There were three teams in NFL history that have reached the playoff with losing records. Carolina became the fourth as they won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. The Panthers also beat Arizona in the wild-card game. With Cam Newton back in the saddle and quarterback and an underrated defense, Carolina tries to win the NFC South for a third straight season.
1. Can the offensive line protect Newton better? Although Newton has led the Panthers to back-to-back division titles, his individual numbers have decreased every year. He only threw for 3,127 yards last season. He was also sacked 38 times and has been hit 578 times since 2011. Some of it is on him with his style of play of getting out of the pocket, but the quality of his offensive line has decreased since 2011 when he threw for 4,000 yards. They have not found a quality replacement for Jordan Gross since he retired. Better line play will be crucial for this Panthers’ offense.
2. Are there enough weapons on offense? I like Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin a lot, but after that I have some serious questions. Can Jonathan Stewart FINALLY stay healthy enough to be “the guy” at running back (has never started more than 8 games in a season, and has only carried the ball more than 200 times once). Devin Funchess comes in as a rookie, but I wonder if he has the speed to play at this level. Jerricho Cotchery is still serviceable, but Corey Brown is unproven and Ted Ginn is well, Ted Ginn. I think this group of guys will “make or break” the season for Carolina.
3. Is this the year Cam Newton takes the “next step”? Cam has been solid in his first four seasons, but improvement is needed in order for him to become and elite QB. His completion percentage of 58.5 was middle of the pack among QB’s last year. He was 22nd in passing yardage and averaged less than seven yards per pass attempt. His talent is undeniable as a dual-threat, but I am starting to wonder if he will ever reach “elite” status. I would like to see offensive coordinator Mike Shula take more chances in the passing game with Newton. Also, I would like to see Cam spread the wealth a bit more. Only three players were targeted 75 times or more last year. If this passing game is to evolve, Newton needs to be able to find additional playmakers.
Kelvin Benjamin- Lost in the fanfare of Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, Kelvin had a really solid rookie season with 73 receptions, 1,008 yards, and touchdowns. What will his sophomore season bring? It’s typical to expect a sophomore slump, but I don’t see that happening. Him and Newton really hit it off nicely last season. Expect Benjamin to get 120+ targets this season. A good option in both leagues as a solid flex or WR2 option.
Only five picks in the 2015 draft for the Panthers, and I am not sure they attacked, or could attack their real weaknesses. Shaq Thompson played and starred at Washington at linebacker and safety, but I don’t know which position he can be most effective. Devin Funchess is a big receiver who played tight end at Michigan as well. Again, the same issue as Thompson, which position where he will be most effective? Funchess is not an in-line tight end where he is going to block consistently in the NFL in my opinion. Plus, I question his speed. Daryl Williams has potential as a right tackle. Cameron Artis-Payne has a chance to play at running back as insurance for Jonathan Stewart.
Cameron Artis-Payne becomes the starting running back by mid-season because Jonathan Stewart will somehow get hurt.
Up Next: The Atlanta Falcons