The Panthers won the NFC South in 2013, one year after finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season. In his third year as a pro, quarterback Cam Newton went from being a fantasy football superstar to a division winner. In 2014, he’ll be asked to do repeat that performance without either of his top two wide receivers from a season ago.
Gone are veterans Steve Smith (Baltimore) and Brandon LaFell (New England), as rookie Kelvin Benjamin and veterans Jason Avant, Jericho Cotchery, and Tiquan Underwood fill in the depth chart at wideout. If that doesn’t blow you away, you’re not alone. On paper, it’s one of the least dangerous wide receiver groups in the league.
An economist would point to upcoming expiring deals with stars defensive end Greg Hardy, linebacker Luke Kuechly and Newton and suggest those three players are why the Panthers didn’t go hard after a DeSean Jackson or Hakeem Nicks in free agency. That economist would be right. But without a proven No. 1 receiving target, more of the pass-catching workload will be placed on tight end Greg Olsen and running backs Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The latter two won’t be mistaken for Darren Sproles or Roger Craig anytime soon.
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The Panthers’ offense wasn’t the only unit impacted by free agency. Standout safety Mike Mitchell left for Pittsburgh, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn signed with Minnesota. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will look to get the most out of veteran newcomers Thomas Decoud and Antoine Cason, two players who’ve proven they can play in the league and are looking for a new start.
McDermott’s defense is going to do its part. It’s too talented across the board. and he’s too good of a coach for the unit to suffer a major drop-off.
Where the team is headed will be on the offense. Newton has all the skills in the world, playoff appearance under his belt and a looming contract negotiation in the near future. Expect him to be as good, if not better, in 2014 as he was in 2013. Whether he can take the Panthers to the same heights they reached last year may very well come down to just how much his new crop of receivers can exceed the low expectations being placed upon them. All eyes might not be on Superman this time around. They could be on the patchwork group of men who will be catching his passes.