The Carolina Panthers appeared to have a playoff berth well in hand at the midpoint of the 2018 season at 6–2. Then everything disintegrated. Cam Newton hurt his throwing shoulder (again). The defense suddenly looked old and predictable. The Panthers went a disastrous 1–7 over the season's second half, which dropped them to 7–9 and out of the postseason.
The offseason understandably saw major changes in both the locker room and the Panthers' on-field leadership, as old-guard players such as center Ryan Kalil, linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Julius Peppers all either retired or changed teams.
But the Panthers have some dynamic offensive weapons and usually are solid on defense, which is largely why the team has made the playoffs four times in the past six years. Young players such as running back Christian McCaffrey, wide receiver DJ Moore and cornerback Donte Jackson are all capable of Pro Bowl-type seasons.
Newton, now 30, has had two surgeries in less than three years on his throwing shoulder. His repaired right arm once again holds the key to a lot of the Panthers' fortunes. Newton embraced offensive coordinator Norv Turner's admonition to get the ball out quicker in 2018, which resulted in a career-high 67.9 percent completion rate before he was sidelined for the season's final two games with lingering shoulder trouble.
The Panthers' backup QB plan improved when the team drafted West Virginia's Will Grier in the third round, but Grier doesn't have Newton's natural arm strength and will also be learning the system from scratch. Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke, who both started a game in Newton's stead last season, will also compete for the No. 2 job.
Newton will play in front of an offensive line that may have a rookie at left tackle in Greg Little and a first-year Panther — veteran Matt Paradis, an expensive replacement for Ryan Kalil — at center who will be counted on to be a vocal leader.
Taylor Moton has quick enough feet to play either tackle spot, but he will likely start on the right side if Little works out. Daryl Williams, who had a knee injury that scuttled 2018, could also be a factor at tackle if he can stay healthy. Moton and Williams are also capable of playing left guard, and one of them may well do so as Carolina strives to get its five best linemen on the field at the same time. Right guard Trai Turner is a bulldozer.
Newton has a bevy of weapons at his disposal. McCaffrey set an NFL record for running backs with 107 receptions in 2018, and no RB in the league runs better routes out of the backfield. His elusiveness makes him elite, but the Panthers want to give him a little more rest in 2019, especially on downs when the tailback is called upon to pass block. Moore is a fierce runner after the catch and should get the ball more in 2019 as the Panthers attempt to make him their clear No. 1 wide receiver.
Tight end Greg Olsen used to be Newton's favorite target and has some of the best hands in team history, but the quarterback has had to live without him for 16 of the last 32 games because of Olsen's foot injuries. If Olsen can play all season, the Panthers' third-down conversion percentage will undoubtedly improve. Second-year tight end Ian Thomas has shown flashes but is raw.
At the second and third receiver spots, the Panthers will likely use speedster Curtis Samuel and free agent acquisition Chris Hogan, formerly of New England. Samuel scored a touchdown every 6.7 touches from scrimmage in 2018 and has to get the ball more often. Hogan is also a threat on deep balls and can be used in the slot, too, where crafty Jarius Wright also makes an occasional key contribution.
After ranking among the top six in the NFL in sacks from 2015-17 and disguising what was too often an average secondary with that pass rush, the Panthers plummeted to 27th in sacks in 2018. In an NFC South brimming with effective quarterbacks, that exposed a secondary that was burned too often.
The secondary's personnel will be largely unchanged, but the Panthers hope that the pass rush will be enhanced with the addition of No. 1 pick Brian Burns, a speedy edge rusher from Florida State. Burns will have a shot at substantial playing time right away with the retirement of Peppers. The Panthers also signed veteran defensive end Bruce Irvin, who is trying to wrangle one more good year out of his 31-year-old body. Irvin's best seasons came in Seattle.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera stripped defensive coordinator Eric Washington of some of his power late in the 2018 season when Rivera took over as the defensive signal caller for the final four games in the midst of what became a seven-game losing streak. That curious arrangement will extend to this year, with Washington still retaining the coordinator title and supervising the front seven but Rivera — who made his NFL bones as a DC — calling the game.
The Panthers have to get more out of highly paid defensive tackle Kawann Short, whose three sacks in 2018 were the fewest he's had since his rookie year (2013). The same goes for Dontari Poe, who was Carolina's big-money free agent signing in 2018 but wasn't nearly disruptive enough up the middle (which is the best way to attack a quarterback like Drew Brees of the Saints). Defensive end Mario Addison is the Panthers' most consistent pass rusher and has had at least nine sacks for each of the past three seasons.
The team also signed former Tampa Bay stalwart Gerald McCoy after he was released in late May in a cost-cutting move. McCoy played nine seasons for the Buccaneers where he was a three-time, first-team All-Pro three times and six-time Pro Bowler. His addition could pay off big dividends for Carolina's defensive line.
Luke Kuechly is clearly the Panthers' best player on defense, and his combination of speed and brains is almost unprecedented. He won't have Davis beside him this year, but outside linebacker Shaq Thompson still has some upside that he has yet to tap.
The secondary will be bolstered by the three-year contract signed by Eric Reid, the hard-hitting strong safety who is best known for joining Colin Kaepernick's protest of social inequality. A strong season from Reid would go a long way toward shoring up Carolina's last line of defense. The other safety spot is up for grabs, with Rashaan Gaulden having an inside track due to his athleticism.
Jackson, a speedy cornerback, has a little Josh Norman in him in terms of his swagger and his locker room quotability. Jackson is a gambler and had a team-high four interceptions last season as a rookie, but he also sometimes gets beat when he shouldn't. The other starter is James Bradberry, who isn't as fast as Jackson and doesn't have the same knack for interceptions, either. But he's big enough to wrestle with the NFC South's top receivers off the line. Nickel corner will be up for grabs, with Corn Elder having a slight edge.
Graham Gano still has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, as evidenced by the 63-yard field goal he hit against the Giants in October 2018 to win a game with one second left. Gano missed the end of 2018 with a left knee injury but is expected to return at full strength. Punter Michael Palardy is very consistent. Long snapper J.J. Jansen enters his 11th year doing his one thing very well. The kickoff and punt returner jobs are in flux. Rashad Ross, a burner who starred in the very brief existence of the AAF, could make the team as a return specialist.
If Newton and Kuechly stay healthy and get some solid contributions from the youngsters — particularly McCaffrey and Moore — the Panthers will once again be relevant in the NFC. If it all goes south again, however, Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney will both be very concerned about their job security. Owner David Tepper likes to shake up the status quo when he believes it is justified, and he didn't buy the team before the 2018 season to miss the playoffs two years in a row.