2016 cheat sheet: Carolina Panthers
To get you ready for the 2016 NFL season, the PFF analysis crew is assembling team “cheat sheets” to catch you up on the latest changes, grades, and rankings of note involving your NFL team.
The Panthers have placed a premium on their defensive front-seven as part of their roster-building strategy, as evidenced this offseason by their release of an elite cornerback and use of a first-round pick on a back-up defensive tackle. Carolina is building a bully on both sides of the ball in hopes that the franchise can return to the Super Bowl.
Three biggest things to know
1. Replacing lost production at cornerback a tall task
We understand that it is close to impossible for the Panthers to replace the lost production of Josh Norman and Charles Tillman in the span of one offseason. However, it’s a bold strategy for a conference championship team team to start two rookies at cornerback. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are fortunate that they get to play in a zone-heavy scheme next to the NFL’s best coverage linebackers.
2. WR Kelvin Benjamin’s return a major plus for Cam Newton
Kelvin Benjamin’s size and leaping ability allows him to make catches other receivers simply cannot make; this comes in handy, as Cam Newton has a tendency to throw high when he’s off target. Furthermore, Benjamin’s return will provide more balance for the offense, as targets to wide receivers fell from 308 in 2014 to 261 without him in 2015.
3. Panthers own one of the best front-sevens in the NFL
The defensive front-seven is loaded with one of the best defensive tackle pairings in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and all three of their starting linebackers in base defense graded in the top-20 in coverage. Expect the Panthers to be league leaders in base defense usage in 2016 in order to play to the strengths of their front-seven and minimize their inexperience outside at cornerback.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: DT Vernon Butler (Round 1, pick No. 30 overall, Louisiana Tech), CB James Bradberry (Round 2, pick No. 62 overall, Samford), CB Daryl Worley (Round 3, pick No. 77 overall, West Virginia)
Signed in free agency: DT Paul Soliai (Falcons), C Gino Gradkowski (Falcons)
Left via free agency: CB Josh Norman (Redskins), P Brad Nortman (Jaguars), WR Jerricho Cotchery (UFA)
Retired: DE Jared Allen
Rookies to watch
James Bradberry, CB, Samford (Round 2, pick No. 62 overall) and Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia (Round 3, pick No. 77 overall)
There isn’t just one key to rookie to watch this season, but two, as the Panthers will start their second- and third-round picks at cornerback in 2016. Both Bradberry and Worley fit the size and athleticism profile Carolina covets in its cornerbacks, but this season will likely be filled with ups and downs for both of these young players.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Luke Kuechly, LB, 98.1 overall grade
Kuechly has been PFF’s highest-graded ILB the last two seasons. He is an elite coverage player who can stay close to receivers in man coverage or cover a large area quickly in zone coverage. Kuechly was so good in coverage in 2015 that he won PFF’s Dick “Night Train” Lane Award, given to the best coverage player in the league for a given season.
Breakout player watch
Kony Ealy, DE
The highest-graded Panther’s defensive player in the Super Bowl was Kony Ealy, who had three sacks on only nine pass rushes. The Panthers won’t be expecting Ealy to generate three sacks a game in 2016, but they will be heavily relying on him to provide them with some of the edge-rush production they lost with the retirement of Jared Allen.
Base defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three receivers (2015 season grades shown)