The Panthers were purring at the midway point of last season but collapsed down the stretch. Now a year older and wiser and with a revamped pass rush, they look to go again in the NFC South. Can they get the job done this year and play well when the lights are at their brightest?
Improvements – Pass Rush
The Panthers have made great gains in pass rush this offseason, drafting Brian Burns and Christian Miller, as well as picking up Gerald McCoy and Bruce Irvin to partner Luke Kuechly. Given their sixth lowest 35 sacks, these signings will be huge for Carolina and takes the pressure off the secondary.
Very quietly the Panthers have also developed Wide Receiver a lot compared to last year. Chris Hogan is the major addition but another year of experience for DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel will make a difference.
The fact that they cut two time Super Bowl champion Torrey Smith is notable, given that it shows how comfortable the Panthers are at the position.
Biggest Hole – Secondary
The Panthers are the most balanced team in the division, even if they lack the superstar talent of the Saints. One area that they lack slight is in the secondary; even with James Bradberry and Eric Reid, the Panthers lack the true quality of a shutdown unit.
They were midpack a year ago, allowing 240 passing yards a game and haven’t made any major additions. That said, the improvements in the front seven will be noticed in the secondary too.
One to Watch – Rashaan Gaulden
The Panthers lack superstars in the secondary beyond Safety Eric Reid but his backup Gaulden could be set for a break out year. Carolina will be looking to get him significant snaps in subpackages as a talented player in the defensive backfield. Gaulden had 17 tackles as a rookie last season but is talented enough to break out in this Carolina defence and see significant game time.
Leading Question – Can the Panthers recover from last year’s collapse?
It seems to have gone unnoticed but the Panthers slipped from 6-2 to 7-9 last year, only winning on the final day of the season when out of the playoff mix and against the Saints backups. With a surprisingly low level of roster turnover, that has to be weighing on them. Even if they make a strong start, the question will be can they finish in a tough NFC playoff fight.
Despite being cautious and positive signs throughout the offseason, the Panthers once again have injury concerns around Cam Newton, after an injury in preseason. Will he be fit to face the Rams in a crucial game or miss extended time in a playoff race where every game matters?
In a bid to keep Newton healthy, Carolina have made minor changes up front to better protect Newton, adding veteran Centre Matt Paradis and drafting Greg Little, as well as resigning Daryl Williams, which will of course also make Christian McCaffrey even harder to stop.
Schedule – NFC West & AFC South
Carolina have a relatively easy start to the season with Tampa (twice) and Arizona before their bye when they should be right in contention in the NFC. However after their bye they play the Saints & Falcons home and away, host the Seahawks and travel to Indianapolis and an unknown Green Bay. They will need to take their chances when they come to be in the division race.
Verdict – 11-5
The Panthers should be able to make a good early start but they did that last year. Ron Rivera will have spent all offseason addressing the defensive and mental issues that crippled their playoff hopes. If Cam Newton is fit, this is a good team with no real weakness and should earn a wildcard, even if the Saints prove to be just out of reach. Once in the playoffs, the strengthened defence will keep them in games but can the offence keep up with the likes of the Cowboys, Eagles or Rams?
However, keeping Newton firing on all cylinders for a whole season has proven tricky, especially when he starts the season with a niggling injury, so for the Panthers, it looks like it’s playoffs or bust.