Can Panthers Three-Peat?
September 10, 2015
The 2014 season saw the Carolina Panthers accomplish something no other team in the NFC South had done before. They repeated as division champs. The 2015 season starts this weekend and Carolina will try to extend that streak to three years. And once again, the Panthers will likely rely on an excellent defense that is the strength of the team.
Carolina opens with Jacksonville on Sunday and fans hope the team can avoid the awful start they had in 2014, when they began the season 3–8–1. Then, before those fans starting thinking about the likely high draft choice the franchise was heading toward, the Panthers ripped off five straight wins. They won four straight must-win games in the regular season and one in the playoffs over Arizona before falling to Seattle on the road in a divisional playoff game.
Carolina, once again, will be led on defense by the best middle linebacker in the game in Luke Kuechly and on offense by quarterback Cam Newton. Kuechly and Newton are the faces of the franchise and will again determine much of the team’s fortunes in 2015.
The Panthers will remain a run-first offense in 2015. In the final five weeks of the 2014 regular season, Carolina ran for more yards than any other NFL team and went 4–1. You have to believe that is the blueprint again this season. Jonathan Stewart will get a high majority of the carries now that DeAngelo Williams has been released. Newton is the Panthers’ second-best running threat. Newton has always been a dual-threat quarterback though it would be nice for him to avoid some hits and potential injuries.
Stewart and Newton will be working behind what should be an improving offensive front. The most notable change on the offensive line comes at left tackle, where Michael Oher was signed to replace Byron Bell at one of the Panthers’ problem positions.
I have spent countless paragraphs in these pages talking of how Carolina needs to surround Newton with some playmakers. Kelvin Benjamin was a nice find in 2014. But a stinging knee injury early in training camp has knocked him out for the year. That means that tight end Greg Olsen is the lone proven threat. Olsen amassed just over 1,000 yards of receptions last season and he will be counted on again to match or surpass his 2014 production.
It is time for Newton to make those around him better. Russell Wilson does it in Seattle. It has long been expected that Newton would do the same for Carolina. Newton is an incredible athlete and has matured into a team leader. Unlike 2014, however, Newton has been healthy throughout the offseason, which should help. The Panthers also showed their commitment to their franchise quarterback by signing Newton to a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension in early June.
Newton will likely turn the game over to the Panthers’ defense. And that could be a good thing. It all starts with the linebackers for Carolina. The Panthers likely have the best tandem of backers in the game in Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
They rarely come off the field, and are involved in virtually every tackle. And the defense may have another potential star in rookie linebacker, Shaq Thompson. The Washington Husky standout was the team’s first round draft pick and it looks like he will start.
The secondary was the team’s weak spot for most of last season and remains a little shaky. Cornerback Josh Norman is emerging as one of the best cover corners in the NFC, but the second corner spot may need to be filled by aging veteran Charles Tillman. Safety Roman Harper has lost a step but is still a crafty vet. Free safety Tre Boston has speed that sometimes makes up for his youthful mistakes.
Carolina is one of only three NFL teams to boast a top-10 defense in each of the past three seasons (Seattle and San Francisco are the others). If the Panthers are going to make the playoffs again, they will need a fourth straight year in the top 10.
I am not sure where Carolina will finish this season. I do know they are fortunate to play in a division without a great team. And it looks like the early part of the schedule looks soft enough that they should start at least 3–1. Newton’s play will be as important as ever, but the Panthers also need at least one more playmaker on offense. A stellar defense will keep Carolina in nearly every game. This is a team that should contend for a third straight playoff berth but will need to improve offensively if it is going to advance to the postseason.