NFL preview 2017: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 09: Christian McCaffrey
CHARLOTTE, NC - AUGUST 09: Christian McCaffrey /

The Carolina Panthers had a terrible season a year ago. Are they poised to mount a furious comeback in the NFC South or is their competitive window closing?

Last year did not go the way the Carolina Panthers hoped it would. While achieving another 15-1 mark during the regular season was not realistic, this was a team many felt in the NFC could get back to Super Bowl LI in Houston. Turns out, Carolina cratered after their no-show game in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara versus the Denver Broncos.

Carolina went an embarrassing 6-10, a full nine games worse than their mark from a season ago. The offensive line was a mess, the secondary struggle and 2015 NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton saw his mechanics and accuracy go in the toilet. It was a regrettable year for Carolina and especially Newton.

The Panthers wound up with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. They opted to take Mr. Everything in running back Christian McCaffrey. His NFL prototype is that of a more productive version of Reggie Bush, but we’ll have to wait and see on that. Carolina would also add another versatile playmaker in wide receiver Curtis Samuel formerly of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the second round.

The consensus is that the Panthers will finish 2017 somewhere in between the six wins from last year and the 15 from two years ago. However, the question we’re not sure about is where in that range Carolina falls?

The NFC South might be the toughest division in football. Sure, the New Orleans Saints might bring up the rear again and go 7-9 for the fourth straight season. However, Carolina, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could all make the NFC playoffs this winter.

On paper, Carolina should have the best defense in the division. Guys like Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Star Lotulelei should make the defensive line formidable once again. Carolina is almost always dynamic in the trenches defensively any way. The secondary should improve, as second-year cornerback James Bradberry has shown a great deal of promise coming out of Samford.

Where it gets interesting with the Panthers is the overall health of the linebacking corps. Thomas Davis is a gamer if there ever was one, but he’s had three major knee surgeries and may have seen his best ball pass him by.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best player on this Panthers team, but his issues with concussions should have the Carolina organization terrified about his long-term health. Then there is Shaq Thompson, who while promising needs to show that he can live up to that star potential he had coming out of Washington.

For Carolina to win the NFC South for the fourth time in five years, the Panthers will have to win with defense. While the offense can improve, it simply cannot carry this team. Newton oozes on-field charisma and is great to have on your team if the team is playing well. However when it hits the fan, he’s not willing to overcome adversity. He’s an immense talent, but probably the biggest front-runner in the NFL today.

Newton does have a handful of excellent weapons to distribute the ball to. Rookies McCaffrey and Samuel were dynamic playmakers in Power 5 schools for the last few years. Despite looking like an offensive lineman at OTAs, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin looks to be a strong possession receiver Newton can lean on in the passing game.

Let’s not forget about what it means for the Panthers to have a top-five tight end in football in Greg Olsen. He has become a perennial Pro Bowler in Charlotte and was a runner-up to Eli Manning and Larry Fitzgerald for the 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year. To have a leader on the field at tight end in a guy like Olsen is a huge get for the Panthers offensively.

What it really comes down to for the Panthers offense is how effectively this team can run the football. It sets up everything. Like a series circuit on a Christmas tree, the Panthers offense is a well-oiled machine when it can pound the rock with conviction with guys like Jonathan Stewart and Cameron Artis-Payne.

However when the ground game struggles, Carolina struggles to move the football on even mediocre defenses. It’s not like this is a new offensive system for Newton and the Panthers. Mike Shula has been in charge of the offense since 2011. There are no excuses if this team cannot execute the offense at a high level. The players know the scheme, plain and simple.

Carolina did have a few changes in the building this offseason it will have to adjust to. Long-time defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is now the head coach with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. He was bound to be an NFL coach at some point, possibly as early as after 2015’s run to the Super Bowl. Joining him in Orchard Park is former assistant general manager Brandon Beane. He replaced Doug Whaley after a head-scratching draft for the Bills.

Carolina has largely promoted from within to address theses issues. Taking over the defense for McDermott will be former assistant coach Steve Willis. He’s been with the Panthers for a while now and can lead on defensive-minded coach Ron Rivera in his first year as defensive coordinator.

That might be a terrific hire, but reaching into one’s past in terms of team-building may not be a great thing. Carolina has former general manager Marty Hurney running the front office in the interim. He was the guy Dave Gettleman replaced in 2013. Hurney likes to pay his players what they’re worth on behalf of former player owner Jerry Richardson, but drove the Panthers into salary cap purgatory, which led to cap expert Gettleman’s arrival.

Overall, the Panthers should be improved and will be a contender in the NFC. It absolutely helps that the Panthers inherit a fourth-place schedule after a difficult 2016 NFL season.


Simply put, the x-factor for the 2017 Panthers is Kuechly’s health. If his issues with concussions are a thing of the past, he will play his heart out at an All-Pro level and lead this defense like he has for years. A healthy Kuechly means that Carolina will finish over .500 and probably make the NFC Playoffs.

However, he’s not a guy that any football player can replace. It’s not just his tackling ability or his elite ability to cover the pass, it is his on-field leadership that sets him apart. Football fans have witnessed greatness out of Kuechly for the last four years or so. He has taken the baton from Ray Lewis as the best inside linebacker in football and run with it.

We can’t predict how long Kuechly will be able to play in the NFL, or even if it is going to be at this elite level. That being said, he might be the most talented player in Panthers franchise history. For a defensive-minded football team, you cannot ask for a better playmaker than what Kuechly has provided Carolina for years. It would be a shame if injuries for him into an early retirement.

Best Case

Carolina’s best case scenario is one where the Panthers go about 12-4, win the NFC South and play in the NFC Championship. If the 2017 NFC Championship is in Charlotte and momentum is heavily in Carolina’s favor, the Panthers can play in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

Offensively, the Panthers just don’t have what it takes to hang with either the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers should either come out of the AFC. If it’s a team like the Kansas City Chiefs, yes, Carolina can win its first Super Bowl. Third time’s a charm, right?

Besides record improvement and good fortune with injuries, McCaffrey wins Offensive Rookie of the Year in a landslide. Newton somehow finds a way to be a precision passer for the first time in his life. Essentially, the Panthers establish a new paradigm and extend their championship window throughout the rest of the decade.

Worst Case

The Super Bowl run proves to be a total anomaly. The 2017 Panthers resemble the 2016 Panthers and this team finishes third or fourth in the NFC South, depending on how the New Orleans Saints do. Carolina finishes below .500 and that’s not acceptable to Richardson. Heads roll in Charlotte on Black Monday, while Atlanta and Tampa Bay get ready for deep playoff runs.

Newton continues to struggle with his touch as a passer. He is convinced that running the football is the best course of action and he gets dinged up behind another lackluster offensive line. Kuechly and Davis cannot stay healthy and the Panthers defense craters instantaneously. Bradberry regresses slightly, wishing McDermott don’t take the Bills job.

Another sub-.500 season would be terrible for the Panthers. What would be worse is if they can somehow convince themselves that they’re right there with Atlanta and Tampa Bay despite going 2-4 in the division. Odds are that Carolina won’t struggle, but this could be a total grease fire if everything goes wrong this season.

Final Word

Will the Panthers be better than last year? Absolutely, but this is not an NFC juggernaut. Carolina should be one of the eight best teams in the NFC, probably top-six. Bank of America Stadium is a great home field advantage for the Panthers and this should be a team plays in January.

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Carolina will need a tiebreaker to win the NFC South, but can definitely win an NFC playoff game, maybe two, if given the right series of matchups. Essentially, split the nine-win difference from a year ago in half, add it to last season’s win total and that’s what the Panthers’ record should look like.