2016 NFL Season Preview: Carolina Panthers
Last season the Carolina Panthers put together the most surprising run by any team in all of sports. Most had the Panthers missing the playoffs after rookie sensation Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL before the season. However, behind arguably the NFL’s best defense and a much-improved Cam Newton, the Panthers dabbed their way to a 15-1 regular season and a trip to the Super Bowl. Despite entering the game as favorites, the flaws in a mediocre receiving core that overachieved all season finally came to light on the biggest stage. Along with a poor performance by the offensive line and what would some would call uninspired play by the league’s MVP, Carolina’s glass slipper finally came off.
During the offseason everyone knew Josh Norman’s contract situation was the only major issue that needed to be addressed. Jerry Richardson is as cheap as an owner as it gets in the NFL and was not going to overpay for a player deemed replaceable. Old man Rich rescinded the franchise tag on Norman, which allowed him to become the highest paid corner in the league with the Redskins. During the draft GM David Gettleman selected 3 corner backs in an attempt to fill the void left by Norman’s departure. The rest of the roster remains pretty much intact and with no major additions via free agency, Carolina will continue to depend on internal improvement as it looks to defend its NFC crown.
2016 Season Outlook
The return of Kelvin Benjamin has everybody in Panthers Nation excited. In his rookie year Benjamin showed plenty of promise and he has a chance to be one of the best receivers in the NFL. At 6’5, 250 lbs. Benjamin is a matchup nightmare and should be a Pro Bowl receiver this year now that he is back at full strength. Along with the development and potential of second year receiver Devin Funchess, Cam Newton has two big, athletic, physical receivers that should cause mismatches every Sunday. Also returning is Tedd Ginn Jr. who finally figured out how to catch a football in 2015 and had the best season of his career. Ginn will be used on the outside or in the slot and should have another good season with the pressures of being a #1 receiver gone. Fellow 2015 overachiever Philly Brown will also see time in the slot and should get plenty of looks downfield whenever Carolina goes play action. Last but most importantly Greg “G-Money” Olsen returns as Cam’s favorite target. Olsen has been Cam’s security blanket for years and Olsen wouldn’t be wrong if he asked to receive a small cut of Cam Newton’s contract. Like most of the Panthers, Olsen also had his best season in 2015 and although going into his tenth year, the veteran shows no signs of slowing down.
Even with an improved receiving core, the focal point of the Panthers offense will still be the running game. Jonathan Stewart is back and when healthy is one of the best running backs in the league. 2015 All-Pro Mike Tolbert returns at fullback and the offensive line remains pretty much the same, headlined by All-Pro center Ryan Kalil. With a still improving and reigning league MVP Cam Newton under center, this offense should be much improved coming off a year in which had the highest scoring average in all of football.
The Panthers defense has routinely been of one the best in the league over the past four seasons. That trend should continue despite losing All Pro corner Josh Norman in the offseason. Losing Norman may hurt but before he was being named drop by Hov and considered one of the best at his position, the Panthers defense was still one of the best throughout the NFL. The secondary will be inexperienced this season but Bene Benwikere returns after missing all of the playoffs and Kurt Coleman is also back after finishing second in interceptions last season. Rookies James Bradberry and Darly Worley will probably be pushed into starting roles and will get tested early and often this season. However, with a front seven as good as Carolina’s, head coach Ron Rivera will take his chances. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis returns as the best linebacker duo in the NFL and second year linebacker Shaq Thompson looks to improve upon a rookie year in which he more than held his own. That loaded front four is also back starring Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kony Ealy and 2015 All-Pro Kawann Short who should be more than motivated by a potential huge payday on the horizon. The Cover 3 scheme should help keep the rookie corners from getting toasted every Sunday and the defense should once again finish in the top 10 in the league.
2017 Super Bowl Champs?
Fans expecting the Panthers to duplicate its 2015 regular season run should lower those expectations. The stats will show some decline on both sides of the ball and they will lose more than one game but overall this team should be better than they were in 2015. Carolina should be a lock to win the NFC South for the fourth season in a row and they should be in the hunt to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Ultimately, if Cam Newton continues to improve and the front seven remains healthy, Carolina has as legit shot at defending their NFC title and revenging their Super Bowl loss.
Prediction: 11-5, NFC South Division Champions.