After a 1-3 start, head coach Ron Rivera went from almost-certain-to-be-out-of-a-job to NFL Coach of the Year. The Panthers’ 11-1 finish was one of the more surprising stories in the league last year, especially considering Rivera did something so few coaches are willing to do – change philosophy. His sudden aggressiveness on fourth down earned him the nickname “Riverboat Ron,” and players claimed his newfound confidence in them was a true turning point. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula will not be turning the Panthers into a high-scoring bunch, but his game plans are a good fit for the team’s personnel. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott could be one more successful season away from a head job.
Many followed a narrative that Cam Newton’s success in 2013 was due to improved maturity, but the truth is, his coaches put him in better positions to win games. Former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski put too much on the young quarterback’s shoulders his first two seasons, and Newton benefited greatly from a simplified offense last year. While winning has replaced the importance of piling up stats, coordinator Mike Shula will have to loosen the reigns on Newton and the offense if the Panthers are ever going to turn into a true Super Bowl threat. Backups Derek Anderson and Joe Webb have starting experience, but Carolina is in big trouble if either has to fill in for Newton.
While most of the league seemingly continues to devalue the position, the Panthers still have a huge chunk of cap space committed to running backs. DeAngelo Williams is coming off his most-productive season since 2009, but he turned 31 in April. Jonathan Stewart is the better back, but he has struggled to stay on the field. After missing just two games his first four seasons, Stewart played in just 15 the last two years. If the 27-year-old can somehow put his injury history behind him, he could once again be a vital part of the Panthers’ offense. Fullback Mike Tolbert, who was minimized during his first season in Carolina, received 47 more touches en route to last year’s Pro Bowl. A couple late-round draft picks, Kenjon Barner (2013) and Tyler Gaffney (2014) make this one of the more crowded backfields in the league.
After 13 seasons in Carolina, Steve Smith was surprisingly released in March. Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon signed elsewhere as free agents, which means the Panthers’ head into 2014 without their top-four wideouts from 2013. General manager Dave Gettleman started reconstructing the unit by signing veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood, and while they could be productive, their biggest contribution will be helping the young guys. The Panthers hope Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King could emerge as surprise gems if given reps, and the team used their first-round draft pick on 6-5, 240 specimen Kelvin Benjamin. While many have lamented the loss of Smith, tight end Greg Olsen led the Panthers with 73 receptions, the second straight season he set a career high. After a so-so start to his career in Baltimore, Ed Dickson could be a solid second tight end option in his second stop. Brandon Williams has the body scouts drool over, but he is still a project going into his second season.
While many assumed the Panthers would draft a left tackle to replace the retired Jordan Gross, they were never high on any option past the elite tier. Byron Bell will get the first shot to earn the job, but considering his struggles on the right side the last three years, many assume a switch will make things even worse. Nate Chandler went from converted defensive tackle to a starter at guard for half of 2013, and another new switch will see him compete with Bell. Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil is a rock-solid foundation at center, but he is sandwiched by question marks. On his left, the Panthers hope third-year guard Amini Silatolu can return to the improving player he was before tearing his ACL early last season. Edmund Kubila appears no closer to returning from injuries that cost him his entire rookie season. On Kalil’s right, 2014 third-round pick Trai Turner, who is still 20, could have a starting job by September.
Ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are the only pair in the league with double-digit sacks in each of the last two seasons, but the Panthers are paying a hefty price for their big numbers. The duo is scheduled to make more than $29 million in 2014, taking up nearly 22 percent of Carolina’s cap space. That could be one of the reasons the team used its second-round pick on Missouri end Kony Ealy. If he produces as they expect, it makes a financially-driven parting of the ways with Hardy or Johnson more palatable. All three can slide inside on passing downs, flexibility that helps make Carolina’s line arguably the best in the game. Tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short should only improve after strong rookie seasons, and veterans Dwan Edwards and Colin Cole have some decent tread left on their tires.
Luke Kuechly followed up his Defensive Rookie of the Year award by being named Defensive Player of the Year. If he improves in coverage, it will be nearly impossible to find a flaw in his game. Thomas Davis continues to defy science. The 31-year-old, who became the first known player to return from three torn ACLs, has racked up 228 tackles the last two seasons. Chase Blackburn and A.J. Klein will again compete at weakside linebacker, but the position’s importance is somewhat limited in the Panthers’ nickel-heavy defense.
This group is again the team’s weakest link. For the most part, the Panthers got away with 2013’s suspect secondary because the front-seven was so good. It better be again. Ron Rivera rescued his former San Diego first-round pick Antoine Cason from the open market after he spent last season coming off the bench in Arizona. He is penciled in at one corner, with 2013 undrafted rookie Melvin White at the other. Veterans James Dockery, Josh Norman and Josh Thomas all have work to do to make the final roster. At safety, Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper have 14 years combined experienced in the NFC South, but they are unlikely to scare former teammates Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. Fourth-rounder Tre Boston and 2013 undrafted rookie Robert Lester could also see significant snaps. The most interesting battle may be at the increasingly important nickel spot, where former starting safety Charles Godfrey will compete with fifth-round pick Bene Benwikere.
Kicker Graham Gano was given a three-year deal after the best season of his five-year career. Brad Nortman followed up an average rookie showing with one of the best seasons a Panthers’ punter has ever had. He is never in the headlines, so J.J. Jansen is exactly what you want in a long-snapper. Losing Ted Ginn in free agency stung the Panthers a bit, and now they have to choose returners from a group that will include Kenjon Barner and Tiquan Underwood.
- The running backs went to Greenville, SC for “Monday Night Raw.”
- Upset or confused at the Panthers for not drafting an offensive tackle? READ THIS.
- Undrafted Ohio State guard: “I felt that the best pick was Carolina.”
- Former Panthers’ receiver David Gettis cut by Redskins.
- A post-draft player-by-player breakdown of the roster.
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