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Dissecting the NFC South: Carolina Panthers

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We started with the Atlanta Falcons.  Next up: The Carolina Panthers have managed to win the NFC South in back to back years, a feat no team has accomplished since the division’s creation in 2002. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton make for a talented core on a team known for its great defense and “pounding the ball” on offense. Let’s take a look how the Charlotte, NC based franchise maneuvered through the offseason.

Key departures:

OT Byron Bell

RB DeAngelo Williams

DE Greg Hardy

OLB Chase Blackburn

Safety Thomas DeCoud

Key signings and projected role:

Charles Tillman: should be among the top 3 cornerbacks when healthy

Ted Ginn: will battle Philly Brown for opportunities as a returner and third wide receiver

Jason Trusnik: will be a backup linebacker and special teams asset

Michael Oher: might once again be the worst protector at The Blind Side in the league

Jul 31, 2015; Spartanburg, SC, USA; Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Shaq Thompson (54) runs drills during training camp held at Wofford College. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Key draft picks:

Shaq Thompson: will learn under Thomas Davis, his role remains somewhat unclear, possible strong side linebacker

Devin Funchess: will be the big target opposite Kelvin Benjamin as a wideout

Daryl Williams: starter on the right side of a very weak offensive line

Most improved: This category might as well be renamed into “still good”. The Panthers did not strengthen any one team part more than the others but a stout front seven was kept in place and the cornerback depth charts was enriched by seasoned veteran Charles Tillman. “Optimus Prime” will have to bounce back after an injury-riddled season alongside Bene Benwikere and Josh Norman to make up for a rather weak safety tandem in Tre Boston and former New Orleans Saints player Roman Harper. The defensive line might have lost Greg Hardy but the “Kraken” spent the past season on the commissioner’s exempt list anyways. Star Lotulelei, Charles Johnson and Kawann Short make for a formidable defensive line, but it remains to be seen whether last year’s second-rounder Kony Ealy can take over the other defensive end spot.

Least improved: The offensive line. One of the reasons why Saints fans should like the Carolina Panthers offseason is that their underwhelming pass blocking unit stayed exactly that: underwhelming. While the Panthers had success running the football behind this questionable personnel, the pass blocking has been horrendous for more than a year now. Left tackle Byron Bell was replaced by the only left tackle who might have been worse last year: Michael Oher. Once known for the movie “The Blind Side”, Oher went from winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens to an undesired free agent, to a huge disappointment on the Tennesssee Titans. Center Ryan Kalil is the only player on this unit that is average or above.

Offseason grade and record prediction: The Carolina Panthers entered the offseason with a few needs: improve the offensive line, find a franchise left tackle, get Cam Newton some weapons and find future replacements for old starters (Thomas Davis, Roman Harper etc.) The addition of Daryl Williams could help shore up the right side of their offensive line.

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After seeing how well Newton and Kelvin Benjamin meshed together last year, the Panthers bunched their second and third round picks together in order to acquire Devin Funchess, a receiver in the same mold. Both lack vertical talent and reliable hands, but a game-changing speedster would have been a better choice.

Shaq Thompson was a selection nobody saw coming at 25th overall, the writing seems on the wall: He will inherit Thomas Davis WLB spot and could see playing time at the strong side in case he bulks up or will be relegated to a special teams and nickel contributor.

Having seen the Dallas Cowboys blueprint last year and believing in the Saints approach to helping their quarterback, I cannot ignore how many sacks, pressures and hits Cam Newton will have to endure this year. Therefore, I would describe the Panthers offseason as s poor C-.  Assuming that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons and Saints bounce back, given the Panthers tough schedule (in Seattle, in Dallas for thanksgiving and against the Packers at home), I doubt Ron Rivera‘s squad will get beyond 8-8.

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