Cleat Geeks

2018 Carolina Panthers Preview: Offense

At last our long national nightmare is over.  Training camps are behind us.  Preseason games–four weeks removed from satisfying our six-month craving for football–have mercifully ended.  The time is upon us for “shots fired in anger” on NFL fields across our great nation, and not a second too soon.

The Carolina Panthers certainly had an interesting off-season. Founder and long-time owner Jerry Richardson sold the team amid allegations of improper conduct in the workplace.  Enter David Tepper, a self-made billionaire and former minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Tepper has signaled both overtly and implicitly that he will take the organization in a new direction. The foundation is strong, as the Panthers have made the playoffs in four out of the last five years.

The team has announced its 53-man roster and Week One is only a few days away, so let’s take a look at the Panthers’ 53 man roster in a bit of depth. We will start with the offense in this article, and cover defense and special teams in follow up pieces.

The 2017 version of the Panthers offense was inconsistent. The games that bracketed the Week 11 bye were a microcosm of the season. Week 10 saw the Panthers hang a franchise record 548 yards on the Dolphins in a 45-21 win, but coming out of the bye week, they could only muster 299 yards against the Jets. The Panthers’ offense finished the season with -0.9 in Football Outsiders‘ Defense Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). good for 17th in the league.  That means they were about as average as possible.  It’s no surprise, then, that they fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula and spent their first round pick on Maryland WR DJ Moore. They also brought in free agent running back CJ Anderson from Denver, WR Jarius Wright from Minnesota, and WR Torrey Smith from Philly.  Incoming OC Torrey Smith has a track record of success, but he is 66 years old and his last stop in Minnesota did not end well.

Image result for cam newton panthers

Photo by; The Big Lead

While there are plenty of new faces, the Panthers will rely heavily on some familiar faces for most of their offensive production. That starts with the QB. Cam Newton enters his eighth season, and though he has avoided the serious injuries that many predicted for him, he has undergone surgery in the off-season twice in the last four off-seasons.  This year was different, as Cam was able to complete an entire off-season program, and it couldn’t have come at a better time with a new system and several new receivers.  By now, we know that Cam is very good throwing down the field and remains the most dangerous running threat of any QB in the NFL.  His size and skill set make him deadly in short yardage and red zone situations. Anecdotally, he tends to hold the ball a little too long sometimes, and doesn’t necessarily have the best pocket awareness. At his best, he is an elite QB who can single-handedly carry the offense. At his worst, he is below average, although in years past the team magnified his weaknesses by sometimes refusing to embrace and play to his strengths.  With more weapons on the field, the Panthers hope to finally be able to take some of the pressure off Newton to win every game by himself.  Backing him up will be Cam Newton, a 6-1 fourth-year guy with a career total of one pass attempt in the NFL.  He has history with Norv Turner in Minnesota, so that’s good.  Expect if Cam goes down for any length of time, that the Panthers will be in serious trouble.

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For the Panthers up front on offense, there was already a steep hill to climb entering the season due to All-Pro LG Andrew Norwell’s departure to Jacksonville in free agency.  The Panthers looked to Amini Silotolu, a former second-round pick of Carolina turned journeyman, but Silotolu tore his meniscus early in camp and only returned to practice on Sunday.  To make matters worse, All-Pro RT Daryl Williams tore his MCL and dislocated his patella early in camp.  Initial indications were that Williams was likely to miss a significant part of the season, but he has somehow rehabbed the knee to the point where he, too, rejoined the team at practice on Sunday.  LT Matt Kalil was not so lucky, as the team placed him on Injured Reserve Sunday after having his knee scoped, and will miss at least the first half of the season.  Despite Silotolu and Williams’ return to the practice field, the Panthers are likely to field a patchwork line on opening Sunday.  Second-year backup Taylor Moton will probably start at left tackle, stalwart former Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner will start at C and RG, but LG and RT are still anyone’s guess.  This does not bode well for the Panthers against a defensive front as good as the Cowboys’.  Greg Van Roten and Tyler Larsen are guys who should see the field more this season, but both are still works-in-progress.  The Panthers traded a seventh round pick to the Lions for versatile tackle Corey Robinson.  Robinson has some experience starting at tackle and guard, and that versatility is something the Panthers under Ron Rivera have valued.  Expect Robinson to primarily backup both tackle positions, but he may get some starts early in the year while the regular starters heal up.  Offensive line coach John Matsko is one of the best there is, as shown by the Panthers’ recent history of turning out Pro Bowl and All-Pro linemen despite spending very little draft capital on the O-Line.

Christian McCaffrey returns to the backfield, and I expect him to carry a heavy load for the team this year.  He made 80 receptions last year, but his rushing numbers were not good (117-435-2/3.4 ypc).  He appears to have bulked up during the off-season, and may see a bigger share of the carries in the Panthers’ power running game.  Jonathan Stewart is gone, replaced by CJ Anderson.  Anderson (5-8, 225) rushed for over 1,000 yards last year in Denver, and offers much more in the passing game than did Stewart.  If the offensive line holds up, the Panthers could be a top five rushing team in the league.  Cameron Artis-Payne returns as a solid if unspectacular bench guy.  Special teamer and receiving back Fozzy Whittaker will miss the season with a torn ACL.

Image result for christian mccaffrey panthers

Photo by; Cat Crave

The receivers and tight ends offer a tasty menu of options from which Cam can choose.  Devin Funchess was very good last year (63-840-8, 128 Defense Adjusted Yards Above Replacement [DYAR]), but he was the only Panther receiver worth mentioning.  Were it not for McCaffrey’s contributions to the pass game, the Panthers may have been historically bad.  Funchess returns, but more importantly, Greg Olsen is healthy this year after missing most of last year with a broken foot.  Olsen is as close to a sure thing as there is on this team, and having him back will likely be the most important factor if the Panthers are to improve on last year’s performance.  Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright offer veteran leadership, much like what Jerricho Cotchery gave the team in 2015.  Like Cotchery, they are not likely to contribute huge numbers between the white lines.  Smith is a decent deep threat, which the Panthers missed with Ted Ginn’s departure last season, and Wright is known as a good possession reciever with a knack for finding the first down marker.  They are both niche players, but are likely valuable pieces anyway.  Curtis Samuel has been healthy and looked really good in the preseason after missing most of his rookie year with injuries.  Samuel offers big play ability when healthy, and if he can contribute this year, it almost works out like a free draft pick for the Panthers.  Dameire Byrd is a player much like Samuel.  Both represent a threat to carry the ball on jet sweeps, and can turn short plays into long gains.  Byrd is also expected to handle kickoff return duties.  Rookie DJ Moore graded out as one of the best WRs in the draft, but it’s unclear how much of a role he will play in the offense this year.  He has drawn comparisons to former WR Steve Smith (even by Smitty himself) for his open-field ability with the ball in his hands.  Moore is a good-sized (6-1, 200) receiver who runs well (4.42 40 yard time) and projects as a great addition to the offense in a year or two.

Expectations are understandably high for the offense this year with all the new additions.  The key will be whether the offensive line is able to consistently play well together despite the shell game brought on by all the injuries.  If that happens, the Panthers’ offensive ceiling is Top 10 in the league.  If not, the floor is probably somewhere around 24th.  There is enough talent to prevent a total dumpster fire, but not enough to overcome poor play up front.  The good news is that, much like in years past, the defense will likely be good enough that anything better than average from the offense should make the Panthers contenders in the NFC South.  Next up, we will look at the defense with new coordinator Eric Washington and a lot of new faces in the back half.

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