By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
After losing only one game on their way to the franchise’s second Super Bowl berth in 2015, the Carolina Panthers came plummeting back to earth last season with a 6-10 record. Losing the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos was a devastating blow for them—instead of making another playoff push last year, they watched the division rival Atlanta Falcons make it to the big game.
This year, Panthers fans should be optimistic for a bounce-back season.
The Falcons may have trouble recovering after a heartbreaking loss to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. They were an 8-8 team in 2015 and may have overachieved last year. The Tampa Bay Bucs are an upstart team in the NFC South, primed for a step forward, but quarterback Jameis Winston may not be ready to win the division in only his third year.
The New Orleans Saints are always tough, but it’s unlikely they’ll improve much on defense—only the San Francisco 49ers allowed more points per game last season—and that will continue to hamper the effectiveness of their potent offense. The division will be competitive, but questions face each of the teams that stand in the Panthers way.
Carolina on the other hand, suffered from injuries and a lack of playmaking on offense last year. Additionally, they had inconsistency up front on the defensive side of the ball, causing a young and developing secondary to be exposed heavily on a weekly basis.
During the offseason, the Panthers lost speedy wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., but they drafted running back Christian McCaffrey out of Stanford and wide receiver Curtis Samuel from Ohio State with their first two picks. McCaffrey and Samuel are both super quick and will bring tremendous playmaking ability to the offense. They are versatile players who can line up in the backfield, in the slot, or even help out on special teams. With these two on the field, opposing defenses will be caught off guard trying to account for the additional speed.
Furthermore, quarterback Cam Newton was banged up most of last season. While he played through the pain for all but one game, he was noticeably hobbled and looked less explosive than he has in years past. His 90 attempts and 359 yards running the ball were the lowest of his career, and he sustained brutal hits all season behind a shaky offensive line.
Newton has slimmed down and the Panthers signed Matt Kalil from the Vikings to play left tackle. Kalil has been disappointing during his career, but he provides an upgrade for the Panthers up front, and combined with the additional weapons in the backfield and in the passing game, Newton should be better protected than he was a season ago.
Finally, the Panthers should benefit from the defense being deeper and healthier this season. Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly are healthy, and they signed veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers and drafted defensive end Daeshon Hall out of Texas A&M. The added help on the defensive line should help the Panthers get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which will cause a ripple effect that should improve the rest of the defense as well.
While the Panthers could certainly disappoint, the NFC South division title is within grasp for this talented team, and with dynamic weapons on offense, a former MVP at the quarterback position, and elite players throughout the defensive front seven, Carolina has every opportunity to make some noise in what should be a bounce-back season.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.