2014 preview: Do the Panthers have the firepower to survive?
FOX Sports Carolinas previews the upcoming NFL season with an in-depth look at the Carolina Pnathers, who are looking to repeat as NFC South champs:
2013: 12-4; NFC South champs; Lost 23-10 at home to San Francisco in divisional round.
Head coach: Ron Rivera (25-23, 4th season).
Key departures: WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR/KR Ted Ginn, OT Jordan Gross, G Geoff Hangartner, G Travelle Wharton, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Michael Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell
Key arrivals: WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, WR WR Tiquan Underwood, TE Ed Dickson, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, WR Kelvin Benjamin, DE Kony Ealy, G Trai Turner, S Tre Boston, CB Bene Benwikere
1. Will Cam Newton stay healthy?
Yes, this question is asked about every quarterback for every team, but this question isn’t about bad luck that may result in Cam Newton going down with an injury. Rather, will the sketchy offensive line be able to protect him from getting a serious one?
While the offensive line has never been stellar during Newton’s time in Carolina, it was serviceable. Now, however, it looks to be a major problem, and many NFL experts consider it to be one of the worst in the league.
There will be a new starting left tackle, a new starting right guard, likely a new starting right tackle and a starting guard coming back from an injury that forced him to miss much of last season. The only stabilizing force is Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. Making it worse is that in previous years, Newton could always use his legs to escape by being one of the best running quarterbacks there is. But with him coming off of ankle surgery, it’s unknown just how well he’ll be able to escape the pocket this season, which means he could end up taking more hard hits from charging defensive linemen.
2. Can the running backs find their former selves?
It was just a few short years ago that the Carolina Panthers were considered to have one of the best 1-2 punches at running back in the NFL with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
But how things have changed.
Williams has seen his yards per carry average decrease in each of the last three seasons, while Stewart, 27, has missed 16 games over the past two seasons due to various injuries. And at this point, there’s little reason to believe that either one of those aspects will change.
Williams is 31, and it’s a statistical fact that running backs start slowing down and become less productive once they hit 30. As he’s done in his last few seasons, Williams will have a large output in one game only to be completely ineffective in the next couple.
Stewart, on the other hand, is the team’s best ball carrier, but he can’t stay healthy, which has been a problem since the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2008. In 2012, Stewart hurt both of his ankles and played in only nine games. Last offseason, he had surgery on each and didn’t return until November. A few weeks later, he tore his MCL and missed the remainder of the season.
And now Stewart begins this year’s training camp on the shelf because of a pulled hamstring.
Carolina desperately needs one, if not both, to be productive in order to take the pressure off of Newton, so the team can continue the ball-control offense that it likes to employ.
3. Who will catch the ball?
Let’s assume that the offensive line will hold up nicely for Newton — and that’s a big assumption — the question then becomes exactly who will be on the receiving end of his passes?
Yes, the team signed Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, but it’s not like either are in consideration for the Pro Bowl every year … or any year for that matter. Carolina also signed tight end Ed Dickson, who had a nice season a few years ago, but was a major disappointment for Baltimore last year.
Steady and reliable tight end Greg Olson may be the best of the entire bunch.
The Panthers drafted receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of May’s NFL Draft out of Florida State, but history shows it’s difficult to expect rookie wideouts to have an immediate impact.
Newton and his receivers know the criticism and are using it as a motivational tool.
"The elephant in the room has already been stated," Newton said. "You don’t have to go in there and tell those guys, ‘Hey, you’re projected as the sorriest receivers in the NFL.’ We already know. But with that, those guys already have that fire in their eyes.
"It’s kind of like a slap in — not only their face — but my face, as well. The things that have been said, the reports, who cares? Because at the end of the day, we will be ready to play football, and Carolina Panthers football. Hard-nosed, and everybody’s going to have to do their job."
For his sake, it better happen.
Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei
For the first half of last season, rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei seemed a lock for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, just as his teammate Luke Kuechly had done the year before at linebacker. But it was just after the midway point that the first-round draft pick out of Utah hit the proverbial rookie wall.
And even though he faded some down the stretch and ultimately didn’t win the honor, Lotulelei still finished with three sacks, 34 tackles and 14 assists and was the exact anchor the Panthers had been so desperately looking for at defensive tackle the previous five seasons.
Now, with a full 16 games under his belt, Lotulelei says this past offseason and OTAs were exponentially better for him because he could just concentrate on football, as opposed to having to get acclimated with a new city, teammates and coaching staff.
"The biggest difference is definitely the comfort level, and not only on the football field, but in the classroom, too, with my teammates and my group with the defensive line," he said. "You can just really feel the comfort level everybody has this year. Everybody is anxious and ready to go."
The defense carried this team to an unexpected 12-4 season last year and there’s belief the same could happen again this season.
The Panthers have what is considered by most as the best front-seven in the NFL, and it’d be pretty hard to argue against it. Had it not been for the defense last season, which kept Carolina in the game until the offense could finally score, the Panthers would likely have been below .500.
With star defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson pressuring the quarterbacks from the outside, with Lotulelei holding down the middle and Kuechly and Thomas Davis being one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL, there’s no reason to expect the same won’t happen.
Moreover, the defense did this with a below-average secondary last year. The coaching staff believes this completely revamped position group will be much better than last season.
Offensively, Newton is entering his fourth season and with bigger wide receiver targets, there is hope that he will become more accurate with his passing than he has been throughout his career, which has been average, at best. Also, cantankerous wide receiver Steve Smith is now with Baltimore and the hope from management is this will make for a more cohesive offensive unit and locker room.
It begins with the offensive line. There are two undrafted players that look to be the starting tackles, with one of them having never played the position in the NFL (Nate Chandler), and the other which ranked ninth in giving up the most sacks allowed last season (Byron Bell). And that doesn’t even begin to address the question marks at each guard position.
This offense isn’t built for speed or to put up big points in a hurry. This is a plodding unit that relies heavily on ball control and the run. And if the offensive line isn’t up to snuff, then Newton will have little time to throw and the running backs will have little holes to dart through.
Numerous times last year, every call and lucky bounce that could have gone Carolina’s way, did. Remember the official that picked up his thrown flag in the end zone on the last play of the game against New England that would have been pass interference against Kuechly, but instead they waived it off, thus giving the Panthers the win? Fans and the team can’t expect those things to happen as often as they did last season.
As a result, that would seem to indicate a few more losses are on the way.
Add that to Atlanta and Tampa, both of which are expected to vastly improve over last season’s respective debacles, and it could spell a sub-.500 season for Carolina.
ALEX MARVEZ’S 2014 PREDICTION
Even with a dominant front seven on defense, another 12-4 record and NFC South title is too much to expect after the offseason losses Carolina sustained. The club never found a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver to replace Steve Smith after the Panthers icon was released. Carolina also didn’t sign or draft a left tackle to replace the retiring Jordan Gross, instead taking a giant leap of faith that converted right tackle Byron Bell can protect quarterback Cam Newton’s blind side. Such decisions place even more pressure on Newton to carry the offensive load. Prediction: 8-8.