Lets all admit that none of us saw the Panthers going 15-1. However, when looking back, and looking at the way their schedule broke it all just kind of hit for them. To start, they only played four playoff teams, and when they played the Texans it was the Ryan Mallett led Texans at the time. Their most impressive win was at Seattle in week 5, and beating the Packers at home during a bad stretch for the Pack. The schedule was good to them, but make no mistake this is a really good team. They return a lot of talent, and while they may not be 15-1 next year, they should be right in the playoff, and the Super Bowl hunt once again.
The team seemed to have taken on the identity of the their coach. Nickname “Riverboat Ron” for his conservative nature, the team succeeded in that way. They dominated turnovers, relied on the run and clock control, and it spiraled them to 15-1. Mike Shula got a lot of credit for the offense, but to be honest, with Cam Newton how hard is it to make a game plan? He is the walking mismatch. On defense, Sean McDermott did a fine job, and he truly built up the front through the draft and now should be reaping the benefits.
As mentioned, Newton changes the game. He is a quarterback that you almost have to defend as a run first option. Then, of course is the fact that he can rifle a ball with deep field accuracy and you are just left throwing your hands up. Newton probably learned a ton of valuable lessons in the Super Bowl, and his rivalry with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks is starting to remind me of Manning vs. Brady. Only time will tell which one is which.
Of course Jonathan Stewart couldn’t put in a full season of work, but at the same time it was probably his best season of work in his career. While Newton may have opened lanes for him to run, you can argue that if Stewart wasn’t just as respected as a runner, Newton would have nowhere to run. Stewart put in just short of 1,000 yards in 13 games, and with Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, and even a rare full back in Mike Tolbert, the team should be set at back moving forward.
Wide Receiver was probably the team’s worst unit last year, but they get a big name back with Kelvin Benjamin. They also have Devin Funchess, who in his rookie year emerged late. One thing to note about Funchess is that he was a tight end until two years ago and his route tree is pretty limited. He also doesn’t have great hands, but does have athletic ability. Funchess, as well as Tedd Ginn converted less than half of their targets into catches, and let’s just say I am not going to blame Newton for the majority of those. With Funchess, the thought is he is 21, and will learn, with Ginn at age 30 we are just sick of his drops. Ginn is signed, but will more than likely go from top wide out in targets, to fourth as Corey Brown has done well in the slot, and the Panthers should be moving forward with Funchess and Benjamin. This makes Jerricho Cotchery decision to retire easier in my eyes.
At tight end is the band aid that this receiving core needed. It also was the reliable pass catcher Newton would have been nothing without. Olsen is now up there right below Grok, but on a list of guys in a tier directly below him. Even with Benjamin back, Olsen should be looked at as the team’s top receiving option.
The Panthers interior line is what also helped in opening up the run game. Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner got a lot of publicity this year and deservedly so. As for the rest of the line, meh. Michael Oher was schemed around to show that he wasn’t the team’s truest weakness. However, what it did was show that actually Mike Remmers on the right side is the teams even bigger weakness. What Von Miller did to him should not define his season, but his season was a group of performances that showed what Miller did to him could be seen coming. All of the Panthers starting lineman are signed, but this is a position they can upgrade, as they have a talented roster and can add luxury type picks in the draft.
When you have a front seven that basically doesn’t need touched, it also becomes easier to make luxury type picks in the draft. Jared Allen retired, but he was honestly their fourth best pass rusher. Charles Johnson, Kony Ealy, and Mario Addison are relentless off of the edge, and when looking at Addison and Ealy you are looking at two young guys who can be built around. Ealy had a coming out during the Super Bowl, ad he could really take a step forward in 2016.
On the interior the Panthers actually generated a better pass rush than the edge. The combination of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short is probably the best duo of interior guys in the league. Both of them are maulers, and when Dwan Edwards and Kyle Love mix in, they never wear down, and continue to wear you down. Love is a free agent, but to have three strong interior lineman, they really just need replacement type play, whether it be from Love or not.
The linebacker position is also loaded. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson basically give you everything you can ask for from linebackers. Kuechly the captain, Davis the badass vet, and Thompson the crazy athletic rookie. Davis played the Super Bowl with a broken arm, but at age 32 had no doubts about retiring. AJ Klein is a nice depth player and started all of 2014 and parts of this year before Thompson earned his role. It gives them depth essentially across the entire front seven, ad this front should be just as dangerous, if not more moving forward.
The Panthers seem to have two glaring holes. The offensive line, and the secondary. Step one will be to either franchise or tie up Josh Norman long term. Norman deserves it, and even though it was one year, he seems to have all of the tools, as well as the mentality to last in this league. Aside from Norman a lot can be upgraded here. Bene Benwikere and Kurt Coleman are penciled into their slots, and Coleman had a nice year, but neither are guys you are investing in long term. Coleman seemed to be a ball hawk who thrived with the Panthers up front pressure, and to bet on him being so successful every year isn’t a safe one. However, they don’t really have a safety signed next to him, and while Tre Boston is an option, he is probably viewed more as a depth guy. Therefore safety is a greater immediate need, but the overall secondary can improve.
Where do they go?
As mentioned this should be a team that gets used to winning a lot. They have the front and they have the star in Cam Newton. Now it will be a focus on touching up around him to create a better roster. It should start with the offensive line and the secondary and this team should be right back where they were next year.