2014 Record – 7-8-1
OT Michael Oher, WR Ted Ginn, Jr., LB Shaq Thompson, WR Devin Funchess, WR Jarrett Boykin, DB Charles Tillman
RB DeAngelo Williams, DE Greg Hardy, CB James Dockery, OT Byron Bell, S Thomas DeCoud, LB Chase Blackburn, C Kevin Matthews, G Garry Williams, G Kevin Hughes and G Fernando Velasco.
The two time reigning NFC South division champs are only four seasons removed from selecting first overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. Although Cam Newton seems to have lived up to his end of the bargain, the Panthers have been on the side of good fortune in the past two seasons. A playoff victory against an Arizona team that ran out of gas at the end of the year was only possible by sneaking in as a 7-win division champ (only the second time in history of the playoffs). Newton deserved what he received in the offseason, a five year extension worth $20.8 million per year. Now, he has his work cut out for him with the loss of main target Kelvin Benjamin for the season. After missing the first two games of the season in 2014, Newton was still able to throw for over 3,000 yards and an 80+ passer rating for the fourth straight season. Surprisingly, his progression has not been on the uptick along with the Panthers success. His 21 touchdowns through the air in 2011 and 14 touchdowns on the ground set that bar pretty high.
The defensive side of the ball has been the Panther’s crutch throughout 2013 and 2014. The 2013 defensive POY Luke Kuechly will once again anchor the linebacking core which has been one of the most impactful units in the league the past two seasons. The defensive backs will be another story. Charles Tillman joined the team this offseason and will jump into a starting role off of a season-ending injury last year. Roman Harper is another veteran that will cover the strong side, but Tre Boston and Josh Norman had limited experience with the Panthers in 2014 and will need to depend on having two veteran minds to work beside.
X-Factor – Ted Ginn Jr.
When returning for an encore performance with the Panthers, Ginn Jr. was honest and said he signed with the Cardinals for the money. After 36 catches for just over 500 yards in 2013, Ginn Jr. will be an odds-on favorite target for Newton this coming season with the Benjamin out for the year. Ginn’s speed will remind Panthers’ fans of Steve Smith and will open up opportunities for rookie Devin Funchess who will draw a lot of attention from defenses all year long. Ginn will need to step up and play the veteran role they brought him back to play.
2015 Breakthrough Player – Shaq Thompson
I am a little wary of selecting the first round draft pick in this spot, but Thompson has all the tools to be a force from wherever he lines up on the defensive side of the ball. His ceiling as a playmaker on the outside in coverage as well as bullrushing the quarterback are skills that Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott have developed with Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The Panthers are continually upgrading their core, which only provides good things moving forward and take the pressure off of the offense.
9 wins. The Panthers won 12 games in route to a first round bye in the 2013 playoffs. The Panthers largest problem has been accuracy from their star quarterback. Newton, with his newly minted contract, will need to show that he can keep the offense’s momentum moving through accurate passing to a not-so-sure-handed receiving core. Although the team will win games this year, it will not be enough to make the playoffs.
5 wins. It’s a tough schedule. The Saints and the Falcons are on the rise. The Panthers will lose close division games because they can’t keep up offensively. Non division games against the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, Packers and Cowboys will all leave the Carolina faithful blue.
Week 12 @ New Orleans: The Panthers are facing back to back week versus stellar offenses starting with a date with Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys in Week 11. New Orleans has been tough at home in previous years and the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will only make the venue more formidable. Look for Newton to bring more fuel to the fire in his energetic leadership style to this game.