The Panthers have taken a step back from their superior form from last season; at least, that is what the consensus seems to be. But I am here to argue that statement. In fact, I believe that this team has gotten even better, despite losing a few fan favorites from the roster. So here are a couple bold statements I will make; the Panthers’ receiving core is better than last season, and their secondary is nothing to worry about. Despite the criticism toward these areas of the Panthers this offseason, I will argue my case for why this team is a threat come the postseason.
The loss of one of the best, if not the best Panthers’ player of the last decade is totally detrimental to the team right? Wrong. The loss of Steve Smith was not as big of a hit to Carolina as you may think. For starters, keep in mind that Smith did not even lead the Panthers in receiving last season, it was tight end Greg Olsen who carried the majority of the load with 816 yards (Smith had 745). With Smith having declining numbers over the past three years, the Panthers can not afford to give him a big contract, especially when you keep in mind they have to try to retain younger stars like Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, and Greg Hardy. To make up for the loss of Smith the Panthers signed three decent receivers in Jason Avant, Jerricho Cotchery, and Tiquan Underwood, they also used their first round draft pick to draft Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State. Despite the age of Cotchery and Avant, they are still reliable contributors, and have the leadership and experience you want from veteran players, without the price tag Smith carries. As for younger talent in Underwood and Benjamin, there is a lot of promise. Underwood has shown he has potential with a handful of breakout games the past two seasons, but never got to have a real opportunity as he played behind Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams in Tampa Bay throughout his NFL career. As for Benjamin, he certainly looked like the real deal in Carolina’s first preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, as he reeled in a very difficult catch in the back of the end zone from 30 yards out. The relationship between Benjamin and Cam Newton is also something to talk about. Whether you are in the stands of a preseason game, or watching training camp right next to the practice fields, you will always see just Benjamin and Newton just chatting away like they have been friends forever. This relationship between quarterback and receiver is one of the vital parts of a good passing attack. Just look at Montana and Rice, or Bradshaw and Swann; it was the trust between the players that made those combinations as great as they were.
Benjamin isn’t the only young talent that the Panthers have though. The Panthers have debatably done better in the NFL draft since 2010 than any other NFL team, as they have drafted Greg Hardy, Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Amini Silatolu, Josh Norman, Star Lotulelei, Kawaan Short, Kelvin Benjamin, and Trai Turner, as well as pick up undrafted rookie Melvin White last season. Every player I just named will play a very important role in Carolina this season, and most (if not all of them) are sure to start this season. Trai Turner is the most unknown of the group, but that doesn’t mean that he is not talented. Turner will start from day one at guard, and he has many coaches raving that he is already playing like a veteran. With Turner coming in from LSU, he should make the Carolina interior line a very talented threesome, as he is joined by Amini Silatolu and Ryan Kalil. Silatolu is a very talented guard, but hasn’t had the chance to show it yet due to injury problems since he was a rookie two seasons ago. Where the issue on the offensive line comes in is at tackle. Byron Bell and Nate Chandler are the current starters, and to be honest it really is not a position to brag about if you are a Panthers’ fan. The loss of Pro Bowl tackle, Jordan Gross, over the offseason due to his retirement, was definitely the biggest blow to the Panthers’ organization in terms of how it will impact their success. After starting the majority of last season at right tackle, it appears as if the Panthers will move Byron to the left side, allowing Chandler to play the right. Whether these two can hold down the offensive line is the biggest question going into next season, but if they can then this is a Super Bowl caliber team.
Another criticized area of the Panthers is the secondary. The secondary is made up of mostly of veterans picked off of free agency or rookies with one returning starter… this was literally the exact situation they were in last situation and I’d say their secondary did pretty well. Pretty well as in the sixth best in the nation in terms of passing yards allowed. Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper come in to lock down the safety position, both veterans who have had very impressive seasons in the past, including a combined three Pro Bowls between them. DeCoud had an off season last year with the Falcons, as he recorded 0 interceptions for the first time since his rookie season. The year before however, he had record 6 interceptions and had made the Pro Bowl; if the Panthers are able to get this form of DeCoud then Carolina would be one step closer to the Seahawks in the defensive rankings. Harper, like DeCoud, was picked up from another divisional foe, the Saints. Also like DeCoud, Harper had an off year last season, as he only recorded 39 tackles compared to 115 the year before. The Panthers will make sure to try to get the normal 90-100 tackles that Harper has been putting up throughout his career. If they can, then they could move ahead of the Cardinals for the best run defense in the league. As for cornerbacks, Melvin White will be returning to start this season, along with the new free agent acquisition, Antoine Cason. Cason is a very consistent player, recording at least two interceptions in every season he has played in. Another fun fact, Cason has not missed a single game in his entire six year NFL career. Adding a veteran, consistent corner like Cason will help the younger corners on this team to develop to form a good base for upcoming years. Corner backs Josh Norman and converted safety, Charles Godfrey, will help supply depth to the secondary. Norman had debatably the best game of any Panther in their preseason opener against Buffalo, as he recorded one interception and made some huge tackles, including saving a one yard touchdown run. The secondary might not have the big name players that Seattle or New England has, but they could be one of the best in the league this season.
After coming off of a spectacular season last year, Carolina is fired up for football. This excitement and increased attendance should help fuel a fire in the Panthers to become the first time back to back NFC South Champs.