2015 NFC South Preview: Carolina Panthers
By John Sigler
The NFC South has seen tremendous turnover in players, coaching staffs, and front office personnel this offseason. Every team is filled with new faces, and for good reason – they were historically bad last year and sent their division winner to the playoffs with a losing record, reinvigorating the debate about playoff seeding. The team in question is the one that I’m using to kick off my 2015-2016 NFC South Preview; the Carolina Panthers.
Offensive Additions: The biggest addition the Panthers made in the summer was rookie wideout Devin Funchess (6-foot-4, 232 pounds, 33.5-inch arm length). Following their philosophy of trying to find receivers that Cam Newton should struggle to overthrow, Funchess was brought in with the idea of complimenting sophomore Kelvin Benjamin (6-foot and 5-inches) and veteran tight end Greg Olsen (6-foot-6). That all fell apart when Benjamin tore his ACL and Funchess strained his hamstring in training camp, but more on that later.
One rookie to monitor is former Auburn halfback Cameron Artis-Payne. He has been slowly fighting his way up the depth chart, competing with veterans Fozzy Whittaker and Jordan Todman or the right to split touches with the unquestioned starter, Jonathan Stewart. Artis-Payne is a complete back and has the talent to earn more opportunities as the preseason roster battles shake out. He and the other members of the backfield could do worse than to run behind fullback Mike Tolbert, who is one of the best in the game at what he does.
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Elsewhere on offense, the Panthers have brought in veteran turnstile Michael Oher to protect Cam Newton’s blindside. Oher, who has one of the best background stories in the NFL, had a stellar collegiate career at Ole Miss and was a valuable piece to the Baltimore Raven’s 2012 Super Bowl run, but has since fallen off and was cut after one season of poor play for the Tennessee Titans. He may find a career revival in Carolina, but it’s looking like his NFL days are winding down. Otherwise, last year’s starters on offense are largely intact.
Defensive Additions: Defensively, the Panthers signed on the 34-year old Charles Tillman to man the left cornerback position and mentor promising sophomore Bene Benwikere (formerly of San Jose State) opposite veteran Josh Norman. Tillman joins former New Orleans Saints safety Roman Harper, who led the Panthers with four interceptions in 2014 (after assembling four total picks from 2010 to 2013 on the Saints, with none in 2011). Tillman was playing at a decent level for the Chicago Bears before an early-season triceps tear ended his 12-year run with the team, so if he is healthy he could be an asset behind a very talented defensive front seven.
The Panthers used their first draft pick to select the versatile University of Washington product Shaq Thompson, which should complete one of the NFL’s best linebacker corps. Already blessed with riches in one of the best weakside linebackers (Thomas Davis) and a top five middle linebacker (Luke Kuechly), Thompson can proficiently line up on the strongside to support the run or defend the pass. He can adeptly drop into coverage (five interceptions and fourteen pass deflections in college) or knife through gaps at the line of scrimmage (fifteen tackles for loss in three years).
The Panthers have typically run a nickel defense featuring four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs – not unlike what the Saints have preferred under Rob Ryan’s tenure – but the addition of Thompson could change that. He can line up over the slot and play up at the line of scrimmage, which gives the team more versatility. First he needs to usurp incumbent strongside linebacker A.J. Klein, who is a middling veteran that only saw 289 regular season snaps in 2014. Thompson should be the starter here by the end of the season at the latest.
Important Losses: The most obvious loss for the Panthers is second-year starting wideout Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin surprised more than a few by leading a historically-great rookie class in targets (142) and the third-most touchdowns (9). His technique was sloppy and his effort at times questionable, but Benjamin by all accounts won his share of battles against some of the league’s best corners like Richard Sherman and Jimmy Smith. Benjamin’s production will be hard to replace and should make what would have been possibly the division’s best receiving corps one of its worst.
For now the Carolina Panthers are planning on Funchess sliding to Benjamin’s spot as the focus of their passing attack, which is likely going to end poorly. Funchess is a much better route runner than Benjamin was, but he struggled to translate his athleticism to the field at Michigan; he routinely failed to go up and compete for high-pointed passes, which should be the specialty for a receiver with such a large frame. Funchess’ running mates at wideout are currently set to be Jerricho Cotchery (who is over the 30-year mark where most skill-positions players tend to decline) and Corey Brown (formerly Philly Brown). The Panthers were developing former New York Jets project Stephen Hill, but he went down to a season-ending injury earlier this summer.
On defense, the injury bug has been just as problematic. Starting defensive end Frank Alexander (who was suspended for most of 2014 due to failing performance-enhancing drug tests) was lost to an Achilles tendon tear, cutting his season short. Second-year draft pick Kony Ealy (formerly of Missouri) tied with two other players for the third-most sacks last year (with four each) and is expected to seize the starting job moving forward.
What it means for the New Orleans Saints: What’s good for the Carolina Panthers is bad for the New Orleans Saints, and that means the return of all but two of their starters from last year’s great defensive unit. The Panthers ranked 10th in yards allowed per game (339.8) and were tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the sixth-fewest penalties per game (6.06). So they can again be expected to play hard-nosed, gritty and well-disciplined defensive football.
The bad news for the Panthers (and music to the ears of Saints fans) is that they are looking to be very, very bad on offense for the foreseeable future. Cam Newton recently signed a huge extension with guarantees of 315.3-percent in 2015, 92.3-percent in 2016, 66.9-percent in 2017, 41.8-percent in 2018, etc.
NFL Spin Zone
It’s pretty clear by this point that Newton is not a great NFL quarterback (he has a career completion percentage of 59.5-percent, a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1.5:1, and an average depth of target of 7.5) and that the Panthers front office is either unwilling or unable to surround him with the talent he needs to become one. So for all intents and purposes, the Saints’ defense gets to play a more photogenic Colin Kaepernick for the next few years. They just need to figure out how to tackle him.
That doesn’t mean we should write the Panthers off. Carolina was won four of the last six meetings by an average margin of 15.7 points and became the first team to ever win the NFC South in back to back seasons last year. Head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera has found a way to win with this team, and on any given Sunday they could get hot and go on a winning streak just like any other squad in the league.
Projected Win/Loss Record: 6-10 (.413), tied for second in the division. Las Vegas’ betting lines currently have the Carolina Panthers set to win 8 games in 2015, and I consider that their ceiling. They just haven’t addressed their weaknesses on offense appropriately for me to have much faith that they will beat last year’s win total, which doesn’t bode well in a division that has seen optimistic growth on all other fronts. The lost of their best receiving option is a disaster that can’t be understated, and a lack of edge rushers (besides the dynamic, if one-dimensional Charles Johnson) could be enough to sink their season. Both games against the Panthers should be typically challenging for the Saints, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they split the series again. The defense is still outstanding, Newton can still make plays with his legs, and Rivera is just enough of a gambler to keep things interesting.
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