Can the Carolina Panthers possibly be that good again? That’s the overriding question for a team that won 17 games in 2015, flirted with an undefeated regular season, employed the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and won the NFC Championship Game by an astonishing 34 points before falling to Denver in the Super Bowl.
It is hard to imagine another 15-1 regular season given the Panthers’ schedule, which starts with a Super Bowl rematch at Denver. But Carolina still has the league’s reigning MVP in Cam Newton and one of the NFL’s best defensive players in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The Panthers let cornerback Josh Norman walk, but virtually every other key piece is back from a team that led the NFL in total points, interceptions and total takeaways last season. Carolina will clearly be the favorite to win the NFC South for the fourth year in a row and will have a decent shot at returning to the Super Bowl.
It all starts with Newton, who has emerged as one of the top players in the league. Even without his top receiver Kelvin Benjamin (torn ACL) in 2015, Newton accounted for 45 touchdowns (35 pass, 10 run) and directed the Panthers to an NFL-high 31.2 points per game. He gets Benjamin back this season, giving Newton one more big red-zone target on an offense that otherwise returns basically intact.
What Newton did last season was spread the ball beautifully around an average corps of wide receivers. He will need to maintain that mentality in 2016, because the quarterback can understandably have a tendency to throw toward Benjamin or Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen in every difficult situation. Those two will remain Newton’s top targets, but wide receivers Ted Ginn (a career-high 10 TDs in 2015) and Philly Brown add the needed speed element. Second-year man Devin Funchess dropped too many balls as a rookie but came on late in the year and has a chance to start at the No. 2 receiver position.
The Panthers rushed for at least 100 yards in every game in 2015, and the most predictable part of every Carolina game is running back Jonathan Stewart getting the ball on the first offensive snap. The Panthers love to get Stewart — who made his first Pro Bowl in 2015 — going early. He is a hard, physical but somewhat injury-prone runner. The Panthers would like Cameron Artis-Payne to emerge as the clear No. 2 back in his second season out of Auburn, because there are typically going to be a couple of games that Stewart can’t play. Bowling ball fullback Mike Tolbert is an underrated receiver out of the backfield and good in short-yardage situations, although no one is better than Newton on third-and-1. Carolina’s greatest fear would be a season-ending injury to Newton; backup Derek Anderson is an accurate passer, but he doesn’t bring the running dimension that Newton does.
The offensive line benefits from Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil’s steady leadership and has a rising star in steamrolling guard Trai Turner. Left tackle Michael Oher enjoyed a career rebirth in 2015, which resulted in him signing a three-year contract extension on June 17 that is worth $21.6 million in new money ($9.5 million guaranteed). The weakest part of the line was obvious in the past Super Bowl, when right tackle Mike Remmers allowed Von Miller to have his way with Newton and turn the entire game with two strip-sacks that ultimately accounted for 15 of Denver’s 24 points. The Panthers believe Remmers is good enough to hold the fort, though, and plan to start him again.
The Panthers are pretty good everywhere, but the strength of their defense is No. 58 and No. 59. Thomas Davis and Kuechly form the best linebacker tandem in football, making one potential big gain after another evaporate with their side-to-side speed and instincts. While Kuechly has the better first step and recognizes what the opposing quarterback is trying to do as well as anyone, Davis plays on instincts and is a huge hitter. Both are strong in pass coverage (four INTs apiece in 2015) and never come off the field; Davis even played in the Super Bowl with a broken arm. Kuechly had offseason shoulder surgery but should be fine for training camp.
Carolina at first stuck a franchise tag on Norman and then let him walk in the offseason, a controversial move that will be debated throughout the year as the Panthers attempt to find a replacement. General manager Dave Gettleman picked three consecutive cornerbacks in the 2016 draft, and coach Ron Rivera may be forced start one of them. James Bradberry or Daryl Worley are the leading candidates but would have to beat out Robert McClain — a late-season pickup in 2015 who played decently throughout the playoff run. Bene Benwikere will inherit the No. 1 cornerback role, but the Panthers will play a lot of Cover-2 throughout the season to make sure their young and inexperienced corps doesn’t get exposed too badly. Nickel corner Brandon Boykin will help inside.
Where the Panthers put their money on defense is primarily in the front seven. “Big men allow you to compete,” Gettleman often says, quoting his former mentor Tom Coughlin, and so the Panthers are constantly restocking 320-pounders. Kawann Short has become a star — he had 11 sacks in 2015, which was a team record for a defensive tackle. He got a number of those because fellow tackle Star Lotulelei was taking on two blockers and doing a lot of the dirty work inside. Defensive end Charles Johnson did the Panthers a favor by re-signing with the team for substantially less money than he could have made elsewhere. No. 1 draft pick Vernon Butler and free-agent pickup Paul Soliai will join the rotation at tackle right away. Kony Ealy has been an off-and-on player in his career, but his upside is huge. Ealy’s three-sack, two-turnover game in the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning likely would have won him MVP honors had Carolina won.
Carolina is trying to save money in the defensive backfield, where Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston are both playing under modest contracts at safety. Boston is fast and Coleman is a ball hawk (seven INTs in ’15), but the secondary will need a strong pass rush to help it out in 2016.
Graham Gano has one of the NFL’s strongest legs and set a team record for points (146) in 2015, but the Panthers have to get better at protecting him. Four of Gano’s six misses last season were blocked. The Panthers will have a new punter — either Swayze Waters or former Charger Mike Scifres. Ginn is still fast and remains a fine punt returner, while backup running back Fozzy Whittaker is just an average kickoff returner. Long snapper J.J. Jansen is automatic.
Carolina hasn’t changed much from the team that made the last Super Bowl. As long as Newton and Kuechly stay healthy, it’s hard to imagine that the Panthers won’t make the playoffs. How far they go will depend on whether the revamped secondary can hold its own and if Newton can continue to be the best player on the field like he was for most of last season.