The Carolina Panthers have become perennial contenders in recent years. The franchise’s stars are getting older and are likely tired of being eliminated in the playoffs. With a franchise player anchoring each side of the ball, quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, time is running out on accomplishing something the Panthers have never done, winning a Super Bowl.
Carolina is coming off an 11-5 season and their fourth playoff appearance in the past five years. The Panthers realize that they have to take care of business in the difficult NFC South first. Carolina has not been able to win the NFC South in either of the past two seasons. I have seen a lot of player’s quotes of late talking about catching up and surpassing New Orleans.
The Saints handed the Panthers three of their six overall losses last season, including one in the first round of the playoffs.
It is not a secret that Carolina needs to generate more offense if they are going to keep up with New Orleans and Atlanta in the NFC South. The Panthers finished 19th in total offense in 2017. That led to Norv Turner being hired to replace former offensive coordinator Mike Shula who drew the ire of Carolina fans for being a predictable play caller.
In a division known for its elite offenses, the Panthers have too often lagged behind. They finished only 19th in total yardage in 2017. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner will try to change that. He replaces Mike Shula, whose predictability had not endeared him to Panthers fans.
Turner and Newton have some new toys to play with, most notably wide receivers Torrey Smith (acquired via trade) and D.J. Moore (the team’s No. 1 draft pick). Smith is a burner and Moore is known for how well he runs after the catch. Second-year back Christian McCaffrey, who had a strong rookie season with a team-high 80 catches out of the backfield, takes over as the lead running back. Free agent signee C.J. Anderson from Denver is also a nice addition.
The biggest question on offense will be the offensive front. The line suffered a big loss when Pro Bowl guard Andrew Norwell signed a huge deal with Jacksonville. Left tackle Matt Kalil will miss a large chunk of the season due to injury, which means there will be two new starters on the front that will attempt to protect Newton.
Newton is clearly better when he has time to make plays. Carolina has always been tough to beat when Newton plays well. As always, the Panthers need Newton to be great if it is going to be great itself.
Defensively, the Panthers should be above average. The team’s front seven has carried the defense for years and they all return in 2018. Kuechly may be the best middle linebacker in the game and does everything well. He’s as fundamentally sound as they come. But he has been in the concussion protocol in each of the past three seasons, so that is a big concern.
The Panthers rotate eight defensive linemen regularly on their front four. They finished third in the NFL in sacks in 2017 and have lots of firepower once again up front. The best pass rushers are 38-year-old Julius Peppers and Mario Addison, who anchor the defensive front at their defensive end positions. Both had 11 sacks a year ago.
The secondary, again, has question marks. Starting safety Mike Adams is now 37 years old. Top cornerback James Bradberry is also a solid player. The other two slots are wide open, which means Carolina could be vulnerable if there is not a pass rush.
Speaking of solid, Graham Gano led the NFL last season in field goal percentage while hitting on 29 of 30 field goals. He also is almost a guaranteed touchback on kickoffs.
The Panthers’ roster is not all that different from the one that finished 15-1 in 2015 and made it to the Super Bowl. Many of the core players from that memorable squad remain. But it is time to start wondering if the team is wasting the prime Newton-Kuechly years. This team could go a long way, but a lot of things have to break right. Kuechly and Newton have to stay healthy and play at an elite level. Another receiver has to step up and make plays. The offensive line has to gel and McCaffrey has to take another step forward.
If all of that happens, the Panthers could win it all. But the needs I just listed makes me think this is also a fragile roster. I just do not see it all coming together to the point that they finish atop of Atlanta or New Orleans in the increasingly difficult NFC South.
Images: Cam Newton; Norv Turner; Luke Kuechly