Last year’s winning mark of 11-5 suggests that a losing record awaits the Carolina Panthers in 2018, given that the team has alternated between going over and under the .500 mark since 2012. A new season brings a new owner, something the Panthers have never experienced since their inception in 1993, and the pressure will be on to validate the $2.3 billion that David Tepper spent on the team in May.
Before pre-season action had even began in 2017 there was controversy within the Carolina camp, as previously revered General Manager Dave Gettleman was fired in July. Many cited Gettleman’s reluctance to fork out big cash in order to keep veteran star players in Charlotte as the reason behind the move, with Thomas Davis one Panther in particular who was waiting on a deal at the time. Marty Hurney, Gettleman’s predecessor, took over as interim GM for the 2017 season.
The Panthers defense had added a number of veteran defenders such as Captain Munnerlyn, Julius Peppers and Mike Adams to its roster during the offseason, and the defense looked strong early on in the season, giving up just six points in the first two weeks as the team went 2-0.
First-round pick Christian McCaffrey looked impressive with over 100 yards in receiving in week three, but the Panthers lost 34-13 in a result that foreshadowed their fate later on in the year. The Panthers bounced back from this divisional loss with two impressive road wins in New England and Detroit, with Cam Newton logging strong performances in both.
The Panthers fell to 4-2 on Thursday Night Football the following week to the eventual Super Bowl champions, before a dismal offensive performance saw the team put up three points in a loss to Chicago. A victory over divisional rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following kick-started their playoff push, however, and the Panthers followed that win up with three straight more to leave themselves alongside the Saints at 8-3.
A crucial week NFC South matchup awaited in New Orleans, but. Alvin Kamara ran riot and the Saints won out on a scoreline of 31-21. Two difficult encounters with NFC playoff hopefuls from the North were next on Carolina’s schedule, but the Panthers escaped with two wins, beating both the Vikings and Panthers 31-24. A scrappy 22-19 win over the Buccaneers was enough to claim a playoff spot in week 16.
Despite the Buccs beating the Saints in week 17 to give Carolina a shot at the NFC title, the Panthers blew their opportunity by losing 22-10 in Atlanta, leaving them with an 11-5 and the fifth seed in the playoffs.
Wild Card weekend brought about the third Saints-Panthers matchup of the year, and the result in January failed to differ from the regular season with the Saints advancing thanks to a 31-26 victory.
The Panthers off-season has been dominated with personnel changes off the field. Along with the aforementioned change in ownership, the team has acquired new coordinators on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.
Following Mike Shula’s departure after seven years with the team, Norv Turner has been tasked with revitalizing an offense that was inconsistent in 2017. Quarterback Cam Newton was worked with Shula every year since being drafted in 2011, and will be hoping to return to his 2015 form under his new coordinator.
Turner will likely ask more of the second year Christian McCaffrey, who grew as his rookie season went on, but will now be likely tasked with a bigger workload. 10-year veteran Jonathon Stewart has moved on to the New York Giants, but post-draft free agency signing C.J Anderson has been brought in to compliment McCaffrey. Despite having two all-pros, the Panthers offensive line did struggle at times in 2017, and the loss of one of those all pros guard Andrew Norwell could be a problem. Pass catchers was always a priority for the Panthers after 2017 ended, and after trading away Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers looks stronger at receiver than last year. The team used their first-round draft pick on D.J Moore, after acquiring Torrey Smith via trade from Philly. Marty Hurney also found time to extend veteran tight end Greg Olsen.
On the defensive side of affairs, Steve Wilks left his role as coordinator to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, with defensive line coach Eric Washington promoted to replace him. Washington will be without one of his most disruptive D-Linemen of the last few years in Star Lotulelei, who joined the Bills, but will be hoping Dontari Poe can serve as a suitable replacement. Elsewhere on the defensive line, Charles Johnson was released and subsequently retired, whilst rookie Marquis Hynes will look to make an impact as an undersized yet dangerous speed rusher.
At linebacker, David Mayo is set to fill in for the suspended Thomas Davis Jr. until week five. Cornerback Daryl Worley went to Philadelphia in the deal for Torrey Smith, with his spot likely to be filled with second-round draft choice Donte Jackson, who will pair James Bradberry. Kurt Coleman was released in February after two years with the Panthers, meaning Da’Norris Searcy, signed in free agency in March will start at strong safety.
While it has the potential to be, it’s far too early to say with confidence that offense will be a point of strength for Carolina this year. The Offensive line could possibly regress with the loss of Andrew Norwell, and whilst Cam Newton does have some shiny new weapons, whether or not this attack will spark much depends on Norv Turner.
Therefore, as is the norm, it’s the front seven that stands out as Carolina’s best unit. Star Lotulelei is a significant loss, but the group that remains account for most of the teams 50 sacks from last year, the third highest figure in the league. If Luke Kuechly remains healthy, and the team survives Thomas Davis’ four-week absence, this will continue to be one of the stronger front sevens in the league.
The state of the offensive line is a worry for many Panthers fans, but the secondary could potentially be a bigger issue. James Bradberry had a huge drop off in his second season and will need to bounce back if he’s to stand as the Panthers leading cornerback. Mike Adams turned 37 in March whilst Da’Norris Searcy is entering the season on concussion protocol, meaning much pressure will be on rookie corner Donte Jackson to elevate an exposed secondary unit.
Best Case Scenario
Norv Turner finds an offensive balance that allows Cam Newton and his new weapons to shine, whilst utilizing the one-two punch of Anderson and McCaffrey to maximum effect. The offensive line holds together whilst the defensive front seven performs at a level sufficient to hide the team’s deficiencies on the back end. The Panthers can’t match New Orleans in the NFC South but sneak into the playoffs where a first-round defeat awaits.
Worst Case Scenario
The loss of Andrew Norwell proves to be too much to handle, and Cam Newton fails to get into a rhythm with his new offensive skill players. Mike Adams falls off a cliff, James Bradberry gets continually roasted by top receivers, and the Panthers regress to 6-10.
Change within an organization, from the ownership to coordinators, to the synergy of an offensive line, takes time to acclimatize to. Cam Newton starts to look like his old self again, but the overall strength of the NFC proves too much, as they fall to 8-8.