At the start of the 2016 NFL season, the Panthers were on top of the world. Everyone seemed to have them either playing in the NFC championship or winning the Super Bowl.
Oh, those were the good times.
Fast forward to February and the Panthers are sitting on the couch at home after finishing the year a dismal 6-10.
Yeah, life comes at you fast.
On the flip side, the 2017 campaign looks bright for the Carolina Panthers after landing some playmakers on both sides of the ball. Will the Panthers return to the top of the mountain as championship contenders?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Panthers entered the 2016 season with high expectations. The Super Bowl hangover began after coughing up a 4th quarter lead to lose to Denver 21-20 in the NFL kickoff game. They never really recovered after that.
Three straight losses to their three division rivals dropped them to 1-5. Carolina were 2-6 in games decided by 3 points or less. The defense, which was very young in the secondary, gave up a horrific amount of yardage and points. Injuries were stacking up on offense. The offensive line was a mess with inexperienced players in place for C Ryan Kalil and T Michael Oher. Jonathan Stewart missed almost quarter of the year with an ankle injury. Reigning league MVP Cam Newton suffered a concussion in Week 4 and then suffered a torn rotator cuff against the Chargers in Week 14.
Speaking of Cam Newton, he had arguably the worst season of his career. Just a year after completing over 59 percent of his passes and 45 total touchdowns, his completion percentage drop by 7 percent and scored just 21 total touchdowns on the year. His only consistent receiver was Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen. Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn Jr . were very inconsistent even though Benjamin started the first and last 2 games strong. Just a year after finishing with the #1 scoring offense (31.3 PPG), the Panthers dropped to 15th in 2016 (23.1 PPG).
The Personnel Changes
They did exactly that!
Addison signed a 3-year, $22.5M contract then a few weeks later Short signed a 5-year, $80.5M contract.
Done and done.
The Panthers went on to have one of the most active free agencies in the Dave Gettleman era. Franchise sack leader Julius Peppers returned to the team on a 1-year deal, while nickelback Captain Munneryln, a member of the elite 2013 Panthers defense, returned on a 3-year deal. Carolina was able to find the man to protect Cam’s blindside: Matt Kalil, younger brother of Pro Bowl C Ryan Kalil. The Panthers also signed veteran Pro Bowler S Mike Adams, who adds experience to a still young but matured defense. A signing I think that got overlooked was WR Russell Shepherd. He can contribute to making tough catches in 1v1 matchups in the red-zone.
Get Cam help on the offensive line? Check. Add experience and talent to the defense? Check. Add a underrated red-zone threat? Check.
The Panthers, though, did lose their top FA WR Ted Ginn Jr. to New Orleans, meaning the team would have to go out and find Ginn’s replacement.
The Panthers had one of their best drafts in quite some time. With the 8th overall pick they selected Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey, a player with insane quickness, speed, can run between the tackles and is a very good receiver out of the backfield who can also play in the slot. Oh did I mention he can return punts/kicks? Yeah he’s pretty good.
Carolina would go on to draft speedy and versatile WR Curtis Samuel (Ginn’s replacement), T Taylor Moton, DE Daeshon Hall, CB Corn Elder (won’t play this year due to injury), FB Alex Armah (on practice squad), and K Harrison Butker.
What To Expect
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula noted after the draft that the offense will be much different then the one we’ve seen the past few years. Expect to see more of what the Patriots do on offense, but with just a tad bit more run plays. The Panthers will run power run plays when Jonathan Stewart is in the game, while playing more zone with McCaffrey.
With upgrades at both tackle positions, the offensive line is going to be one of the best Cam Newton has ever had. Cam also has a good yet underrated group of receivers featuring Benjamin, Funchess, Samuel, Shepherd, speedster Damiere Byrd and Olsen. If you think hard and long about this offense, it might be one of the scariest in the NFL. Don’t sleep on this offense, folks.
It might be shocking, but the Panthers actually finished the year in the top 5 in sacks. Mario Addison was reason to why this is so. His sack total has climbed since he signed with the team in 2012 and after having 9.5 sacks last season he is bound to it double digits. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei will be a problem in the interior once again this year after taking a step back last season. Expect Charles Johnson, Julius Peppers and Daeshon Hall to rotate on the left side of the defense. With Luke Kuechly healthy this year, Thomas Davis playing the best football of his life and Shaq Thompson bound for a solid year, the Panthers have the best and most dangerous front seven in the NFL.
A major problem for the Panthers last year was the secondary. After letting go of All-Pro corner Josh Norman, the team was stuck with two young, but bright players in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley with little depth behind them. James Bradberry was easily the best CB on the roster and according to Pro Football Focus, was the highest graded rookie corner in the entire league over stud Jalen Ramsey. This off-season Bradberry has been arguably the best DB on the field and was unoffically named by the local media as Training Camp MVP. Worley has also showed signs of being a good number two opposite of Bradberry this season. Captain Munneryln is one of the best nickelbacks in the NFL and can handle guys like Jarvis Landry and Stefon Diggs. The Panthers now have one of the best ball hawking safety duos in the league with an underrated Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams. If opposing QBs choose to take shots down field without heisitation, they will pay. This is secondary that will shock a lot of people this year. Welcome back, #ThievesAvenue!
3 Predictions For The New Look Carolina Panthers
To finish up this article, here are 3 predictions for the Carolina Panthers has their Week 1 matchup with the 49ers looms ahead.
1. Cam Newton finishes the year with career highs in completion % and passing yards. Like I said before, Cam has a big arsenal at his disposal now. Career highs in the aforementioned categories is expected.
2. The Panthers lead the league in takeaways and finish in the top 5 in sacks with the help of Coleman and Addison. This arguably the most well rounded defense the Panthers have had since the 2013 season. A squad like this is going to be tough to get by.
3. The Panthers make a deep run in January with the help of Offensive Rookie of the Year Christian McCaffrey. Whether they win the NFC South or make it in as a wild card, Carolina will make a nice run in January. After putting up big numbers in the regular season, McCaffrey runs all over the place during the postseason, helping his team to the door step of the Super Bowl.
With a new and dangerous looking offense and a scary defense, the Carolina Panthers are primed for a playoff run and silence the haters once and for all.