Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly leads a stingy Panthers defense ready to defend its NFC South title
The Carolina Panthers shocked almost everyone with their success in 2013 — a 12–4 regular season, an NFC South championship, their first playoff berth in five years and a slew of postseason awards.
To maintain and increase that success, however, they will need to get quick contributions from a number of newcomers — especially on the offensive side.
In 2013, Carolina won for three reasons: The Panthers’ sterling defense ranked No. 2 in the NFL behind only Seattle; quarterback Cam Newton had the best season of his career; and coach Ron Rivera located his inner gambler and became “Riverboat Ron.”
The defense is paced by a front seven that returns largely intact. It includes middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who combined for 26 sacks last season. The secondary is the only real question mark on a defense that should be the Panthers’ primary strength in 2014.
The player who scored Carolina’s only TD in a 23–10 playoff loss to San Francisco — wide receiver Steve Smith, who also holds virtually all the team’s reception records — was surprisingly released. He now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. Newton’s offensive line and all-new receiving corps are both questionable, and how well new players fill those positions may determine Carolina’s fate.
Everything starts with Newton, who is coming off a season in which he set career highs in passing TDs (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8). More important, the quarterback who wasn’t great in the clutch in his first two seasons was exceptional in the final two minutes of games in 2013, leading the Panthers to four come-from-behind wins. Newton had offseason ankle surgery in March — his left ankle had obviously limited his mobility toward the end of the year — but should be ready for training camp. He says he plans to take more “ownership of the offense” this season, and he will need to step into the leadership void vacated by Smith.
The Panthers will keep allowing Newton to run 6-8 times per game because he’s such a good scrambler, but they mostly want him to throw the ball downfield instead of taking off. The questions are: Who will he throw it to most, and will he have time to throw it at all?
The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers in the offseason and have replaced them with No. 1 draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant. None of the vets is considered a No. 1 receiver. The Panthers hope Benjamin can grow into one, but that would be a tall order for a rookie. Underwood will be the speedster, Benjamin the best threat at the goal line (he’s 6'5", 241) and Cotchery and Avant the crafty possession receivers.
Newton’s favorite target likely will be sure-handed tight end Greg Olsen, one of the NFL’s better pass-catchers and one of the two players Newton looked to (Smith was the other) most of the time last season when in trouble in the pocket.
The offensive line is iffy. Jordan Gross retired after playing left tackle for years, so there’s a gaping hole there. The Panthers have moved Byron Bell from right tackle to left tackle, but Bell’s feet may not be quick enough to handle the position. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will be asked to do a lot of leading by example. He likely will have youngsters on either side of him at guard — rookie Trai Turner may start right away at right guard. Right tackle Nate Chandler is a converted defensive lineman who may struggle, but he does have good athleticism.
The Panthers like to consider themselves a running team, and they have invested a whole lot of money and draft picks in a corps of good tailbacks. The top two — DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — are aging, though, and Stewart in particular has a hard time staying healthy. Williams remains the Panthers’ best breakaway threat. Mike Tolbert is a fan favorite and a bulldozer near the goal line who can play tailback or fullback.
The Panthers used their franchise tag this season on Greg Hardy to make sure the 15-sack defensive end from 2013 didn’t get away. And despite having Johnson (11 sacks) on the other side, they still spent their second-round pick on another pass-rusher in Missouri’s Kony Ealy. “You can’t have too many pass-rushers,” GM Dave Gettleman says. “It’s impossible.”
The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks in 2013. Hardy and Johnson were so effective as bookends because the middle of the opponent’s offensive line was often pushed back into the quarterback’s face by Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who each had exemplary rookie seasons at defensive tackle. They will be counted on for even more production this season. Colin Cole, Dwan Edwards and Mario Addison are all solid D-line backups.
The Panthers' depth up front could be tested early considering the possibility of Hardy being suspended by the league following a domestic incident in July. Hardy was charged and subsequently convicted on two counts of domestic violence and was sentenced to 18 months probation (a 60-day jail term was suspended). An appeal by Hardy's lawyer is possible, which would put his probation on hold, but it's still possible that Hardy could be suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, especially given the precedent that was set in regards to Ray Rice's situation.
Kuechly is flanked by strong-side linebacker Thomas Davis, who has come back from three ACL surgeries to play some of his best football. He is as fast as Kuechly and gives Carolina a second playmaker at linebacker. While Davis and Kuechly rarely come off the field, weak-side linebacker Chase Blackburn is a run-stopper who is replaced in passing situations. Second-year linebacker A.J. Klein is rapidly improving and could take Blackburn’s spot.
The secondary has been retooled and will be attacked until it proves itself. The Panthers hope strong safety Roman Harper and free safety Thomas DeCoud have a couple of good years left. Cornerback Melvin White was an undrafted rookie free agent only a year ago, and corner Antoine Cason is new to the team, too. Charles Godfrey, trying to make the switch from safety to cornerback, may help in the slot but also might be released if he doesn’t catch on fast.
One of the strongest parts of the Panther team is led by kicker Graham Gano, who made 24-of-27 field goals last season, led the NFL with a 79.7 touchback percentage on kickoffs and was rewarded with a new contract. Punter Brad Nortman set team records for gross and net punting average. The Panthers will need to find a new returner to replace Ted Ginn. Second-year running back Kenjon Barner was expected to get the first shot, but he was traded on Aug. 19 to Philadelphia, where he will be reunited with his coach at Oregon, Chip Kelly. The Panthers will receive a seventh-round pick in next year's draft if Barner remains on the Eagles' 46-man, active roster for at least four games.
Carolina should be in almost every game due to its defense and its two franchise-level players (Newton and Kuechly). But will the Panthers be able to score enough? Carolina’s offensive line is vulnerable, and a standout wide receiver will need to emerge early. How well the secondary handles itself against the likes of Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will be the final factor in determining whether this team can repeat its NFC South championship of a year ago.