Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly leads a Panthers defense that was in the top 10 of every major category last year.
At No. 19 in the fanatix NFL power ranking are the defending NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers. After winning 12 games in 2013 with the NFL’s No. 2 defense, the Carolina Panthers made their first playoff appearance in over 5 years. A return trip seems unlikely in 2014 with a literal gauntlet of Pro Bowl QBs and elite defenses on the schedule.
Recap of 2013
The Panthers had their first winning season since 2008 behind the incredible play of their defense, led by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. Overall, the defense was No. 2 in yards allowed and points allowed, as well as top 10 in every other major defensive category.
After starting 1-3, the Panthers went on a tear in the league, winning their next 8 games in a row, and adding another 3-game winning streak to end the season and secure a No. 2 overall playoff seed. However, the Panthers were quickly eliminated by the San Francisco 49ers, ending Carolina’s season.
Recap of 2014 Offseason
The Panthers allowed three of their top four leading receivers – Steve Smith, Brandon Lafell and Ted Ginn – to depart in free agency. The players the Panthers got to replace them: Jerricho Cotchery, Ed Dickson, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood are generally seen as a major downgrade from the combination of consistency and explosiveness that their former receiving corps had.
The team drafted FSU WR Kelvin Benjamin in the first round, hoping that his overpowering size and athletic ability – very similar to Calvin Johnson – can allow him to be a force for the Panthers immediately.
Starting QB Cam Newton had to undergo surgery on a broken ankle but returned for the preseason and should be healthy by the start of the regular season.
Position of Strength: Defensive Line
With three rising stars on the defensive line, the Panthers have one of the defensive lines in the league. DEs Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson both had over 10 sacks in 2013, while rookie DT Star Lotulelei was one of the most dominant inside linemen in football. The addition of Missouri DE Kony Ealy adds pass rushing depth at DE or even DT considering his size and speed. With defensive lineman that can devour blockers, it’s no wonder that Luke Kuechly was able to rack up tackles and INTs so easily.
Position of Weakness: Wide Receiver
The “new” receiving corps for the Panthers has a fair amount of experience: Jerricho Cotchery is coming off arguably his best season, while Avant and Underwood both have big play ability. However, the combination of those receivers with TE Ed Dickson and rookie Kelvin Benjamin still does not match what the former receiving group with Smith, Lafell and Ginn brought to the team in terms of straight line speed and instinct. QB Cam Newton could struggle if Benjamin doesn’t get up to speed immediately.
Best Case Scenario
The Panthers only play 6 games against teams with a winning record from 2013 – 5 of them are in a row from Week 6 through Week 10. After Week 10, the remaining six games are a home game against the Falcons, away games against the Vikings and Saints, home for the Buccaneers and Browns and then on the road for the Falcons again. Assuming the Panthers can make it to the final stretch of the season with a .500 record, the Panthers could easily find themselves on a winning streak in the home stretch of the season and in the playoffs.
Worst Case Scenario
Starting in Week 2, the Panthers have 10 consecutive games against top 15 QBs. There are very few defenses that can be counted on to survive a gauntlet like that, especially if the QB struggles with a new group of receivers. Of the ten 10 teams they play in that span, only the Lions and Falcons had a losing record in 2013. The Panthers could find themselves several games or more below .500 by the time the schedule gets easy in November, which could eliminate them from contention very early.
Prediction: 3rd place in NFC South, no playoffs