In 2014, the Carolina Panthers did something no other team in the NFC South had done before — they repeated as division champs.
Now in 2015 they will try to extend that streak to three years, relying once more on a standout defense that is the strength of the team.
In the offseason, the Panthers tried to get faster and to get quarterback Cam Newton some help for an offense that often struggled a year ago. They hope to avoid the awful start they had in 2014, when they began the season 3–8–1 and looked likely to earn a top-10 draft pick. They then ripped off five straight wins — four in the regular season and one in the playoffs over Arizona — before falling to Seattle on the road in a divisional playoff game.
The Panthers let troubled defensive end Greg Hardy leave for Dallas in free agency, but they still have the best middle linebacker in the game in Luke Kuechly. Newton and Kuechly are the faces of the franchise and will again determine much of the team’s fortunes in 2015.
The Panthers will remain a run-first offense in 2015. In the final five weeks of the 2014 regular season, Carolina ran for more yards than any other NFL team and went 4–1. That is the blueprint again this season. Bulldozer Jonathan Stewart will get the majority of the carries now that franchise leader DeAngelo Williams has been released. Newton is the Panthers’ second-best running threat — he has always been a dual-threat quarterback, although he is trying to be smarter about not taking as many hits. Fullback Mike Tolbert regressed in 2014 but will be counted on in short-yardage situations. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne will contend with scatback Fozzy Whittaker for many of the carries that Stewart doesn’t get.
The most notable change on the offensive line comes at left tackle, where Michael Oher was signed to replace Byron Bell at one of the Panthers’ problem positions. Oher was unsuccessful at his last stop in Tennessee, but the Panthers believe he still has enough in the tank to protect Newton. Center Ryan Kalil anchors the unit with professionalism and calm.
As for the passing game, it has to get more explosive. Tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin each caught 1,008 yards worth of passes in 2014 — the first time since 1999 the Panthers had two 1,000-yard receivers. They will be the primary targets for Newton again this season. Olsen is a Pro Bowler who catches everything; Benjamin has some problems with drops but also has a knack for the spectacular.
But neither Olsen nor Benjamin are deep threats. The Panthers had success with Ted Ginn Jr. in that role in 2013, and after he disappointed in Arizona in 2014, they have re-signed him to do the same thing. Second-round draft pick Devin Funchess will play a lot early at the other wideout, but he’s a big receiver with medium speed, similar to Benjamin. Corey Brown also will be counted on to run some deep routes, and Stephen Hill will get a chance, too. Second tight end Ed Dickson has good hands and, like Olsen, signed a new deal in the offseason.
As for Newton, he remains an incredible athlete and has become a much better leader. But he still has occasional problems with his accuracy and throwing mechanics. Unlike 2014, however, Newton has been healthy throughout the offseason, which should help. The Panthers also showed their commitment to their franchise quarterback by signing Newton to a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension in early June.
It starts with the linebackers — Carolina believes it may have the best tandem in the game in Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Those two never come off the field, and they chase down so many plays from sideline to sideline that potential 20-yard gains for the opposition are often getting turned into 4-yard plays. Kuechly’s form tackling should be studied by every youth football player.
Shaq Thompson, the team’s first-round draft pick, is a versatile athlete (he also gained 456 yards as a running back in his last year at Washington) who may start at weak-side linebacker right away over A.J. Klein — if Thompson can show he has the strength to get off blocks.
The defensive front loses Hardy, but it didn’t have the erratic defensive end for 15 games in 2014, either, due to a domestic violence issue. Second-year end Kony Ealy will need to step up his game to help replace Hardy, with Wes Horton and Mario Addison also helping out. The other defensive end, Charles Johnson, is winding down his career but is still a bull-rushing force when single-blocked. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was not a star in 2014 after a great rookie year, and the Panthers need a more consistent performance from him in his third season. Kawann Short may be poised for a breakout season at the other defensive tackle spot.
The secondary was the team’s weak spot for most of last season and remains a little iffy. Cornerback Josh Norman is emerging as one of the best cover corners in the NFC, but the second corner spot may need to be filled by Charles “Peanut” Tillman if he can still run fast enough to do it. Bene Benwikere is more naturally suited to the nickel cornerback role and will play there. Safety Roman Harper has lost a step but is still crafty. Free safety Tre Boston has speed but makes too many youthful mistakes.
Carolina is one of only three NFL teams to boast a top-10 defense in each of the past three seasons (Seattle and San Francisco are the others). If the Panthers are going to make the playoffs again, they will need a fourth straight year in the top 10.
Carolina took a step back in 2014 on special teams, and it cost the team several times. Most notably, the Panthers had two punts blocked — and both ended up going for Minnesota touchdowns in a nasty loss to the Vikings. General manager Dave Gettleman made a point in the offseason of signing several players who will be contributors on the coverage and return units and also brought back Ginn to return punts. Kicker Graham Gano had the best touchback percentage in the league last season (77.2) and has such a strong leg that a 65-yard field goal is not out of the question — although he did miss a couple of key field goals last year. Punter Brad Nortman and long snapper J.J. Jansen are solid.
The Panthers are fortunate to play in a division without a great team, and the early part of the schedule looks soft enough that they should start at least 3–1. An Oct. 18 road trip to Seattle — the team that has been the Panthers’ bugaboo ever since Russell Wilson arrived — will be critical.
Newton’s play will be as important as ever, but the Panthers also need at least one more playmaker on offense and hope Funchess can be that guy. A stout defense will keep Carolina in nearly every game. This is a team that should contend for a third straight playoff berth but will need to improve offensively if it is going to advance far in the postseason.