2014 SEASON PREVIEW:
Carolina started last season off with a 1-3 record, and much of that record was self-inflicted, especially with the Bills game. In a turnaround for the ages, the Panthers almost run the table, losing only to the Saints before hosting a playoff game, and losing to former NFC West rival San Franciso after being unable to convert third downs, again.
So we begin a new season with still questions about the offense, having lost Jordan Gross to retirement and every single receiver that has more catches than I do in the NFL. The front seven is still a bear, but the secondary is also still a weak point, and I daresay the weakest until on the team.
OL: Lets look at the offensive line, since that is where the biggest area of concern is, after everyone predicting OL in the first round to replace Gross, the Panthers will be looking to replace him with Byron Bell, who has been the starting RT for 3 years. There is a lot of flux here, but lets also keep in mind that Ryan Kalil is one of the best centers in the game, and the Panthers have had good results moving around parts last year due to injuries.
QB: Back a level we come to the Superman of team, Cam Newton, coming off a 24/13 season, Newton again lead the team in rushing TDs and second on the team in yards. His continued development is the key for this team, and his mobility takes away a lot of the uncertainty of the offensive line. I think the Panthers will be happy if Cam can get his completion percentage up another notch to 65% as long as his legs hold up.
RB: One more level back and we come to Williams and Stewart, both men who are vastly overpaid for what they do, and dinosaurs contractually. If Cam was a pocket passer, they would be great, but with him, one is a luxury and two is a cap tragedy. Both are far too overpaid to be moveable, but either can carry a team. Stewart is signed through 2017, however, and Williams is already 31 and hasn’t seen 1K yards in 4 years. Mike Tolbert is well worth every dime they pay him, and might take Steve Smith’s role as the loved jersey we see in the stands on the offense.
WR: Now we come to the postion that has gotten the most run, the WR corps. I’m not going Chicken Little on the year due to the loss of Steve Smith, and lets face it, the other losses we not exactly setting the world on fire. They will miss Smith in two roles, number one is just the plain fire he carried for football. I wrote that I would pay Steve Smith 3M (how much the Panthers will save) just to stand on the sidelines if I was an NFL owner. The other thing they will miss is his blocking. Ask the Steelers how much they missed Hines Ward when he left.
On the field? Its not like they lost Calvin Johnson- replacing 750 yards and 4 TDs is doable by any good slot man. Cotchery, for example caught more TDs than Smith and LaFell did COMBINED. I’m a bit excited to see Kelvin and how he does. Cutting Smith was a mistake, there is no doubt, but if I have a choice between keeping Gross or Steve Smith? I keep Gross, and I say that while wearing my Steve Smith Jersey. Oh, and Greg Olsen is here, a very good target in the seams and an above average blocker.
Oh this is the fun side of the ball.
The Panthers lead the league in sacks (60!) and allowed 15.1 points per game, with the weakness of the secondary, that goes to show just how great a passrush helps.
DL: On the first level, the Kraken is back, I am a bit stunned he was tagged, and even more so that he’s wanting to come back and work for a long term deal. I don’t think Hardy is worth 13M a year, I would love to see him around 10M a year- and maybe if we can move a running back, we can do that.
All that being said- Charles Johnson is also overpaid on the other side, but not much the Panthers can do about it. Dwan Edwards and Star Lotulelei are in the middle and both are doing solid work and getting enough of a push when blitzing where the Panthers don’t get killed. Star needs some work on double teams, but again, he is next to the Kraken, so eating double teams is A-OK in my book.
LB: Next up is the Man, the Myth, the Proto-Legend, Luke Kuechly. I could go on and on about how dominant he has been. I will always love Dan Morgan, but Luke has taken the position a bit more. Next to him is Thomas Davis- who came off back to back lost seasons to be a monster on one side, and on the other side they have a bit of a battle with Chase Blackburn (former Giant) coming off injury and AJ Klein who looked good, but not great. Of course, this is a great unit as long as Luke is upright.
The final level is where all the trouble is.
CB/S: The Secondary has been an issue for a while, and while Captain Munnerlyn always has been having problems getting all the credit he deserved in Carolina, he was highly serviceable back there, and Mike Mitchell is gone as well. Not happy about either one of those missing this year. Unlike the WR corps, this is a replaceable unit on paper, but that unit came together when they needed too, for the most part. Replacing them is Roman Harper and Antoine Cason and a whole bunch of castoffs. Harper is a bit old, but I would expect to see a lot of work here in the preseason, but thankfully the first few games are against Tampa, Detroit and Pitt. Other than Detroit, who is also having some turmoil, none of them have a serious downfeild threat to worry about and a O-Line to but them time. This unit, not the Wideouts is what will determine the season.
The Panthers did bring back Gano, who finally seems like he is the guy to replace Kasey, he’s also got a booming leg for kickoffs, and is comfortable going for it over 50 yards. Can’t complain either about Nortman- who is an above average punter, who needs work on his directional skills, but is still solid. The return game is going to have problems with Ginn gone, but I think its also replaceable.
Thoughts are HERE
Coming up on training camp, I really haven’t changed my opinion on matters- but Tre Boston has been impressive from reports, and Benwikere is supposed to be the Dime guy, if not a Nickel from Day 1.
I can easily see a 10/12 win season and a one and done post season again. The secondary is just too shaky, and you are not going to beat GB, SF or NO in high pressure with just a great front seven. I do think they can topple Seattle- but thats about it in the top of the NFC I’d be looking at a win against. The NFC South is vastly improved, so getting a top seed and hoping for a Philly/Seattle playoff track is going to hard to do.
Probable Losses: @Balt, @ Green Bay, @NO
Also looking at Cincy and the Finale at Atlanta to get to 11-5. If the secondary doesn’t hold up, you can throw in early games against Detroit, and Chicago that may make the wheels come off and an 8-8 record that may cause Ron to feel a bit of warmth under his seat again- and a lot of questions on that front office for the second year in a row.
EJ: Like you David, I will not Chicken Little the season because the Panthers lost a bunch of wide receivers. I also agree with you that replacing Steve Smith’s production will not be difficult, but I do think the team will feel the loss of his leadership. Cam Newton is a fine player but he’s not a leader, so it’s going to be telling to see how he meshes with his new unit. If he’s smart he’ll bond with rookie Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin is a tall receiver, that proved in college that he can catch anything thrown near to him. He should do so in the pros.
I’m not too convinced about the Panthers defense. While they have some bold faced names like Hardy and Kuechly, I don’t think the unit is that good overall. I don’t like their secondary at all. I’m not sure how it’s going to hold up to the vaunted passing offense of the Saints, the twin towers at receiver the Buccaneers have, and what should be a renewed passing attack of the Falcons under Matt Ryan.
Looking at the Panthers at first glance, I don’t see 10 wins. I see 8 wins. Looking at the schedule, and looking at this team, I see 8-8. Maybe if a few breaks go there way they can get to 10 wins, but this team feels very much like a .500 team. There is no easy out at all in their schedule, and their first 11 games look downright brutal. Schedule makers gave Carolina no favors pitting them against the AFC and NFC North divisions. Those divisions might not have elite teams, but they have teams who play hard nosed football and I can see them blooding up these Panthers. I might be too kind in saying 8-8 but I’ll give Carolina the benefit of the doubt and say .500 is where they land at.
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