After going 12-4 and winning the NFC South last season, many people are counting on the Panthers to repeat. Not so fast -- even with a solid defense that might have the best front seven in the league, the Panthers have a lot of issues heading into 2014.
Pretty much all of the problems surround Cam Newton. His receiving corps has been completely turned over without much in the way of upgrades, his offensive line remains suspect and his ankle was surgically repaired in March. But other than that he had a terrific offseason!
The defense also has some problems, though it's mostly in the secondary. Pass rusher extraordinaire Greg Hardy was arrested this offseason in a domestic incident and could face league suspension. He also will play this season on the franchise tag. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (74 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions) signed with the Vikings and safety Mike Mitchell (66 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions last season) signed a deal with the Steelers in March, leaving the Panthers with some weaknesses in the defensive backfield even with the additions of safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud.
It all could lead to a challenging year for the Panthers, particularly as the NFC South's competing offenses improve and the schedule includes them, the Packers, Bears, Lions, Steelers, Bengals, Eagles and world champion Seahawks. The NFC South title has never been won by the same team in consecutive seasons. Looks like it'll stay that way.
Best Panthers pickup is ... Greg Olsen
Look, someone has to catch the ball in Carolina. For all the warts they have at receiver, the one constant over the last few seasons has been Olsen. Last year he tied for the team lead in targets with 109 and led in catches (73), yards (816) and receiving scores (six). In 2012 he was second in those categories save for touchdowns (five) behind Steve Smith, who is no longer with the Panthers. Newton has established chemistry with Olsen and should lean on him a ton. Get behind the idea of taking him with a pick in the middle of the draft.
Long-term prospect ... Kelvin Benjamin
When's the last time Newton had a tall, fast, strong receiver on his side of the field? Maybe college, if then? Benjamin has amazing size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and is very fast getting downfield but might get wedged into playing a role he's not ready for in 2014 with a quarterback who won't quite be 100 percent healthy. Benjamin is sure to have some big games but plenty of stinkers too. The best plan is to draft him with high expectations starting in 2015, though taking him with a late-round lottery ticket this summer can't be ruled out as a dumb idea.
Don't forget about ... DeAngelo Williams
|DeAngelo Williams||227 (201 car., 26 rec.)||29.3%|
|Mike Tolbert||128 (101 car., 27 rec.)||16.5%|
|Greg Olsen||73 rec.||9.4%|
|Steve Smith||64 rec.||8.3%|
|Jonathan Stewart||55 (48 car., 7 rec.)||7.1%|
There's going to come a point in your draft when you look at the remaining running backs and get physically ill. It happens. But you could do worse than a running back who has averaged at least 4.1 yards per season since entering the NFL in 2006 and has missed one game in the last three years. Williams is that guy. Yep, he's 31 but still has gas left in the tank thanks to not being used up early on in his career. Williams had eight-plus Fantasy points in half of his games last season, not bad for a guy who will probably not start very often for you. True, Jonathan Stewart is healthy (for now) and will take work away from Williams (for now), and Williams is probably going to get shut out at the goal line by Newton and Mike Tolbert. Whatever. The point here is that Williams should get close to 1,000 total yards, provide depth for your Fantasy team and be the biggest part of the remaining strength of the Panthers offense: the run game. Aim for him when the going gets tough at running back starting in Round 8.
If the Panthers offense was going to be in trouble on its own, then the schedule does absolutely zero favors. Teams that were strong against the run last year like the Bucs, Lions and Bengals mesh with teams expected to be much improved against the run in the Steelers, Ravens and Bears -- and that's just the first six games! Things do lighten up after a home date with the Seahawks in Week 8, so maybe some Panthers players will step up in the second half. The season ends with two games against the Falcons, road tilts at Minnesota and New Orleans and homers versus the Bucs and Browns with a Week 12 bye mixed in. Maybe a good plan is to not draft Panthers players but trade for them after that Seahawks game.
Training camp battles
Might there be any changes to how the running backs are utilized? The Panthers running backs have been frustrating to deal with for a ton of reasons. There are a lot of them that are used in varying ways and when the offense is near the goal line it's the quarterback who scores the most. Last year it was pretty easy to decipher the code
Who's starting at receiver? It might be the ugliest receiving corps in football but players still have to work their way into the lineup. There will be some pressure to get Benjamin on the field as he's a first-round pick -- if he has a solid camp then he'll probably begin the year on the outside. Jerricho Cotchery has also been penciled into the slot, a role he did well with last year with the Steelers. The other outside receiver is up in the air between Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and others. Or, the Panthers could rely on two-tight end sets and put Ed Dickson on the field with Olsen and take one of those receivers off the field. Guess what? It's a mess. Cam Newton didn't have anyone great to throw to last season but somehow it's worse this season.
Cam Newton is going to have the worst year of his career. Not only are the top four wide receivers he threw to last year no longer on the team, but he himself is still working his way back from March surgery on his left ankle. He is at risk for missing the start of training camp (he was still limping as of late May) but should be ready for Week 1, albeit not necessarily 100 percent. Getting the timing down with his entirely new receiving corps will be one thing, but how he and his coaches will feel about running the ball will be another. Newton's rushing numbers have been huge for Fantasy -- hopefully the ankle doesn't impact how often or productive he'll be. And hopefully the ankle doesn't change anything about his passing mechanics.
But on top of all this is the fact that Newton's offensive line seems like it will be a problem. Left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Nate Chandler is penciled in as his replacement but he had just 40 snaps at left tackle last season. Chandler and right tackle Byron Bell both had negative grades from ProFootballFocus.com in 2013. Guard Amini Silatolu is coming back from an ACL injury and still isn't quite 100 percent. The only certainty is at center with Ryan Kalil, a very good lineman. But if the Panthers put Newton and his ankle behind a suspect offensive line, defensive coordinators will smell blood in the water and come after him, especially since his receiving corps isn't anything special. Each of the Panthers first eight games are against teams with either at least one premier pass rusher or a legendary defensive coordinator -- or both. Newton's track record suggests success (28 games with 20-plus Fantasy points over 48 regular-season games) and he remains a freak athlete, but there's a lot riding against him this season.