2015 NFL Season Preview- Carolina Panthers
How does a team go two months without a victory and still make the playoffs? Carolina found a way.
The Panthers captured their second straight NFC South division title and qualified for postseason contention for the first time in back to back years, despite a losing record of 7-8-1. They became the first team in NFC South history to have back to back division titles and also became the second team to win a division title with a sub .500 record. They even beat the Cardinals in the Wild Card round, but lost to Seattle in the Divisional round.
Quarterback Cam Newton finished with career lows in completions, yards, and touchdowns but also missed the first two games of his career because of ankle, rib, and back injuries sustained in a car accident. Running back Jonathan Stewart had his highest yardage total since 2009. Tight end Greg Olsen set franchise records for the third straight year by setting records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns by a tight end. The offensive line was inconsistent for the most part as many key positions on the line struggled.
Defensive end Greg Hardy was lost to the Commissioner's Exempt list and no one on the roster was able to replace his production. Linebacker Thomas Davis took a small step backwards but he and middle linebacker Luke Kuechley formed arguably the best linebacker duo in football. The secondary didn't have any superstars, but they played well.
The rookie class offers a lot of promise moving forward. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin struggled with drops, but still exceeded expectations as he shattered club rookie records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Defensive end Kony Ealy started the year slow, but finished strong. Undrafted receiver Philly Brown was the Panthers only speed threat at wide receiver.
Panthers 2014 Rankings
Opponent Passing Yards
Opponent Rushing Yards
NFL Rank- 19th
NFL Rank- 7th
NFL Rank- 11th
NFL Rank- 16th
NFL Rank- 16th
NFL Rank- 10th
Despite finishing the year 7-8-1, head coach Ron Rivera and the team are in a better position than they were last offseason when they had 22 unrestricted free agents. They have half that number this year and are over $9 million under the salary cap.
Notable Additions- WR/RS Ted Ginn Jr., OT Michael Oher, CB Charles Tillman, FS Kurt Coleman
Notable Departures- RB DeAngelo Williams, WR Jason Avant, DE Greg Hardy, LB Chase Blackburn, FS Thomas DeCoud
Panthers 2014 Highlights
2015 NFL Draft
Going into the draft, Carolina held the 25th overall pick with several holes to fill. Primarily at wide receiver, offensive tackle, and cornerback.
The wide receiver corps was heavily dismantled by free agency from the previous offseason. The Panthers need to add speed on the outside to complement Kelvin Benjamin.
Byron Bell wasn't bad as bad as people thought, but he wasn't that good either. The team needs a new left tackle, and a new right tackle would be ideal.
Josh Norman and Bené Benwikere are a good pair, but Benwikere is better suited for the nickel spot. Carolina needs a cornerback to play opposite Norman.
Carolina ended up selecting Washington outside linebacker Shaq Thompson with the 25th overall pick. Thompson is a terrific athlete as he won the Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player having played linebacker, safety, and running back. The problem is what position will he play? He's a little undersized to play linebacker, he doesn't have the ideal frame for a safety, and he has ball security issues as a running back.
The team also notably drafted Michigan wide receiver/tight end Devin Funchess in the second round. Funchess was a matchup nightmare in college but he doesn't have the speed of a wide receiver or the strength to play tight end so where he lines up is going to be an enigma.
Shaq Thompson Highlights
What to Expect
The key for this team moving forward is staying healthy.
Cam Newton has to return to his form from 2013 and also bring his running ability back. The offense has to find a starting running back with Jonathan Stewart having an extensive injury history. Having Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess on the outside and Philo Brown and Ted Ginn in the slot gives Carolina the receiving corps they had in 2013.
Defensively, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short need to step up and be the force of the defensive line. Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy have to build on their strong finishes to 2014. As long as Kuechly and Davis are at linebacker, the defense will be productive. The question I have is if Shaq Thompson will play free safety or strong side linebacker.
I said it earlier that the fight for the NFC South title will come down to Carolina and Atlanta. Based on the additions they made in the offseason, Carolina has to be the favorite.
Best record they can hope for: 9-7