Carolina_Panthers_logoCarolina Panthers fans in recent years never know what to expect. Just over the two prior seasons, the team’s climb was rapid. Rapid to the point that they were in the Super Bowl. Their fall last year was even steeper.

The fall leaves the franchise at a crossroads. Do they return to playoff football with many of the old players who were in the 2016 Super Bowl? Can they climb back to the top with these aging veterans that will be joined by some talented rookies?

Actually, ‘the old’ is not all that old. Quarterback Cam Newton turned 28 in May and will be entering his seventh NFL season. He clearly took a couple of steps backward in 2016, suffering a career low in completion percentage as the Panthers stumbled to a 6–10 record after Newton was named league MVP leading the Panthers to a 15-1 record in 2015. Newton has the additional stress of coming back from recent surgery on his throwing shoulder.

The ‘new’ within the roster include a pair of talented rookies, Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. The rookie duo will see the field early and often as Carolina made it clear they want more speed and playmakers offensively. In other words, Newton needs some weapons.

Other newcomers to the roster include a return to the past and some help on the offensive line.

Defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn return to the Panthers. Left tackle Matt Kalil became the most expensive free-agent gamble in Carolina history when he joined brother Ryan on the Panthers in a five-year, $55.5 million contract. The plan is for the Kalil brothers to play a huge part in protecting Newton. NFL statistics point out that the Carolina quarterback has been hit, by far, more than any other signalcaller in the league over the past two seasons.

The newcomers on offense should pay immediate dividends. The Panthers scored more points than anyone in 2015. Last season, they were 15th in the NFL while scoring eight fewer points a game. How important is that, you ask? Carolina lost six games in 2016 by three points or fewer.

Another of the ‘old’ returnees is runningback Jonathan Stewart. He returns but is nearing the twilight of his career at age 30 and in his 10th year in the NFL. McCaffrey, the heir apparent, is more elusive and better in space but not as effective in between the tackles. Both should mesh well together.

The offense will open up a bit more in 2017 as they try to incorporate Samuel into the passing attack. The plan is to use more three-wide sets and have Samuel use his speed to open up the field. Open up the field for the runningbacks and for the likes of WR Kelvin Benjamin and Pro-Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.

Not much has been done to the defense in the offseason. It should improve on its own if the offense can stay on the field longer and score more points. Leading the way again will be Pro Bowl linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The duo will be playing behind a defensive front that played a large part in the Panthers finishing second in the NFL in sacks last year with 47.

The Panthers next big defensive star could be cornerback James Bradberry, who steadily improved as a rookie and enters his second season as the closest thing to a true cover corner that the Panthers have. Carolina’s secondary was burned repeatedly in the first part of 2016 as it tried to make up for the loss of Josh Norman but Bradberry and fellow 2016 draft pick Daryl Worley both got better as the season progressed. They can only get better.

There have been a number of changes, but the key to the season will be Newton. First of all, he has to make a full recovery. Secondly, he has to change his style of play and learn to use his new weapons effectively. He has to get rid of the ball quicker with shorter passes instead of constantly looking downfield for the big play. He has to move the chains and keep the defense off the field.

Carolina has surrounded Newton with a good team, but it will only see playoff action if he can return somewhere near the level he played throughout 2015 prior to the Super Bowl. If he cannot, Carolina will end up with seven or eight wins.

Cam Newton