Last year all eyes in the NFL universe were focused on the state of North Carolina and the growing city of Charlotte thanks to the 15-1 Super Bowl runner ups.
The three time defending NFC south champs took the nation by storm with a ferocious defense and high octane offense led by a charismatic league MVP. After claiming the best season in franchise history the Panthers fell just short in the big game and making league history.
After such a record breaking season it’s scary to fathom that this team is just scratching the surface on their overall potential. Sure critics bring up the loss of star shutdown corner Josh Norman but the franchise didn’t lose anyone else. When you consider the fact that the rest of the core group is back along with a stout incoming draft class, it is reasonable to assume the Panthers may be deeper and more talented than last season.
The defense returns three pro bowlers and added more depth at all three levels of the unit. Carolina’s front seven was already arguably the best in football and GM David Gettleman added another hog molly in the first round. Vernon Butler will be a great addition to the talented D-line he’s a big body with even bigger upside who can help erase running lanes, and create nightmares alongside pro bowler Kawann Short.
The linebacker group returns one of the best duo’s in the game with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly covering every inch of the field. Shaq Thompson will also return after a promising rookie season last year. With those three guys alone most teams would be thrilled and when you add in super sub AJ Klein and last years ACC defensive player of the year Jeremy Cash this unit looks primed to be a force once again this upcoming season.
It seems every off season the knock on the Panthers has been the secondary unit and a lack of talent in that area. After all pro corner Josh Norman decided to take his talents to D.C. analysts are talking more of the same. “Without Norman, the Panthers’ cornerback unit goes from one of the league’s most feared to one of the weakest.” said Espn writer Mike Clay.
But this year’s unit could be the most effective in recent memory what they lack in established star power they make up for with great depth and upside. Rising stars Bene Benwikere and Kurt Coleman will be depended upon to carry the load and ease the youth movement.
Instead of attempting to draft one replacement for Norman Carolina decided to go with a committee approach. Rookie corners James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, and Zack Sanchez will be relied upon early to contribute and provide depth at the position. Although he comes from a smaller school Bradberry has drawn the most hype of the three and has drawn comparisons to Norman, he will take over his number 24 this season as well.
Cam Newton will lead the revamped offense into battle this year and he will be happy to have his number one receiver back. Kelvin Benjamin was impressive in his rookie campaign posting a 1,000 yard season and would’ve been a major contributor to this years Super Bowl run had he not torn his ACL in training camp. With the return of Benjamin, and a more seasoned Devin Funchess to pair with pro bowl tight end Greg Olsen the reigning MVP should light it up once again. The addition of undrafted rookie Keyarris Garrett should provide Newton with another weapon to unleash. Garrett lead the NCAA in receiving yards last season and triumphed through past injury issues to accumulate a stellar career at Tulsa University.
The backfield returns leading rusher Johnathan Stewart who was solid in his first year as the feature back he fell just short of a 1,000 yards on the ground. Stewart was a little banged up last season so the Cats will look to second year man Cameron Artis- Payne to shoulder some of the carries, he showed flashes of serious potential with limited touches last season.
Overall majority of the Panthers core group have yet to hit their primes which is a scary thought. This team will return this year with more experience after playing in a Super Bowl and a revamped roster, the target will be on their backs in the NFC as everyone will be gunning at the defending champs.