All it took was a 7-8-1 record for the Panthers to win the NFC South last season in a rare instance of a sub-.500 team winning a division. That was a distinct drop-off from the team’s 12-4 record in 2013. The division seems to be wide open again this year, and the Saints — last year’s runners-up — traded away their best offensive player, which should help the Panthers’ chances of winning the division for a third straight season. The Panthers, though, suffered a major injury in the preseason, losing WR Kelvin Benjamin for the season to a torn ACL.
QB Cam Newton put up the worst stats of his career, although he played only 14 games, missing a couple due to injury. He threw for 3,127 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s also known for his running ability and gained 539 yards on the ground with five more touchdowns. In his rookie season, Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen put up similar numbers to Benjamin, with 84 catches for 1,008 yards — both career highs — and six touchdowns. RB Jonathan Stewart was the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball for 809 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games, eight of them starts. Overall, the rushing attack ranked seventh best in the league, helped by Newton’s above-average numbers for a quarterback.
The big question heading into this season is how will the team fare without its leading receiver from last season. If Olsen can repeat the success he had in 2014, that will certainly help the passing game. The Panthers drafted WR Devin Funchess in the second round so they will have to rely on him this season and hope he has a strong rookie year similar to what Benjamin did last year. The Panthers seem to always have questions in the running game with injury-prone Stewart now atop the depth chart after the departure of RB DeAngelo Williams. RB Fozzy Whittaker, who was the third-string back last season is now the backup to Stewart.
Looking ahead to this year’s schedule, the Panthers begin with a couple of AFC South battles, at the Jaguars and hosting the Texans. Their toughest stretch looks to come in Weeks 6-9, a road game at the Seahawks, followed by home games against the Eagles, Colts and Packers. The Panthers finish the season with a couple of divisional battles, at the Falcons and hosting the Bucs. In most divisions, I wouldn’t give the Panthers much of a chance to compete for the division title. In the NFC South, however, they look like they could be the best team and, although they may not get to 10 wins, I think they’ll win the division again.