NFC South Preview: Carolina Panthers – Part 1 – The Offense

By Robert Knarr

The Carolina Panthers were the first team to win the NFC South in back to back years.  The parity in the division has been remarkable, with the division being won each year by such a narrow margin that many have had significant trouble predicting who will win the division.  However, the Panthers definitely have the best roster and chance at winning the division in 2015.  They underperformed last year, particularly on defense, and although they had a mediocre draft and only a few free agent pickups, Carolina should be improved.

Much like the Saints, if they had excelled during the draft, the Panthers could’ve separated themselves from the rest of the division.  But, they didn’t.  Instead, the Panthers addressed their biggest needs in the draft, but did so in an incomplete and questionable manner.  They waited until the fourth round to acquire an offensive lineman, which was their biggest area of need.  Trading some of their other picks when they didn’t need to for a wide receiver with clear problems was highly criticized.  And, they reached for an undersized linebacker with their first pick.  They still have a credible defense, a talented, yet frustrating quarterback, and enough weapons for him to be effective and score points. In fact, they demonstrated this by going on a run into the second half of 2014, winning their last four games, playing the kind of defense you’d expect from this team.  It appears to me that they still have what it takes to be crowned division champs for the third year in a row.

Quarterback

Cam Newton Scoring

Cam Newton has arguably the highest ceiling of any quarterback.  However, he will probably never reach that potential.  He has the physical tools to be something nobody has ever seen.  Newton has provided some incredible moments.  Unfortunately, that’s all he has done, provide glimpses of greatness, without sustained success or growth.  He has the ability to plow over people like a full back, evade people like a half
back, and the arm to make any throw.  One of the big caveats with his draft profile was his off the field issues, which were numerous and troubling.  However, since being drafted, off the field issues have been few and far between.  So, one of the big knocks on Cam Newton hasn’t been an issue thus far.

Before we delve further into his issues, let’s examine what Cam has done so far.  He had an incredible rookie season, one of the greatest ever by a quarterback.  Passing for 4051 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 7.8 yards per attempt is impressive enough for a rookie.  When you add in the 706 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 5.6 yards per attempt on the ground, you see how unbelievable his first season was.  Yes, he also had 17 interceptions, and a completion percentage of only 60.0 percent.  But, the rushing numbers overshadowed his flaws in the passing game.  Plus, it was his first season, so he was expected to struggle in some ways, and hopefully improve in those areas as he went.

Unfortunately, that is not what has happened, and Newton has regressed in some ways as his career has gone on.  He has not reached the 4000 yard mark in passing again.  His yards per attempt and touchdowns have also been down in two of the last three years.  His rushing numbers have declined a little bit.  Cam had 741 rushing yards in his sophomore season, but has’t reached the 600 yard marker since then.  He also hasn’t topped 8 rushing touchdowns since his rookie season.  If you’re looking for something positive, his interceptions have declined since his rookie season as well.  However, his completion percentage and QB rating have remained pretty stagnant.

Despite having impeccable tools, Cam Newton has not developed into the elite quarterback the Panthers hoped for.  He has a few serious flaws in his game.  He has poor footwork and suffers when he has to work through his reads.  Many were worried about Newton struggling with these issues when he was drafted, and he hasn’t made the progress needed to become  a great quarterback.

Perhaps, it’s not completely his fault.  Newton was hurt last year, and had a poor supporting cast around him.  The run game has been decent throughout his tenure, but struggled at times as well.  The offensive line was bad last year, and he hasn’t had a lot of throwing options either.  Olsen has been good, but his wideouts have been unimpressive.  Benjamin was his best wide receiver last year, and he dropped a lot of passes while getting his feet wet in his first NFL season.

So, when you put all this together what does one expect from Cam Newton?  He hasn’t excelled, but he has still been a solid quarterback.  The Panthers certainly felt comfortable enough in the job he has done to award hime a huge extension.  He also has the ability to get better; a lot better.  Even if he never becomes the absolute freak many thought he would be after his rookie season, if he just improves a few areas of his game, he could easily be a top ten quarterback with the improved cast around him.  I expect he’ll be just on the outside of the top 10 next year.

Running Backs

Jonathan-Stewart-4

The running back situation in Carolina is a little more tenuous.  Jonathan Stewart is taking over as the primary running back.  They have finally let Deangelo Williams go, after signing him to a questionable contract a few years ago.  Stewart has had a solid career, but also dealt with injuries.  Entering his age 28 season, there are a few question marks.  He’s not young for a running back, but should have a little more in the tank, since he hasn’t been the primary carrier.  At the same time, he’s never shouldered the load by himself, so nobody’s sure he can.

Stewart had 809 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a 4.6 yard per attempt average.  The average is right in line with his career, so it seems like he hasn’t lost a step yet.  The touchdowns would be concerning, but Newton and Tolbert get a lot of the goal line carries.  Stewart actually ranked second in Pro Football Focus’ elusive rating, and was seventh in their overall running back rankings.  He has performed very well in all of their stats as long he has been able to stay on the field.  He struggled with injuries the two years before, so he isn’t a safe bet to do that.  Stewart has the ability to be an effective receiver as well.  Last year, he caught 25 passes for 181 yards.  His numbers and track record are good, he just needs to answer the questions about his ability to be the go-to guy.

The players behind Stewart are important, because of his health issues, and his lack of experience as the primary back.  Todman comes over from the Jaguars.  He hasn’t done much in his career, but also hasn’t had many opportunities.  He performed well in limited time last year, but I wouldn’t expect a lot from him.  Cameron Artis-Payne was the Panthers’ fifth round pick, and should help with their depth.  He doesn’t come highly regarded, but performed well at Auburn, putting up 1608 yards on 303 carries and 13 touchdowns.  He isn’t a burner as he ran the 40 in 4.53, but is fast enough.  Artis-Payne stands 5’10” and 212 lbs. and his stocky frame gives him good power.  He was said to be too patient at times.  He could provide a bit of help in a committee, and definitely helps the Panthers with their limited depth.

Mike Tolbert is another weapon the Panthers will utilize in their running game.  He struggled last year, and missed several games, but will look to get back to playing a good fullback position.  Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the second best full back in 2013, and third best in 2012.  He has been good at getting in the end zone, although he had no touchdowns last year until the playoffs.  He is also an excellent blocker.  I’m confident that he will be back to his old self as long as he’s healthy.

Wide Receivers

Kevin Benjamin

Carolina has been weak at wide receiver the last couple years, and they were adamant about their desire to provide more weapons for Newton.  Their strategy has been clear as they drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round last year, and traded up to take Devin Funchess.  Benjamin had a good rookie season.  He seemed to fade a bit down the stretch, and his hands need work as well.  But, if he can improve, then Benjamin could be the #1 wide receiver the Panthers were looking for.  His hands and speed have always been a question, but his size is ridiculous.  He stands 6’5” and has an 83” wingspan.  Benjamin had 73 receptions for 1008 yards, and 9 touchdowns.  Those tools should make him effective, but he can make that next leap by limiting his drops.  He didn’t rate positively according to Pro Football Focus, due to his drops and mediocre blocking.  Benjamin dropped 11 catchable passes according to Pro Football Focus, ranking near the bottom.  That is definitely an area of concern, but he still posted good numbers as a rookie, and I feel they are a little tough on their outlook of him.  His size should allow him to get a lot of touchdowns every year.  Rookie wideouts notoriously struggle, although many performed well last year.

Devin Funchess was drafted in the second round, and considered to be a reach by lots of experts.  Many were dumbfounded by the pick, and thought the Panthers could’ve had him without trading up.  I understand the Panthers desire to upgrade their receiving corps., but this was a bad move.  They could’ve taken another receiver or maybe gotten Funchess without losing picks.  Then they could’ve drafted more help for their offensive line, which is an area they failed to adequately address.  The pick was certainly questionable and may really hurt the Panthers this season.

Funchess does have some positive attributes.  He has tremendous size like Kelvin Benjamin, standing, 6’4” and weighs 232 lbs.  His speed is probably about the same as Benjamin’s.  He had both worse and better 40 times than Benjamin, posting a 4.47 at one time, and probably sits somewhere in the middle.  He fails to use his size sometimes, but should create excellent mismatches.  It’s been said he doesn’t win as many balls as he should, because he doesn’t reach the ball at it’s high point.  Funchess needs to work on his hands and use his height.  If he works out, the Panthers finally have excellent weapons for Newton, but if he doesn’t then they may be set back a good bit.

As for the players behind Funchess and Benjamin, the Panthers bring in Ginn, Cotchery, and Boykin.  Ginn played with the Panthers in 2013, and provides a good deep threat.  Cotchery and Boykin will provide decent depth.  Boykin spent time with the Packers, and had a decent sophomore year, but he doesn’t have the tools for high upside.  Cotchery is a veteran that will help stabilize the corps., but again doesn’t provide much upside.

Tight Ends

Greg Olsen is the Panthers primary tight end and is developing into an elite option.  He in incredibly consistent, posting at least 800 yards each of the last three years.  He’s also never had less than 5 touchdowns, since his rookie season.  Last year, he seemed to take the next step, as he had more than 1000 yards, 12.0 yards per reception, and 6 touchdowns.  He also ranked third overall, behind only Gronkowski and Witten, according to Pro Football Focus.  Olsen dropped only three catchable passes, and is a tremendous weapon for Cam.  He is also known as a good blocker, making him a complete tight end.  If he replicates his production from last year, he has to be known as a definitive top 5 tight end.

Offensive Line

Now we come to the Panther’s biggest weakness on offense, and one that could derail their 2015 season.  The team has a solid quarterback with great potential, a tremendous tight end, solid running back, and a couple of potentially dangerous weapons at wideout, but if their line can’t do the job, then everything might come apart.  They performed poorly last year, and didn’t make a lot of upgrades.  The group finished 9th worst in total pressures allowed, gave up the 4th most hurries, and finished 26th in pass blocking efficiency according to Pro Football Focus.  Cam Newton can take a lot of heat as far as evading rushers, and avoiding injuries due to his size.  But, every quarterback is worse with less time, and he is no exception.

Carolina Panthers Line

Kalil plays at center and is their best player on the line.  He should help anchor the line, and is a good center.  He ranked the 11th best center last year, and was 9th the year before.  Daryl Williams was drafted out of Oklahoma in the fourth round, and could provide immediate help. He was a good pick, but I question why they waited this long to draft a lineman.  Williams will battle Remmer for the starting job.  I would’ve rather seen them take Williams, and another player in the first round, instead of Shaq Thompson.  Or they could’ve not traded up to get Funchess, and also taken a lineman in the third round.  This is an area, where the Panthers draft strategy might hurt them.  The rest of their players are average or questionable, but there is some potential that might make this a solid line.  Perhaps, that’s why the Panthers felt comfortable waiting so long to take a lineman.

They have Trai Turner at right guard who played well as a rookie, and was fairly inexperienced.  His development could really help the line, and should continue to get better.  He played last year at 21 years old, and many thought he should wait another year before entering the 2014 draft.  If he plays well, then the right side of their line could be pretty good actually.  However, when you get to the left side, things look a lot worse, mainly because they plan to start Michael Oher at left tackle.  He hasn’t played well in years and probably won’t be any better than the nightmare he replaced, Byron Bell.  Jonathan Martin was picked up, but recently retired.  It’s possible Williams could switch to left tackle if things get really bad, and Remmer continues his adequate play.  The left guard position is filled by Andrew Norwell, who did a fine job in 2014.  He was an undrafted free agent and started 11 games, but is still a relatively unknown commodity.  The line is a big question mark, and could drag this team down.  Perhaps their youth steps up, but they should’ve found an answer for left tackle.

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Join us next time for Part 2 as we preview the Carolina Panthers defense for 2015!

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