Know Thy Enemy: Carolina Panthers

In the finale of my NFC South exposé, I’ll be looking at the Carolina Panthers. I’ll admit, this is a little difficult for me to write objectively. As much as I dislike them, the point of this series has been to understand what we’ll be up against this season. The NFC South has long been considered one of the tougher and more unpredictable divisions in the NFL. This is made clear given the fact that there hasn’t been a repeat division champion since the NFC South’s creation in 2002. I hate to be the bearer of bad news to Panthers fans, but that statistic is not likely to change this season. The 2013 NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers are a shell of what they were last season.


Carolina Panthers

Some things about that shell haven’t changed. The cornerstone is, quite clearly, Cam Newton. Newton, or “Cammy Cam” as my best friend tends to call him, is a very dynamic dual threat quarterback. Newton received a lot of flack for having a sophomore slump in the 2012 season. However, what’s most telling is how much more efficient he became last season following that performance. In his rookie season, Newton had over 4,000 yards passing and 21 passing touchdowns; that was magnified when you took into account he also ran for 700 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns.

In 2012, he ran for more yards yet only managed 8 rushing touchdowns. He actually had three less interceptions than his rookie seasons, but fumbled the ball nearly twice as many times. Lack of ball control made his sophomore attempt a train wreck. On top of this, Newton’s passing completion percentage went down to 57.7% compared to a rookie completion percentage of 60%. In 2013, he started to truly get his act together. Newton has finally shaken off the shell of his emotional and inconsistent young self to find a quarterback who seems more and more polished as the games go on.

Last year, it felt like Cam Newton found himself. He threw only 13 interceptions along with a career record 24 passing touchdowns. He ran less than he ever had, and only fumbled the ball twice all season. Only two fumbles, compared to a total of nine in 2012. Newton’s completion percentage climbed a bit to 61.7%. Newton’s numbers may not be astronomically impressive like Peyton Manning, but he’s doing his job and doing it well. Cam Newton is the least of the Panther’s worries next season. His receiving corps however… that’s a different story.

As of right now, the Panther’s receivers are likely to be Kelvin Benjamin, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant, Tavarres King, and Jerricho Cotchery. Doesn’t inspire much hope, does it? Benjamin is an impressive talent out of Florida State who was key in Jameis Winston leading them all the way to the BCS National Championship. He’s solid, but I don’t believe Benjamin can anchor this early as a number one receiver. Unfortunately, he’ll have to do his best as the rest of the group certainly can’t do that.

The only battle tested receiver on their roster who has had an impressive season is Jerricho Cotchery, who had his best year in 2013 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His 10 touchdowns last season are more than Jason Avant has caught in his last six seasons with the Eagled combined. King was drafted by the Broncos in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, only to be picked up by the Panthers by October of 2013 after being waived by Denver. Underwood is an awesome guy, and I was incredibly sad to see him leave Tampa. Unfortunately, no matter how much I like him, he continued to have an issue dropping passes at times. Underwood is solid, but he’s not consistent enough to play the sort of role this passing offense sorely needs.

Really, the only person Newton can completely trust is tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen is solid and has been very key to the success of the Panther’s defense since his arrival, however he can’t carry the defense. Olsen is great, but he’s not Jimmy Graham. Similar to tight end, the Panther’s aren’t necessarily hurting at running back. DeAngelo Williams anchors a very respectable group running backs, but there is nothing mind blowing about them.

All of this play will eventually rest on the offensive line, which is a large question mark leading into training camp. There isn’t enough star power on the roster for the line to allow unnecessary pressure. Center Ryan Kalil may end up being the only player returning to where he was at the end of last season. The line has a lot of talent, it’s just a matter of bringing it all together. Camp, as well as preseason, will be key in the group building much needed chemistry. They’ll have to be locked in tight from week one, especially since they’ll be facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on week one.

I can only imagine that, if the line shows any sense of weakness in the preseason or early in the game, the Bucs defense is going to pounce. If they can hold tight against our defensive line, you can color me impressed that day. However, I don’t see it happening. If the Buccaneers put enough pressure at the line of scrimmage, Cammy Cam just might get panicked and start aiming at our secondary. I for one, would love to see the Bucs open the season with some early interceptions. In order for Newton to handle this, especially if his line breaks down, he’ll have to play smart. If Newton tries too hard to create something out of nothing, it’ll be over as soon as it starts.

Meanwhile, the battle with the Panther’s defense will be on a whole different level. It’s a fact that the Panthers were the division champs last year, and they can thank their defense for that. Newton’s consistency along with the, now departed, Steve Smith certainly helped, but they wouldn’t have come close to their 12-4 record without such a dominant defense. A huge cornerstone of this defense is defensive end Greg Hardy, who tied the franchise record for single season sacks last year with 15. Hardy, as many have likely heard, was found guilty two days ago on two counts of domestic violence.

As someone who works in law enforcement, I have zero pity for him. Hardy is likely going to appeal, but he wouldn’t have been convicted without reasonable evidence of his guilt. A well paid lawyer may be able to get him out of it, but in my opinion that doesn’t change what he did. Domestic violence and threats such as the ones he was accused of making are one of the worst problems in today’s country. Most don’t have the knowledge of it to realize the kind of situation women in those positions are dealing with. On average, women in abusive relationships don’t leave for good until the seventh attempt to leave their partner. The statistics for the likelihood of further violence, and murder, go up exponentially during the time frame immediately after they attempt to leave those relationships. I’m sorry to get on a tirade, but it’s despicable. Rant over.

Regardless of how Hardy’s appeal ends up going, there is a strong likelihood that Roger Goodell is going to dole out some punishment. Nothing is set in stone, but based on the circumstances and the conviction, I expect Hardy to be suspended for at least two games at the beginning of the season. The punishment may be more severe, but if Goodell decides to wait for the long drawn out appeal process to dole out punishment, he’ll solidify comments about his hypocrisy and inconsistency in fines and suspensions.

Hardy was not the only thing the defense had going for them, as Charles Johnson was just as effective and intimidating a threat on the defensive line. If Hardy is out for a reasonable amount of time, Johnson will have to step up to anchor their defensive front along with impressive talents like Star Lotulelei and new talent Kony Ealy out of Mizzou. You can expect a groundbreaking performance by the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Luke Kuechly, but he won’t be able to carry the burden alone. Their defensive line may not be full of big names, but that line was instrumental in the 2nd best rushing defense in the league last year. Ealy will only improve that. The only threat for the defensive front is that of injuries and Hardy’s impending punishment.

As for the secondary, well the secondary is not quite the same. A recent Bleacher Report article placed the Panthers dead last on a power ranking of NFL Secondary Depth Charts. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the worst secondary in the league, but it’s very telling about the fact that they’re not something the team can really rely on this upcoming season. Last year, they garnered the nickname of the “No-Name Secondary.” Some significant talent worked their butts off, and it showed. Unfortunately, that talent has moved on to greener pastures and the replacements aren’t quite the same. Free agency pickups are players who have been great, but are mostly coming off poor season last year and trying to reclaim their former greatness.

This is excellent news for the Buccaneers offense. In the opening game of the season, if by some miracle Greg Hardy is playing, him and Johnson will work to put as much pressure on Josh McCown as possible. Without Hardy, more likely, Johnson may struggle to break through the offensive line and get the necessary pressure. The rushing attack will still be tested, but Hardy’s issues and an unreliable secondary are very good signs for Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. For an offense that needs time to come together, this is a great season opener. On top of that, if they hold strong and play without mistakes, a very manageable division win here would be the perfect way to begin a path to the playoffs.

The Panthers are not what they were last year, and the depth in some positions is so pitiful that, the king of dumb mascot names, Sir Purr himself may have to suit up before the season is over with. If any significant injuries take place to players such as Johnson, Kuechly, or Newton, the Panthers could be looking at just as horrendous a slide from the top as the Falcons experienced last year. It’s hard to predict how things may go by the time we travel to Carolina to face them in mid-December, but it seems clear that the Buccaneers have a lot to prove and the Panthers are going to be primed to be made an example of on Sunday, September 7th. Bottom line, training camp is about to be upon us. Preseason follows, then we’ll all be back at home in the regular season. Hold tight my friends, we’re almost there.