Yesterday I became the newest member of the All-Out Blitz coverage team. You can check out my other 24 NFL team previews here: Lowe & Outside
Today I’ll be previewing the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers’ 2016 season, coached by Ron Rivera and assembled by general manager Dave Gettleman. After an impressive regular season that led to a 15-1 record, people still didn’t believe in Cam Newton and the Panthers, saying their schedule was “soft,” with arguably the toughest game against the Green Bay Packers at home. They then went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals to make the Super Bowl, defying expectations again, only to come back to earth with a loss against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Now, heading into the 2016 season, the Panthers believe they can handle the added expectations and head back to the Super Bowl, hopefully for a victory this time.
After a disappointing season from defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the Panthers went big and selected DT Vernon Butler in the first round, making him the first Louisiana Tech player to be drafted in the first round. Despite having a lot of other DT on the board at the time (and many supposedly “better”), the Panthers went with Butler. His drafting also means that they have financial flexibility down the road with him, Lotulelei and Kawann Short, as well as three defensive tackles who can play any down and create havoc. Outside of Butler, the Panthers went on to draft CB James Bradberry from Samford. Then CB Daryl Worley from West Virginia. And then CB Zack Sanchez from Oklahoma. Do you think this strategy might have anything to do with the losses of CB Josh Norman and Charles Tillman? Yes, so do I, as CB Bene Benikwere is the only corner remaining on the roster with significant playing time last season.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Panthers brought in another DT in Paul Soliai from Atlanta, but he’s not even a lock to make the roster. Neither is backup center Gino Gradkowski. They also brought in veteran punter Mike Scifres from San Diego to replace Brad Nortman. In other words, not much happened. The biggest non-drafted addition to this team is WR Kelvin Benjamin, who was out for the 2015 season with a torn ACL, and should become the teams No. 1 receiver again.
I already pretty much mentioned everybody who the Panthers lost. They let punter Brad Nortman walk to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and safety Roman Harper is now across the division in New Orleans. All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman and the Panthers had a bit of a snafu with the contract situations, and the Panthers eventually let him walk into free agency. He is now with the Washington Redskins, and he was arguably the second most important player on that defense outside of ILB Luke Kuechly.
With hopefully a full season from DE Charles Johnson, an improved season from DT Star Lotulelei, and the addition of first rounder Vernon Butler, the Panthers D-Line might be the strongest in the NFC. Kawann Short had a Pro-Bowl season, defensive ends Kony Ealy and Mario Addison emerged to become solid edge rushers, and even defensive tackle Kyle Love had an impact on a few games. This defensive line has stars, depth and skill, and the depth part is why I have it ranked ahead of the linebacking group. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are one of the best duos in the NFL, but the third spot is manned by the mediocre A.J. Klein.
Safety Kurt Coleman is another stud on this defense, but outside of him, the secondary is filled with question marks. The Panthers look to rely on Bene Benikwere and three rookie corners this season, and everybody will likely attempt to hold down the fort on the pass-rush and launch an aerial attack on this defense. Defensive backs Tre Boston and Trenton Robinson have been waiting in the wings for an opening at safety, but they are still in the prove-it stage as well.
5 Most Important Players to Panthers’ Success
QB Cam Newton
DT Kawann Short
ILB Luke Kuechly
OLB Thomas Davis
S Kurt Coleman
Look, Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr. and Jonathan Stewart are all good and are all important offensively, but everybody knows this offense is all about MVP Cam Newton. He provides this great defense with a championship caliber offense, and without him the Panthers are mediocre. That said, the Panthers need a healthy and productive Davis/Kuechly duo to go anywhere, and Kawann Short is now the start of the pass-rush after leading the team with 11.0 sacks. And with all of the depletion in the secondary, it relies on veteran Kurt Coleman more than ever to lead this group and help make up for any shortcomings.
I like this team to win the AFC South. Are they going 15-1 again? No. I’d say the 10-6 to 13-3 range is more likely, and a potential visit back to the Super Bowl. With the loss of Josh Norman et. al. in the secondary, however, Arizona is my team to beat in the NFC, and at this point, the path to Super Bowl 51 goes through Glendale. Maybe the Panthers will defy expectations yet again?
You can also check out this preview, as well as Jon’s other 2016 NFL Team Previews, over on Lowe and Outside.
Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images