The Carolina Panthers have done a lot of good things in the recent past. But they are focused on what they have never accomplished -- winning a Super Bowl.
With a franchise player anchoring each side of the ball -- quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly -- the Panthers once again look the part of a contender. They are coming off an 11-5 season and their fourth playoff appearance in the past five years.
But Carolina also has not been able to win the NFC South in either of the past two seasons, and that’s what most of the offseason has been about for this team. Carolina wants to catch up to and surpass New Orleans -- the Saints handed the Panthers three of their six overall losses last season, including one in the first round of the playoffs. They want to maintain the slight edge they held last year over Atlanta. To do that, they have tried to get younger, faster and more dynamic on both sides of the ball.
In a division known for its elite offenses, the Panthers have too often lagged behind. They finished only 19th in total yardage in 2017. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner will try to change that. He replaces Mike Shula, whose predictability had not endeared him to Panthers fans.
Turner and quarterback Cam Newton have some new toys to play with -- most notably wide receivers Torrey Smith (acquired via trade) and D.J. Moore (the team’s No. 1 draft pick). Smith is a burner who is supposed to make up for the absence of Ted Ginn Jr., a player Carolina never should have let get away. Moore is notable for how well he runs after the catch. “He’s like a running back when he gets the ball in his hands,” says Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who is back for his second stint with the team. New slot receiver Jarius Wright will also add to a unit whose best returning receivers are two big targets -- Devin Funchess and tight end Greg Olsen, who missed most of last season with a foot injury but is known to have the best hands on the team.
The skill-position remake continues in the backfield, where franchise-leading running back Jonathan Stewart was released. That will mean more touches for Christian McCaffrey, who had a strong rookie season with a team-high 80 catches out of the backfield but too often went down on first contact when he was running the ball. The Panthers signed C.J. Anderson in May, and the 5'8", 224-pound former Bronco should serve as a nice complement to the 205-pound McCaffrey. Fourth-year pro Cameron Artis-Payne has shown a few flashes in limited work.
The offensive line suffered a big loss when Pro Bowl guard Andrew Norwell signed a huge deal with Jacksonville. The Panthers had decided they weren’t going to pay big money to two guards, though, and already had inked a large contract with Trai Turner. So they will try to fill Norwell’s starting spot on the cheap, perhaps with Tyler Larsen. Left tackle Matt Kalil was decent in 2017 in his first year protecting Newton’s blind side and is locked in with a huge contract there. Talented older brother Ryan Kalil, the Panthers’ center, has already announced that 2018 will be his final season and will try to squeeze one more year out of his body. Right tackle Daryl Williams is an up-and-coming steamroller who was second-team All-Pro last year.
Ultimately, though, so much of the offense rests on Newton’s shoulders. He set a career high in rushing yards in 2017, but his throwing (often off the mark and high) left a lot to be desired at times. Coach Ron Rivera hired Turner in large part because of his reputation as a “quarterback whisperer.” As usual, this team needs Newton to be great if it is going to be great itself.
Many NFL teams envy the Panthers’ defensive front seven, widely regarded as one of the best. That’s where Carolina has sunk most of its money over the years on defense, counting on a superb pass rush and the speed of its linebackers to cover up mistakes in the secondary. The system has been successful enough that the team’s last two defensive coordinators (Sean McDermott and Steve Wilks) are now NFL head coaches. Former defensive line coach Eric Washington takes over as the new coordinator this season, although the system will remain.
The Panthers return almost everyone from that front seven but will have to compensate for the loss of Pro Bowl outside linebacker Thomas Davis for the first four games of the season due to an NFL suspension. That means more time for Shaq Thompson and David Mayo, two young linebackers who have shown steady improvement. Thompson, in particular, has similar speed to Davis. Luke Kuechly may be the best middle linebacker in the game and does everything well. He’s as fundamentally sound as they come. But he has been in the concussion protocol in each of the past three seasons, so that is a big concern.
The Panthers rotate eight defensive linemen regularly on their front four. They finished third in the NFL in sacks in 2017 and have lots of firepower once again up front. The best pass rushers are 38-year-old Julius Peppers and Mario Addison, who bookend each other at defensive end and tied for the team lead in sacks last year with 11 apiece. Kawann Short is one of the most effective defensive tackles in the NFL and is particularly adept at pushing the pocket. The Panthers lost Star Lotulelei to free agency but replaced him with another inside behemoth in Dontari Poe. They hope Poe will be a bit of an athletic upgrade.
The secondary, again, is the biggest question. Starting safety Mike Adams is 37. Top cornerback James Bradberry doesn’t make a lot of big plays. The second cornerback slot is open and could be filled by rookie Donte Jackson, a 4.32 speed guy whose size (5'11", 175) means that teams will test him in run support. Jackson also could be a nickel corner, where the Panthers already have veteran Captain Munnerlyn. Free-agent corner Ross Cockrell will also compete for time, as will Da’Norris Searcy and rookie Rashaan Gaulden.
All in all, this is an iffy group to throw out against the likes of Drew Brees and Matt Ryan, and how well the secondary holds up could well determine how far the Panthers go.
Placekicker Graham Gano signed another contract extension in the offseason, one that he earned with one of the best statistical seasons in franchise history. Gano made 29-of-30 field goal attempts in 2017, leading the NFL with a 96.7 percentage. He also is almost a guaranteed touchback on kickoffs. Punter Michael Palardy doesn’t quite have those kinds of numbers but is a solid directional punter who had 25 kicks inside the 20 last season and only four touchbacks.
Carolina has dabbled with McCaffrey as a punt returner, but it hasn’t worked out as well as the Panthers hoped. So they will probably try a variety of players at the spot, including speedster Damiere Byrd. Jackson may also figure into the mix with his blazing speed, at either punt or kickoff return (where Fozzy Whittaker is decent but not a home run threat).
The Panthers don’t look that much different on paper from the team that finished 15-1 in 2015 and made it to the Super Bowl. Many of the core players from that memorable squad remain. But it is fair for Panthers fans to wonder if the team is wasting the prime Newton-Kuechly years. Personnel holes and various injuries in the secondary, at wide receiver and in the offensive line have hamstrung much of the past two seasons -- and Newton has never totally regained his NFL MVP form of 2015, either.
This team could go a long way, but a lot of things have to break right. Kuechly and Newton have to stay healthy and play at an elite level. Another legitimate receiving threat must emerge. The secondary has to be better. McCaffrey has to take another step forward.
If all of that happens, the Panthers could win it all. More likely, this is a team that will remain in the postseason picture in the increasingly difficult NFC South.