“The Amateur Ward:” NFC Preview: Carolina Panthers
What makes a team great? Defense? Offense? Both. That is exactly why the Panthers are a perennial threat to win a Super Bowl. Their offense always finds ways to make plays, even without a key player, and they are disciplined. They do not make stupid mistakes leading to penalties and they protect their quarterback. The Panthers were basically flawless last season, minus that one burp versus the Falcons in Week 16 in Atlanta. Face it though: Julio Jones took that game over and the defense could do nothing about him. After finishing the season 15-1, the Panthers raced all the way to the Super Bowl where they fell to Peyton and the Broncos 24-10. Von Miller was all over Cam Newton, stripping him twice, scoring once and setting up another touchdown as Cam never seemed uncomfortable all game. That was last season, and the Panthers once more look poised to be a tough out any week and should be expected to make a deep playoff run.
Quarterback Cam Newton is a top three QB in the league and is showing no signs of relenting. His size/speed combo is unrivaled in the NFL and he doesn’t just adapt to how defenses play him, he evolves his game by studying defenses and throwing them different looks. When he came into the league he was scared of defenses that could take away his ability to run the ball. But now,he burns teams that crash the pocket or blitz heavily. A prime example of this would be in last season’s NFC Championship versus the Arizona Cardinals where they blitzed him right and left, and he completed 60 percent of his passes. He has great arm strength, field awareness and is constantly working to be a leader. He may not be a shoe in for over 4000 pass yards every season (only time was rookie season 2012), but he will flat out dominate every game. His receivers, no matter who they are, make plays and his tight end, Greg Olsen is among the league’s best.
Ted Ginn has world class speed, and has turned his career completely around in Carolina after being an NFL journeyman since being drafted by the Dolphins in 2007. He runs great deep routes and always fights to get open, despite drawing one on one coverage from good corners every game. He was forced to take over the WR1 role last season after Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL. Ginn was ready for the spotlight and posted 739 yards and a career best 10 receiving scores. In 2016, his role will diminish some with Benjamin back, but he will still be an integral part of an explosive and fast hitting Panthers offense. Kelvin Benjamin is a matchup nightmare with his 83 inch wingspan and 6’5″ frame. He runs through defenders and adds a punch that could have made the Super Bowl for the Panthers last season. His absence was supposed to be the death of the Panthers last season, but thanks to the read option implemented by Mike Shula, Cam was given more freedom, and he did so masterfully with Ginn as his top receiver. With Benjamin back, the Panthers are trouble because defenses can’t lose sight of him and they must respect Ginn’s speed. Benjamin is a big time receiver who makes defenders miss and reacts on routes on the fly. While he does not get a lot of contested balls and lacks ideal top speed, his catch radius and awareness in the game allows him to outsmart defenders and overpower them. What he will need to work on going forward is dropped passes, as he had a league high ten in his rookie season and was inconsistent. He is very raw, but he has all the right ingredients to be one of the league’s most dominating receivers with Newton throwing him the rock. The key question for the Panthers will be the play of the third wideout, whether it is Devin Funchess or Corey Brown. If one of the two steps up and delivers, the Panthers could have a three headed monster on their hands with two large receivers to worry about in Benjamin and Funchess (6’4″), who just oozes with potential and could emerge as the second option opposite Benjamin in 2016. He proved himself down the stretch last season and looks poised to have a breakout season in 2016.
Jonathan Stewart has been handed the keys to the engine at running back after the departure of DeAngelo Williams. Stewart will never be a true workhorse back, but he is just right for the Panthers offense who rely on a balance of run and pass. The trouble is he can never stay healthy and has missed 23 games the past four seasons. If he goes down, the problem is the Panthers have zilch depth and better pray Cameron Artis-Payne is the second coming of Adrian Peterson. Stewart is a good runningback, a table setter for the run game, and more than capable of taking over any one game, but the slightest tweak to his legs and the Panther hold their breath. He can be a feature back, it’s just unlikely he will stay healthy long enough for the Panthers to use him to his full ability. Artis-Payne will continue to take reps as top backup, but he should be ready at any moment to spell Stewart when he goes down.
All hail the great Carolina tight end Greg Olsen. He is a true rock and consistent presence for the team week-in week-out. He had his two best seasons the past two years and established himself as Cam’s go to guy and more. He is the top receiver of any position for the Panthers and will continue to see a healthy dose of yards and scores the next couple of seasons. He can block, catch, be patient. You name it. He is the Panthers’ focal point and he will not be slowed down. Carolina can line him up anywhere and he will be a threat. He is always open or creating opportunities for others, meaning defenses must always account for him, although they are never truly able to cover him. He might be the most complete tight end in the league and best outside of Rob Gronkowski.
Defensively, the panthers are one of the NFL’s top units and have some very young players to build around for the future. Luke Kuechly is top three talent at linebacker and is still progressing his game. He can rush the passer when asked and cover receivers downfield, there is nothing he cannot do as captain of the Panthers defense. He sets the tone for the defense, mentors Shaq Thompson and forms a formidable duo with Thomas Davis, who continues to race against Father Time, but is always around the football, leading to turnovers and extra opportunities for the offense. Davis is solid versus the run and while he may not have the cover skills of Thompson or Kuechly, he is a football player who outsmarts the opponent with ease. Given the Panther defensive 4-3 scheme and constant subpackages last season, he saw limited time, but still was impressive. He will see increased snaps going forward and eventually take over Davis’ spot once he retires. He can rush the passer, cover receivers and stay contained on assignments. He is an emerging stud for the team, and he does everything well. It will be interesting to see how opposing offensive lines adjust to the linebacking corps of Carolina. The rest of the defensive seven is led by Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy, two defensive ends who are constant sack threats and edge setters for Carolina. Johnson only played in nine games due to injuring his hamstring during the season, but contributed when healthy, while Ealy flashed his potential and tapped into his game in 2015. The pair of defensive ends will be disruptive for offensive lines in 2016 and will rack up sacks and forced fumbles.
The secondary was led in interceptions by Kurt Coleman, with seven last season. While Tre Boston is still figuring out the NFL game and Coleman is seeking to dominate once more, the absence of Josh Norman will be immense and hard to replace. If Robert McLain can hold his own opposite Bene Benwikere, who is showing promise as an outside man, the Panther secondary will remain as a top unit in 2016. Cornerback is a position to watch for the Panthers in 2016, but Benewikere has the talent to excel and be a ballhawk for the defense going forward.
The Panthers are the favorites to win the NFC South and are a solid unit. Rookie Vernon Butler (DT) and James Bradberry (CB) are two names to keep tabs on as they give the Panthers options and promise at their respective positions and will contribute in 2016. Now, who is the top Panthers rival going into 2016?
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