A year after going 15-1, the Panthers finished 2016 with a disappointing 6-10 record behind a subpar season from QB Cam Newton, who failed to throw for 20 touchdowns a season after earning NFL MVP honors. They tried to improve their offense in the early part of the draft, taking Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey as the No. 8 overall pick and making Ohio St. WR Curtis Samuel their second-round pick. McCaffrey is expected to see a lot of action right away as the backup to veteran RB Jonathan Stewart and as an action in the passing game, catching passes out of the backfield. The team is also welcoming back a familiar face with the signing of free-agent DE Julius Peppers, who began his career with the Panthers, playing with them from 2002-2009.
In 15 games last season — 14 starts — Newton completed just 52.9% of his passes for 3,509 yards and 19 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. Newton also rushed for 359 yards and 5 touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen’s 80 receptions was a team high. He totaled 1,073 receiving yards with 3 touchdowns. WR Kelvin Benjamin faded a bit after a good start to the season, finishing with 63 catches for 941 yards and 7 touchdowns. Stewart led the rushing attack with 218 carries for 824 yards and 9 touchdowns. The offense was middle-of-the-pack, scoring the 15-most points in the league. The defense allowed the seventh-most points but was tied for the fourth-most interceptions with 17.
With his track record of success in the league, I don’t expect Newton to have another season with numbers similar to last year.He may not return to the level of his 2015 MVP campaign, but 20-25 passing touchdowns should be attainable for the quarterback. Olsen is one of the best tight ends in the league, but the Panthers don’t have much depth in the receiving game behind him and Benjamin. That is where McCaffrey could be a help, He had 99 receptions in three seasons at Stanford, giving Newton someone to throw to in the backfield when McCaffrey is not running the ball to give Stewart a breather. At 37, Peppers obviously isn’t as good as he was in his prime, but he still had 7.5 sacks last year with the Packers. He could provide some help for a defense that didn’t do great last year.
The 2017 Panthers schedule begins with what looks to be a relatively easy road game against the 49ers. The Panthers then go home to play the Bills in Week 2 and the Saints in Week 3. They hit the road again in Week 4, heading to Foxboro to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. After a Week 5 game at the Lions, the Panthers return home for a Thursday night game against the Eagles. The Panthers face the Falcons at home in Week 9 before a Monday night game against the Dolphins in Week 10. Week 11 is when the Panthers finally get their bye, which is followed by consecutive road games against the Jets and Saints. A couple NFC North opponents follow, with the Vikings in Week 14 and Packers in Week 15 — both at home. The Panthers host the Buccaneers in Week 16 before hitting the road to finish the season against the Falcons in Week 17. I think the Panthers will win eight or nine games this season, better than last year but not likely to get them in the playoffs.