Carolina Panthers 2014-15 Team Preview
The Carolina Panthers are starting to get thing together after making the postseason in 2013-14. Steve Smith was released, which sent an earthquake through the fanbase since he’s the all-time Panthers leader in all receiving categories. Smith was quickly snapped up by the Ravens and he’ll likely destroy the Panthers with reckless abandon in Week 4.
Cam Newton had offseason ankle surgery, but the Panthers D ranked only behind the Seahawks last season. The defense keeps Carolina in games, but the team has its work cut out for it if it’s to return to the playoffs.
Odds to win Superbowl: 50/1
Odds to win NFC: 25/1
Odds to win NFC South: +450
Cam Newton has an entirely different cast of receivers to air it out to. First round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood will be his new receiving corp. Newton’s best target the last two seasons has been TE Greg Olson. The Panthers will still seek to control time of possession by utilizing its ground attack, and look for a lot of low scoring totals in Carolina games..
Newton figures to be fully healthy after the ankle surgery, and he threw for more yards as a rookie in 2011 than any other in league history up to that point. He completed 61.7 percent of his passes last season and threw for 24 TDs with an 88.8 passer rating. Newton looked to run less last season, and he’ll feel a lot less pressure to fill Smith’s receiving demands. That’s was an unneeded headache for a QB still establishing his game and rising in his own right.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will enjoy having a new offensive coordinator. Stewart fought ankle injuries last season and has played just 15 games in the last two years after signing a five-year $36 million extension. Mike Tolbert had 12 rushing TDs over the last two seasons.
Williams hasn’t rushed for 1,000-plus yards since 2009 and is now 31 years old. He’s still got a lot left in the tank, and he was responsible for a lot of the clock control last year. If Stewart is healthy, the backs are going to be damage inducing to defenses.
Not a single wideout from last year’s group remains. It lacks a No.1 receiver of any sort, though the hope is that eventually Benjamin will be that kind of guy. He’s a great red zone target at 6’5”. Cotchery had a career-high 10 TDs last season and Underwood is quick. Olson, the TE, is still the best receiver that Newton has.
The OL will suffer from the loss of Gross. Bell will look to take his role on the OL and he’s got the size to do it (6’5” 340). Center Ryan Kalil will be healthy and is one of the best centers in the league. Overall, the line is going to be pretty problematic and if Newton wasn’t as mobile as he is, it would be even more apparent.
The Panthers led the NFL in sacks last season with 60 and finished second behind the champion Seahawks in yards allowed and points allowed. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will use a 4-3 base scheme.
The DL was sensational last season. Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole comprise the group. Hardy was franchise tagged after his 15 sacks last season. Hardy admitted that being a contract year motivated him, though, so it remains to be seen if he continues that type of performance. He’s posted nine or more sacks in four straight seasons. It’s hard to find a better DL in the NFL.
The LB position is also fairly well stocked. Luke Kuechly was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012 and was the DPOY of the entire league last year. He’s a monster at tackling and he thinks he can be even better, given that he had a costly pass interference call and two coverage breakdowns. He’s still bar none the best middle linebacker in the NFL.
At outside linebacker Thomas Davis and Chase Blackburn are formidable in their own rights. Fifth-round 2013 pick A.J. Klein adds further depth after proving himself last season while Blackburn was out with a foot injury.
The secondary is the only weak spot in the Panthers’ D. It features a lot of fresh blood this season, though. Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud both have made Pro Bowls and are good safeties. CB Antoine Cason was unable to claim a starting role last year, but that could change this season.
CB Melvin White was a pleasant surprise as an undrafted rookie and the Panthers used a middle round draft pick on Tre Boston, a safety; as well as another on Bene Benwikere. Both will see time this year, and the Panthers are expecting Benwikere to be very effective in nickel formations.
Graham Gano re-signed for four years, $12.4 million. Gano had 77.8 percent of his kickoffs marked as touchbacks, which is tops in the NFL since 1994. He also hit 24-of-27 FGs and all six from 50-plus yards. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 47.8 yards gross punt, and 41.6 net. The kickoff returns will be handled by RB Kenjon Barner. Overall, the special teams are pretty solid, especially given the strength of the kicking and punting.
The Panthers return its nucleus from a successful team last year. The WRs are going to miss Smith, no matter what the perception of him is. The DL and LBs will make up for having a weak secondary. A big issue will be the OL and keeping pass rushers away from Cam. If Newton goes down, this team is toast. That concern makes value betting the Panthers for anything too risky for most to consider.