Over the course of 32 days (or so) I will be previewing all 32 NFL teams, followed by an overall season prediction post, leading up to the start of the 2014 season. This post is previewing the Carolina Panthers.
Between 2009 and 2012, the Panthers didn’t win more than eight games in any season, then went 12-4 and won the NFC South in 2013. The defense was largely what led the team to the division title -= it was ranked second in the league in points allowed — holding teams to 13 points or fewer in half of their regular-season games, including a rare shutout against the Giants.
QB Cam Newton had a mixed season, with the fewest passing yards (3379) but most passing touchdowns (24) in his three-year career. He did that without having a star receiver, and his top two wide receivers are both with different teams this year — Steve Smith is on the Ravens and Brandon LaFell is with the Patriots. The two of them accounted for nearly 40% of Newton’s completions for the season. That leaves TE Greg Olsen as the main pass-catching threat that Newton is familiar with. He caught 73 passes last year for 816 yards and six touchdowns which, on the bright side, were all team highs. All told, the passing game was ranked just 29th in the league. The running game was better — ranked 11th in 2013 — and the core of the running game returns intact. RBs DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert combined for more than 1200 yards while RB Jonathan Stewart had limited work in an injury-filled season. Newton also added more than 500 yards on the ground, the lowest total of his career.
As alluded to, the receiving core will look different this year, with Olsen the main returnee. The main wide receivers on the depth chart are veteran Jerricho Cotchery, who has started only 13 games total since 2010 and first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who has upside but is obviously untested in the NFL. The offensive line is also questionable with a lot of turnover there. With a schedule that includes a stretch of five consecutive games against playoff teams — including the Super Bowl champion Seahawks — not doing the Panthers any favors, regression is inevitable this season and it might be tough to even finish the season with a .500 record.