2014 Preview: Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers opened the 2013 season with a Week 1 loss at home and disappointingly dropping three of their first four games. With the first quarter of the season in the books, the Panthers’ season then took a drastic turn.
Fueled by ferocious defense, the Panthers rattled off 12 wins in their final 13 regular season games en route to the playoffs and a first-round bye. After winning their final seven home games, the season concluded with a home-loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round, ushering in an offseason changing of the guard for many long-time Panthers.
The Panthers look to build on what turned out to be an impressive 2013 campaign, but with plenty of roster turnover, a repeat performance may not be in the cards. With the final preseason game in the books, here are five reasons to be confident and five reasons to be concerned about the Carolina Panthers in 2014.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Second-Year Defensive Tackles
Teams around the league can only hope to hit on their first two draft picks every year like the Panthers did in 2013. Selecting Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short paid immense dividends and bolstered the interior of their dominant defensive line. Lotulelei serves as the run-stuffer, finishing second among defensive tackles in Run Stop Percentage (12.9), while Short, named a Secret Superstar, acts as the pass-rusher, finishing ninth among defensive tackles in Pass Rushing Productivity (8.4). These two young tackles should only get better as they enter their sophomore campaigns.
2. The Other Linebacker
Everyone knows about Luke Kuechly, but Thomas Davis quietly has put together an unbelievable resurgence. The former first-round pick persevered through three ACL tears and, after making it through the 2012 season healthy, became a force at the second-level for the Panthers last season. Davis finished 2013 third among 4-3 outside linebackers with a +15.4 grade, and first in coverage with a +13.2.
3. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson
As if the two young defensive tackles weren’t enough, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson give the Panthers’ defensive line a legitimate claim to being the best in the league. Hardy and Johnson both know how to get after opposing quarterbacks, ranking fourth (12.1) and fifth (11.6), respectively, in Pass Rushing Productivity in 2013. What makes this duo increasingly disruptive is Hardy’s ability to affect the run game as well as he ranked fourth (8.7) in Run Stop Percentage among 4-3 defensive ends. There are a few concerns, which will be discussed below, but Hardy and Johnson are too dominant not to be a reason for confidence heading into 2014.
4. Melvin White
An undrafted free agent a year ago, Melvin White took over one of the starting cornerback jobs midseason and heads into 2014 looking to improve in his second year. Although preseason doesn’t count, it certainly matters, and White has shown improvement from last year. White finished the preseason fifth among all cornerbacks with a +5.0 grade and with many question marks in the Panthers’ secondary, White is near the bottom of the list and thus far serves as a success story for impact undrafted free agents.
5. Cooled Down Hot-Seat
The Carolina Panthers enter the 2014 season without the pressure of head coaching uncertainty. Ron Rivera resurrected the Panthers’ season amid constant rumors about his job security, leaving no doubts about who should be leading the Panthers’ franchise into 2014. After the Panthers’ stellar season, the team knows what it’s capable of and having one less distraction of that magnitude can only help them start 2014 on a better foot than last season.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Greg Hardy’s Legal Troubles
A Greg Hardy active on game day is a reason to be confident, but a Greg Hardy possibly inactive due to offseason missteps is a matter of grave concern. Hardy was found guilty of assault and communicating threats during the offseason. He has already appealed, but with the rule changes under the league’s personal conduct policy, Hardy could be facing a lengthy suspension in 2014 as first-time offenders are subject to a six-game suspension. It is unclear whether offenses that occurred prior to the rule change will be under review under the new rules, but with the league applying a case-by-case approach, the Panthers may be without their most destructive force on the defensive line for some games.
2. Brand New Receiving Core
The weakest offensive unit on the roster last year didn’t get revamped: it got replaced. Cam Newton completed passes to four wide receivers last year and not a single one will be returning to play for the Panthers in the 2014 season, most notably, Steve Smith, who owns nearly every franchise receiving record. First-round pick Kelvin Benjamin joins veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery as Newton’s new receivers. With Newton missing the majority of offseason workouts due to ankle surgery and the fresh faces at receiver, there are going to be plenty of understandable growing pains in the passing game.
3. Retired Left Side
When Newton lines up under center this season, the left side of the offensive line will look vastly different than seasons past. Long-time left tackle Jordan Gross and starting left guard Travelle Wharton both retired this offseason. The left side of the line was one of the best pairs in the league last year with Gross finishing third among left tackles with a +27.5 grade and Wharton third among left guards at +22.3. With Byron Bell, who struggled last year at right tackle, winning the job to replace Gross at left tackle and Amini Silatolu coming back from injury at left guard, it may be tougher sledding than last year.
4. Questionable Right Side
Similarly, when Newton turns his head to the right side of the line, he will see a familiar face in a new place and a rookie. Nate Chandler heads into 2014 as the starting right tackle after playing portions of last season at right guard (-11.1) and also right tackle (+2.2). Trai Turner, a third-round pick out of LSU, figures to be the starting right guard but has missed considerable time due to a groin injury. With Turner reportedly on track to start the season with few reps and Chandler struggling at right tackle through preseason (-3.8), the right side of the line is an unsettling situation heading into Week 1.
5. Dinged Up Stars
Cam Newton, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are all battling ailments of some form worth keeping an eye on. Newton, who had offseason ankle surgery, added a few cracked ribs to his medical report in the third preseason game versus the Patriots. Hardy has been dealing with a shoulder issue he originally injured in training camp. Johnson has missed all but one preseason game due to a hamstring issue. While each injury is manageable in isolation, having three critical players dealing with injuries leading into the season opener is certainly not ideal. All three players sat out the final preseason game and are expected to be a full-go come Week 1, but if even one of these injuries regresses, it will have a serious impact.