“Oh, my god! It’s unbelievable the difference a year makes.” – Panthers Wide Receiver Coach Ricky Proehl
In 2014, the Carolina Panthers were the NFC South Division Champions. That easily goes on a list of things no one saw coming, and most of the NFC South’s 2014 escapades fill out the rest of said list. Carolina looked like an absolute wreck that forgot what wide receivers are as they dropped every big name going into the 2014 draft. The same draft that provided the Buccaneers with the monster that is Mike Evans gave the Carolina Panthers the beast that is Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin immediately became a respectable number one target, but the Panthers essentially became NFC South champs by default.
They managed to suck the least, and a team that was 3-8-1 in Week 13 hobbled their way to four more wins and a playoff bid. There’s a fair share of blame on the rest of the division that such a feat was even possible, but it still happened. Carolina went on to upset the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card round, but the Seattle Seahawks effectively squashed their cinderella story. The continued improvement of Carolina shows that the NFC South is shaking up to be almost as threatening as we thought it would be in 2014. Just like the Saints aren’t to be underestimated, nor are the Carolina Panthers. They may not have had the skill their playoff bid implied last year, but they just might in 2015. Let’s look at where the strengths and weaknesses lie in Carolina, and how that might play out against Tampa Bay.
Strengths: Cam Newton, Wideouts, and the Front Seven
Cammy Cam loves the kids, and the Panthers love Cammy Cam. They love him to the tune of $103.8 million with $67.6 million paid out in the first three years. While the Panthers haven’t yet grabbed that elusive first Lombardi Trophy (you know, that thing Tampa Bay’s already won), that’s not because of Cam Newton. Carolina has problems, but Cam isn’t one of them. Last year, Carolina saw basically their entire receiving squad vanish into thin air once the season was over, and Wide Receiver Coach Ricky Proehl was understandably alarmed. The recovery effort began with the drafting of Kelvin Benjamin 28th Overall in 2014, and Benjamin has proven himself already as their number one target. Carolina drafted Devin Funchess in the 2nd Round this year, and they also have Stephen Hill, Corey Brown, and Ted Ginn, Jr. rounding it out.
The third strength for Carolina is one to be proud of because it has remained a strength after the cleansing of the garbage that was Greg Hardy. With Hardy gone, the Panthers defensive line still boasts big, proven names such as defensive end Charles Johnson, defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Latulelei, and on the right side they have Kony Ealy and Frank Alexander both coming into their own. At linebacker, they’ve got the slightly overrated, but still undoubtedly excellent, Luke Kuechly as the cornerstone. The Panthers also spent a first round pick this year on linebacker Shaq Thompson out of Washington.
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Rushing Attack, and Secondary
The Panthers are trying to fix their offensive line, but it remains unproven as a unit. At tackle, they’ve instantly upgraded by bringing in former 49er Jonathan Martin and signing Michael Oher. There is some uncertainty about Oher, but he’s more than the subject of a good movie. Andrew Norwell was one of the standouts as an undrafted free agent picked up by Carolina last season, and he did better at left guard that most expected. That being said, there is still plenty of uncertainty within this unit. Much of how they gel will also influence how the rushing attack plays out. Cam Newton will get his moments, but running back Jonathan Stewart will be handling the majority of the carries. He’s got some potential behind him, but no back with Carolina has the potential to make a massive impact without a rock-solid offensive line.
Carolina’s secondary struggled last season, and much of the hope for the group lies in former Chicago Bear and University of Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajun (shoutout to the best place to eat near ULL, The Saint Street Inn) Charles Tillman. There’s no arguing Tillman’s skill, but the question is whether or not he’s got enough left in the tank to make a difference. The 34-year old is reaching his twilight years, and it’s going to take more than one aging veteran to turn things around. With the addition of Tillman, second-year cornerback Bené Benwikere will likely shift over to nickel. Tre Boston and veteran Roman Harper will be holding down the fort at safety, but neither instills the same confidence or fear that the front seven manages to. In order to be a truly dominant defense, Carolina will have to make improvements on the back end.
Verdict: The Carolina Panthers will test several units in Tampa Bay, but a few passing grades on the side of the Buccaneers could unravel the Panthers’ gameplan. If the offensive line can come together enough to hold up against the Panthers generally dominant defensive line, Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins have the potential to tear Carolina’s secondary to pieces. Both Tampa Bay and Carolina look like they’ll struggle to run the ball much against each other, but Cam Newton will test every facet of the Bucs’ defense in the air as well as on the ground. There was a lot of chatter last year about how no NFC South Champion had ever reigned in back to back years, and I was part of that noise. That being said, don’t let vague statistics allow you to overlook Carolina. Sir Purr may be a pushover, but the Panthers won’t be in 2015.