It’s very likely that 2017 is the year we’ll get the best handle on what the Carolina Panthers are. It’s unlikely they’ll reach the dizzying heights of a 15-1 season with a trip to the Super Bowl like they did in 2015. On the flip side of the coin, this campaign shouldn’t be as disappointing as the 6-10, 2016 one. Which extreme they land closer to in 2017 will play a big role in shaping the future in Charlotte. Is the 2017 group capable of a return to January football?
The Super Bowl hangover was alive and well for Ron Rivera’s group. Carolina coughed up a fourth quarter lead in Denver to lose 21-20 in week one, and never really recovered. The defense gave away points at a torrential pace their offense couldn’t keep up with. Three straight losses to their three divisional rivals in October dropped the Panthers to 1-5, sealing any fate they had of a playoff berth. They went 5-5 over their final 10 games, but by then, the damage was done.
Cam Newton was not himself last season. The 2015 NFL MVP had a completion percentage of just 52.9% with a concerning touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-14. To make matters worse, standout linebacker Luke Kuechly suffered a season-ending injury after just ten games. Newton didn’t have his stuff, and Super Bowl 50 standout Kony Ealy didn’t make the huge year-three strides the fans there were hoping for.
These three guys were a microcosm of the entire season. Big regression from 2015.
Carolina made a pair of free agent signings from the team they’ll play in week 14 this season, the Minnesota Vikings. Tackle Matt Kalil signed for 55 million dollars over five years to link up with his brother, and fellow offensive lineman, Ryan Kalil. Captain Munnerlyn returns to the team after a five-year stint at the beginning of his career, this time on a four-year contract. Continuing to turn the clock back, the Panthers re-signed one of their best ever defensive players in Julius Peppers. The second overall draft pick from 2002 registered 81 sacks during his time with the Panthers, and now he returns as a seasoned veteran.
The aforementioned Kony Ealy was dealt to the Patriots with a third round draft pick in exchange for New England’s second round pick, which was used on offensive guard Taylor Moton.
Speaking of the draft, the Panthers doubled down on offense. Their first two picks were both skill position guys. Explosive Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey went eighth overall, and running back/wide receiver hybrid Curtis Samuel was taken 42nd overall. They finally went defense in the third round, taking Texas A&M defensive end Daeshon Hall off the board.
And, of course, when it comes to off-season changes, we’d by amiss not to mention GM David Gettleman, who was relieved of his duties just weeks before the start of training camp after five seasons.
Despite all the struggles last season, the Panthers actually finished top ten in the NFL in rushing offense. Jonathan Stewart led the way with 824 yards and nine touchdowns. From there, the RB2 was a committee, but an effective one between Fozzy Whittaker, Cameron-Artis Payne, and of course Cam Newton chipping in quite a bit.
Tight end Greg Olsen was probably the biggest bright spot of the down year though. He became the first tight end in NFL history with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, and Kelvin Benjamin wasn’t far behind with 941 yards. Scoring points wasn’t the issue.
The linebacking corps is also really strong with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis being the two leading tacklers on the team last season. Shaq Thompson played a nice complimentary role to the duo as well. Kawann Short will play the 2017 season under the franchise tag after a serviceable 2016, and last season’s team leader in sacks, Mario Addison, is back after signing a contract extension. If nothing else, opposing quarterbacks should feel the heat at times.
In a turn of events that surprised absolutely nobody, “replacing” Josh Norman by throwing a lot of cornerbacks at the wall and hoping one of them stuck somehow didn’t work out. Carolina came 29th in pass defense last season. Opposing quarterbacks were able to pass hog wild on them with little resistance. Between James Badberry, Daryl Worley, Zack Sanchez, none of the 2016 draftees could right the ship. Captain Munnerlyn is going to have to provide a veteran leadership for these young guns in 2017 for this unit to show any tangible improvement.
The clear lack of a #2 wide receiver after Kelvin Benjamin was also a major concern. Ted Ginn Jr. is a gadget guy at best, and from there you have to look at Devin Funchess being pressed into service as the #2 man. This is taking nothing away from Greg Olsen, but part of the reason he continues to get 1,000-yard seasons is that he is forced into action because there is nowhere near enough depth in this wide receiver unit. Cam Newton is in desperate need of some help in the shape of targets.
Best Case Scenario
Cam Newton returns to his 2015 form. The secondary manages to do just enough to keep teams from being able to pass like crazy, and the linebackers stuff out the run game. Christian McCaffrey lives up to his top-ten pick billing and provides a dynamic threat in Mike Shula’s offense. The Falcons suffer a similar Super Bowl hangover to their own in 2016, allowing Carolina to re-claim the NFC South. 11-5, first in the NFC South, lose in divisional round.
Worst Case Scenario
Nobody can really get back to the dominant form of 2015. Cam Newton continues to struggle with his accuracy. Carolina’s offense first approach to the draft comes back to bite them as the defense struggles mightily yet again. Luke Kuechly’s season-ending injury last year becomes a reoccurring theme. The deepest division in the NFL eats them alive, as the Panthers crash to another poor finish. 6-10, fourth in NFC South.
Cam Newton is pretty good, but still not at his MVP level. Carolina’s secondary is better with a trio of cornerbacks now having a year of NFL experience under their belts. I think Christian McCaffrey is going to be an absolute game breaker that changes the offense. Kawann Short will register a big year as he looks for big money next offseason. The Panthers are better, but not quite good enough to crack the top two in this brutal division. 9-7, third in NFC South.