Cleat Geeks

The Panther Post: 2015 Season Preview

The NFC South has existed since 2002.  From 2002 to 2013, the Panthers, Saints, Bucs, and Falcons took turns winning the division without a single repeat champion.  That unlikely trend came to an end in 2014 when the Carolina Panthers claimed their second straight division title, albeit with an ignominious record of 7-8-1.  Most observers viewed the Panthers as simply the best of the worst and gave them little credit for the repeat, and for good reason.  You’re just not supposed to go to the playoffs with a losing record!

However, credit should be given to the players and the coaching staff for holding things together after a 3-8-1 start that included a ten game stretch when the Panthers went 1-8-1.  With four games remaining in the regular season, the Panthers had no choice but to run the table, and they did so with some flair.  Included in the four game win streak were road wins over the Saints and Falcons by scores of 41-10 and 34-3 respectively.  The Cats managed to ride that momentum to a home playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals before falling to eventual NFC Champion Seattle at CenturyLink Field.  So while many scoff at the notion that the 2014 Panthers were Division Champions, the fact remains that they did what they had to do to claim that crown.

RonRiveraYear five of the Ron Rivera era will begin with the Panthers searching for a three-peat.  General Manager Dave Gettleman has spent almost three years working the Panthers out of what could only be described as “salary cap hell”.  He has loaded the roster with talent through the draft, while remaining committed and frugal when it comes to free agency.  It is this frugal approach that has frustrated many Panther fans, but has also positioned the team to retain their core talent, including QB Cam Newton and LB Luke Keuchly, LB Thomas Davis, C Ryan Kalil, and TE Greg Olsen.  This core-commitment approach as well as identifying new talent via the draft is the blueprint that Rivera and Gettleman are hoping will take the Panthers to the next level and position them as one of the NFL’s elite franchises.

Positional Breakdown:

CamNewtonPanthersQuarterback:  A 5-year $103.8 million dollar deal with $60 million in guaranteed money means it’s time to produce big-time results, and quickly.  Those are the numbers that the Panthers handed to two-time Pro-Bowl QB Cam Newton this off season.  You could argue that a QB with a career record of 30-31-1 (and 1-2 in the playoffs) is not worth that kind of investment, but the simple fact is that Panthers record would likely have been much worse were it not for Newton’s dynamic play making ability and athleticism.  Now that the handcuffs are off of the salary cap situation, they sky is the limit to see what Newton can accomplish.  Priority number one will be to improve upon a career completion percentage of 59.5.  If he can get that into the 65%+ range, good things should happen for the Panther offense.  Newton will again be backed up by the more-than-capable Derek Anderson, who signed a two-year contract extension last week locking him up through 2017.  Joe Webb will serve as the #3 QB, along with contributing in all phases of special teams.  Grade: B+

Running Back:  With the off-season departure of the franchises all-time leading rusher, JStewartDeAngelo Williams, the door has been opened for Jonathan Stewart to assume the undisputed lead role.  Stewart rushed for 803 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, but 486 of his rushing yards came in the last five games with Williams out of the picture.  If he can remain healthy (a big if), Stewart has the potential to be a top-10 NFL back given the Panthers run-first philosophy.   The Panthers drafted Cameron Artis-Payne out of Auburn to serve as the primary back up to Stewart.  Artis-Payne led the SEC in rushing last season with over 1,600 yards, so the Panthers feel confident he can step in and spell Stewart if called upon.  The Panthers also have Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker, and undrafted rookie Brandon Wegher to fill out a very deep group of backs.  Grade: B

Wide Receivers:  “Uh-oh”.  That’s the G-rated version of every Panther fans reaction when 2014 leading receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down in training camp with a torn ACL.  It is difficult to replace 1,009 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns no matter who you are, but when you are as receiver-thin as the Panthers it becomes an even more desperate situation.  The Panthers selected WR Devin Funchess in the 2nd round of the 2015 draft with the hope that he would provide another big target for Cam Newton to throw to.  The idea of an offense that featured 6’5″ Benjamin, 6’5″ Greg Olsen, and 6’4″ Funchess seemed like a dream scenario for a QB who misses high more often than not.  Unfortunately, with little available in free agency, Funchess will likely be thrust into the #1 receiver role.  Given that he has missed a good portion of training camp dealing with a hamstring problem, it is anybody’s guess whether he can fill that role or not.  The rest of the wide receiving corps all come with huge question marks as well:  Ted Ginn, Jr. is more of a return man than a viably consistent option at receiver.  Corey “Philly” Brown dropped almost every pass thrown his way in the preseason and it’s hard to imagine why he even earned a roster spot.  Kevin Norwood was acquired from Seattle for a conditional 2017 draft pick but arrives as a complete wild card due to a lack of opportunities so far.  Finally, 33-year-old Jerricho Cotchery remains on the roster as a veteran presence, but his best days are clearly behind him.  In short, this is the Panthers weakest position and could be the single biggest factor to their chances to repeat as division champions and go to the playoffs.  Grade:  D+

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 24: Greg Olsen #88 of the Carolina Panthers catches a game winning touchdown during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Tight End:  Last season ended with Greg Olsen earning an invitation to the Pro-Bowl.  He might as well plan on making that an annual trip.  Olsen simply gets open and catches everything thrown his way.  Consider him Cam Newton’s personal security blanket.  Ed Dickson is a more than capable backup, with Richie Brockel and Brandon Williams also in the mix.  Grade: A-

Offensive Line:  At the end of last season and the beginning of this preseason the Panthers offensive line presented a huge question mark.  The off season acquisition of LT Michael Oher was scoffed at by many due to his horrendous season spent in Tennessee after some early professional success with the Baltimore Ravens.  However, GM Dave Gettleman decided to take a chance on Oher knowing he played all of the 2014 season with a foot injury while also reuniting Oher with his offensive line coach from the Ravens, John Matsko.  Oher has been plugged into the critical left tackle spot and played at an extremely high level in the preseason.  With the drafting of OT Darryl Williams out of Oklahoma and the emergence of RT Mike Remmers, the Panthers suddenly find themselves with some depth along the line that they severely lacked last season.  Perennial Pro-Bowl C Ryan Kalil returns to anchor the middle with G’s Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell.  There are no glamour names on this line, but if the preseason was any indication, they are poised to surprise.  Grade: B-

Defensive Line:  Losing DE Greg Hardy to suspension and subsequently to free agency would be a big blow to any team.  However, the Panthers have positioned themselves with enough depth and interior muscle that they have been able to overcome Hardy’s absence.  Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy will man the end positions with Mario Addison and Wes Horton spelling them.  On the inside, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are as good as any young pair of tackles in the league.  Currently, Lotulelei is battling a foot injury, but the Panthers remain hopeful that he will be ready for the season opener on Sunday.  Colin Cole, Kyle Love, and Dwan Edwards provide veteran depth and allow for a steady rotation of interior linemen.  The Panthers are in good shape here.  Grade: B+

Panthers Buccaneers FootballLinebackers:  In MLB Luke Kuechly and OLB Thomas Davis, the Panthers can boast the best inside-outside combination in the NFL.  Heck, could play the other linebacker spot and the Panthers would still be better than most!  Throw in rookie OLB Shaq Thompson and this is probably the most athletically gifted linebacking corps on the planet.  Thompson arrives from the University of Washington where he played safety, linebacker, and running back!  With the beef along the interior line, this group should be poised to impact every play of every game.  Backup LB AJ Klein can play either inside or outside and rookie David Mayo adds depth to the special teams units as well.  The Panthers strongest group by far.  Grade:  A

Defensive Backs:  The defensive backfield boasts another deep and talented group.  Josh Norman, Bene Benwikere, and veteran Charles “Peanut” Tillman all provide outstanding coverage skills in the base defense as well as the nickel.  The safety group of Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper, Tre Boston, and rookie Dean Marlowe is deep and talented as well.  Throw in CB Teddy Williams and CB/S Colin Jones and you have an extremely diverse and interchangeable group.  A defensive backfield with this much versatility is exactly what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott loves as he incorporates some of the intricate blitz packages he embraced from his days with the late Jim Johnson while with the Philadelphia Eagles.  The Panthers have enough depth and talent here that they will not have to panic should the inevitable injuries occur.  Grade: B

Special Teams:  K Graham Gano is as solid as they come with great range and accuracy.  He did not miss a single kick the preseason and is always among the league leaders in touchbacks.  P Brad Nortman has the skills and the leg, he just needs to harness some consistency.  LS JJ Jansen is invisible, which is exactly what you want from your long snapper.  Grade: B

Synopsis/Prediction

If the 2015 Carolina Panthers wish to three-peat in the NFC South, they will need three things: continued growth and leadership from Cam Newton, a wide receiver to emerge as a true #1, and a fast start.  The season opens with games at Jacksonville, home vs. Houston, home vs. New Orleans, and at Tampa Bay.  If the Panthers do not open 4-0 or 3-1, they could find themselves in a hole they cannot get out of.  After the week five bye begins a four game murderer’s row of opponents: @ Seattle, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Indianapolis, and vs. Green Bay.  A 5-3 record at the halfway mark would do wonders for the Panthers playoff chances given the fact that the NFC South is such a weak division.  Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are both still here, but so are their defenses which failed to stop anybody last year.  Tampa Bay rookie QB Jameis Winston threw 18 interceptions in 13 college games last year.  It’s hard to imagine the Bucs suddenly becoming competitive with Winston under center.

The NFC South has the look of a division that will be won with a 9-7 record.  My gut tells me that the 2015 Carolina Panthers will find a way to finish 10-6 and claim their third straight divisional title.  However, the lack of play makers at the wide receiver position will handcuff the Cats come playoff time.  They should be able to steal another home playoff win, but will have more than they can handle in the Divisional round when they are forced to hit the road in January.  But, as with all 32 teams at this time of year, hope springs eternal…

 

 

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