By John Moore
The Carolina Panthers aren’t going to go 15-1 again. Of course no one thought they would win 15 games last year, however. Everything nearly went right, until they lost to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The good news is they have the league’s reigning MVP in quarterback Cam Newton, who is getting his top wideout, Kelvin Benjamin, back. The Panthers won’t have the benefit of surprising teams again, and it’s not like they’ll try to surprise anyone on offense. They’ll remain the same run-first, ball-control team that somehow led the NFL in points scored. The shocking decision to let Josh Norman out of his franchise tag opened a big void in the secondary, and the Panthers are now facing an entire rebuild at cornerback. Fortunately for them, the front-seven should remain one of the most lethal forces in the game. They might not have elite edge rushers, but the interior of the defensive line will be a nightmare for many opposing quarterbacks. Behind those big bodies, Linebacker Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson can roam free, ready to make plays all over the field.
For the second time since 2014, Coach Ron Rivera comes into a season as the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. There may not be a better player’s coach in the league, as a former Bears linebacker he has mastered the difficult balance of keeping control while allowing his veteran to police the locker room. Much to the benefit of the Panthers, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was again passed over for other teams’ top jobs. Panthers defense, along with Seattle’s are the only defenses to finish in the top 10 of yards allowed for the past four season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has an undervalued mind and has enough weapons to toy with opposing defenses.
It all came together for Newton in 2015, his league-leading 45 total touchdowns sparked the Panthers to a 15-1 regular-season record and earned him NFL MVP honors. He dominated defenses while becoming the first player in league history with 35 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns and a rating of 99.4. Jonathan Stewart thrived in his first season as Carolina’s workhorse. The Panthers have to start planning for life after Stewart, but the other backs on the roster aren’t full-time guys. Fozzy Whittaker is a good change of pace option, but he’s injury prone and Cameron Artis-Payne is just OK. Benjamin’s second season was cut short when he tore his ACL during training camp, but he is expected to be ready for this season. Even though he didn’t replicate Benjamin’s success as a rookie, there is plenty to talk about Devin Funchess’ development. Despite getting Kelvin back, Newton’s favorite target will remain in tight end, Greg Olsen, coming off another consecutive 1,000-yard season. Michael Oher solidified himself as the Panthers left tackle and will guarding Newton’s blindside for the near future. Second-year right guard, Trai Turner picked up a Pro-Bowl spot and left guard Andrew Norwell just missed it. Carolina’s line continues to be anchored by five-time Pro-Bowler center, Ryan Kalil.
The surprise decision to let Pro-Bowler cornerback Josh Norman walk, have forced them to overreach in the draft. Caroline spent three straight choices on corners, using a second round pick on James Bradberry, then trading up in the third to grab Daryl Worley, then using their fifth-round choice on Zach Sanchez. There’s a decent chance that either Bradberry or Worley will end up starting the season across from Bene Benwikere, who broke his ankle in December. They did sign free agent Brandon Boykin, who will fill in the slot position. Behind the corners is free safety Kurt Coleman, whose seven interceptions during his first season in Carolina tied for the NFC lead. Not signing veteran Roman Harper back, it will allow Tre Boston to regain his starting job.
The last time the losing team from the previous season’s Super Bowl went back to the big game was the Buffalo Bills in 1993. The fact that 23 years have passed since it happened, again shows the Super Bowl hangover is real and dangerous. The Panthers seem to have all the piece in place to make another deep run, but there’s a prevailing sense that the opportunity was lost this past February. They played their worst game at the worst time., they’ll need to move on from that before they can repeat as NFC champs.