in the League.

 

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Getty Images

 

This was due largely to the impressive play of C Ryan Khalil (2007 2nd round pick) and Guards Trai Turner (2014 3rd round pick) and Andrew Norwell (undrafted 2014). While Left Tackle Michael Oher struggled in run blocking, he proved effective in protecting Cam Newton’s blind side in the passing game (No pun intended). Right Tackle Andrew Norwell had a successful 2015 campaign, however, he is most likely still haunted from having to block Broncos’ Von Miller in the Super Bowl which proved a disaster. In 2015 the Panthers allowed 33 sacks (joint 11th in the League) and it is clear that their strength is in the interior of their Offensive Line. With both Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell posting impressive sophomore years, the Panthers will look for them to continue their development in 2016. If the Panthers can learn from last season’s Super Bowl and start to use either a RB of TE to chip opposing teams dominant pass rushers, then there is no reason that this unit cannot keep Cam clean and take the Panthers back to the Super Bowl in 2016.

 

The Defence:

The Panthers have a top 5 Defense. In 2015 they ranked 6th in sacks (44), 1st in Interceptions (24) and joint 3rd in forced fumbled (24). Their Defense has playmakers all over the field with the star of the show being Middle Linebacker turned Field General, Luke Kuechly.

 

The Front Seven

The Panthers are extremely well built in their Front Seven and play a 4-3 base Defense. Veteran Left Defensive End Charles Johnson will hope to improve on his poor 2015 showing, while Right Defensive End Kony Ealy will hope to build upon his rookie and sophomore campaigns as he has improved year on year. Like their Offensive Line, the Panthers’ Defensive Line has its strength in the middle with veterans Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and Paul Soliai who was brought in this offseason for depth. Carolina also took Defensive Tackle Vernon Butler with their first round pick in this years Draft. While Butler is unlikely to start, the Panthers will hope that they can bring in the big-boded former Louisiana Tech star to plug holes and defend against the run. While this might not be a top 5 unit, the Panthers Defensive Line benefits from having arguably the Leagues best, or at a minimum, top 3 Linebacking corps playing behind it.

 

The Panthers have two, potentially three game changing talents playing the Linebacker position. Middle Linebacker Luke Kuechly and Weakside Linebacker Thomas Davis were ranked first and second by Pro Football Focus in coverage for the 2015 season. It is a highly vocal and athletic group. Despite Davis being 33 years of age, he makes up for his relative lack of athleticism compared to Kuechly and Strongside ‘backer Shaq Thompson with his reading of the game and his commitment. Davis broke his arm in the Panthers 2015 NFC Championship game and then played just two weeks later against Denver. Davis is a savvy veteran who uses his knowledge of the game to place himself at exactly the right point whether stuffing the run or tracking a player in coverage.

 

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Kevin Terrell/ Associated Press

 

Luke Kuechly is the best Linebacker in football. He is the best cover Linebacker in the NFL and has both the best physical and mental skillset of any current Linebacker. He is one of the best Linebacker’s of his generation. Kuechly is the leader in the middle of the Defence who calls audibles as he diagnoses plays and disrupts opponents in both the passing and running game. He has also managed to tally up 14 career interceptions, 9.0 sacks and 395 tackles in his four years as a Middle Linebacker. At just 25 years old, it is clear that the Panthers have a stud at the heart of their Defense.

 

Shaq Thompson who plays the Strongside for the Panthers had an impressive rookie season after he was taken 25th overall in the 2015 Draft. Thompson was the Swiss-army knife of the University of Washington’s Defense where he played Safety, Slot Corner, Linebacker and Running Back. Thompson proved his athleticism in the combine and also showed at times his physical skill set during his rookie campaign where he registered 50 tackles on the season to go with 1 sack and 2 passes defended. If Thompson can continue to grow as a sophomore alongside the guidance of veterans Davis and Kuechly then it is clear that this Defense will not only place Carolina in a position to succeed in 2016, but for many more seasons to come.

 

The Secondary

Following the Panthers retracting their franchise tag of star Corner Josh Norman and his move to the Washington Redskins, it is clear that the Panthers secondary is the weakest unit on their football team. While Tre Boston and Kurt Coleman are both able Safety’s, it is the lack of proven starters at the Cornerback position that could prove to be Carolina’s Achilles heel heading into the 2016 season. Rookie Daryl Worley has impressed during the first week of training camp and the 3rd round pick is currently seeing the majority of his reps with the first team. The likely candidate to win the no.1 job is Bené Benwikere who will be entering his third year in league. However, the Panthers also have two other rookies competing for one of the three jobs at corner with 2nd round pick James Bradberry and 5th round selection Zack Sanchez vying for a starting job. The Panthers also have a few other options such as journeyman Robert McClain, however, it looks likely that the Panthers will have to defend their NFC title with two rookies starting at Corner.

 

Special Teams

Panthers Kicker Graham Gano is an accomplished Kicker who’s career long is 59 yards and his percentage during his past four years in Carolina is 84.25%. Gano is the week 1 start but for the record he missed 3 extra-point attempts following the rule change last season. The Panthers have brought in Punters Swayze Waters who has spent the last four years in the Canadian Football League to compete against Mike Scifres, someone the San Diego Chargers took with a 5th round pick in 2003. Panthers have a solid option at Kicker and Long Snapper but will have to see who wins out the battle for the opening job at Punter.

 

Last season RB Fozzy Whittaker and QB Joe Webb returned kicks for the Panthers. Carolina finished last in the NFL in kick-off return average (18.5 yards). With the return of Benjamin and good depth at Wide Receiver, 2016 could see the return of Ted Ginn Jr. to a returning role. They say that Special Teams help win Super Bowl’s and the Panthers will hope to improve on this side of the ball in order to help them chase their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

 

The schedule:

Carolina will have the 12th hardest schedule in 2016 as their opponents in 2015 had a record of .512. The Panthers who play in the NFC South will have difficult away games against the Saints and the Falcons. Their opener is a Super Bowl rematch against the currently starting Quarterback-less Denver Broncos. Difficult games in the schedule will be: week 4 @ Atlanta; week 6 @ New Orleans; week 8 vs. Arizona and week 13 @ Seattle.

 

The Panthers could potentially jump out to 6-0 before regrouping for their week 7 bye. I have them going undefeated until this point. My final prediction for the Panthers is a 13-3 record where they lose at home to Arizona and Kansas City and then away at Seattle.

 

The skinny:

Not much has changed since last season for the Carolina Panthers. They have a strong Offense which will benefit from the return of Kelvin Benjamin who should help elevate the play of the other receivers around him. The O-Line should also take another step forward as the young Guards on the interior should continue to grow. Despite the retirement of Jared Allen, the Panthers Defense is still built to be menacing and tough and has been constructed to be able to go on the road and challenge physical teams like Seattle and Minnesota. The Panthers will hope that rookie Shaq Thompson can take a step forward towards becoming player he is billed to be. Head Coach Ron Rivera will also be hoping to get more out of their special teams squad. The Panthers are a strong young team and should reach the NFC Divisional Round as a minimum in 2016. After coming so close to tasting glory I am sure the young and hungry Panthers will be dreaming of going all the way in 2016.

 

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Randall Benton/ The Sacramento Bee

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