by Greg DePalma, Ourlads.com contributor
2016 (6-10)…After three consecutive division titles and a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers missed the playoffs and finished in last-place.
Owner Jerry Richardson…Became founder in 1993; star college football player at small Wofford College (Panthers current practice facility) who then played professionally with the Baltimore Colts and caught a TD pass in the 1959 NFL Championship game.
Interim GM Marty Hurney…The former longtime Panthers general manager (2002-2012) who was hired with a one-year contract after Dave Gettleman was fired in July; Carolina went 90-102 under Hurney’s direction with three playoff appearances; even though he did a poor job in managing the salary cap, he left Gettleman with a top core of players on the roster including Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Cam Newton, Greg Olsen and Julius Peppers.
HC Ron Rivera…7th-year; first time HC; has led the Panthers to three division titles and a SB runner-up finish; former DC for San Diego and Chicago; was an All-American linebacker in college and played for the SB winning Bears in 1986; California Grad.
OC Mike Shula…7th-year; fifth-season as OC; former Alabama HC for four seasons with a 10-23 record; started at QB for Alabama for three seasons.
DC Steve Wilks…6th-year; also serves role as assistant to HC; spent previous five seasons here as DB coach before taking over this season when Sean McDermott left for Buffalo; spent time with Rivera at both Chicago& San Diego; HC for one season at Savannah State College; Appalachian State Grad.
QB Ken Dorsey…5th-year; first coaching job; All-American QB at Miami where he won a National Championship in 2001; Miami (FL) grad.
RB Christian McCaffrey
WR Curtis Samuel
WR Russell Shepard
OG Taylor Moton
OT Matt Kalil
DE Daeshon Hall
DE Julius Peppers
CB Captain Munnerlyn
S Mike Adams
PK Harrison Butker
FB Mike Tolbert
WR Corey Brown
OT Mike Remmers
DE Kony Ealy
LB A.J. Klein
CB Leonard Johnson
QB…Just when it appeared Cam Newton was turning into an elite-level player, he experienced a Super Bowl hangover in which he’s yet to recover from. His career doesn’t appear to be getting any better following a late decision to have rotator cuff surgery in March. Now Newton seems to be experiencing arm fatigue early in camp and it is unknown whether he’ll be ready for the start of the season. It’s also interesting to note that Newton has dropped weight because apparently it might force him to think twice about playing a physical brand of football. Hmmm. OK. 34-year-old Derek Anderson will back up Newton once again. It really is time to find a more talented, younger backup.
RB…With Jonathan Stewart nearing the end of his career, top-pick Christian McCaffrey is ready to assume control. McCaffrey should’ve won the Heisman in 2015 while setting an NCAA record for all-purpose yardage. He’s the dynamic talent this team has been looking for since Steve Smith left after the 2013 season. Stewart has enjoyed a fine career, but wear and tear is finally catching up as he enters his 10th-season with the franchise. Even though, he should still be effective in limited carries including important short-yardage and goal-line situations. Fozzy Whitaker and Cameron Artis-Payne provide nothing more than depth.
TE…Greg Olsen has been overshadowed over his career by more highly visible tight-ends like Rob Gronkowski. But Olsen has enjoyed a great run in Carolina ranking as one of the top-five tight-ends in the league since he arrived in 2011. He’s also the only tight-end in NFL history to produce three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Olsen has expressed a desire to rework his contract, but at 32 it would be unwise to do so. Watch this one closely as interim GM Marty Hurney destroyed the Panthers cap situation once before for similar poor timing deals that ultimately led to his firing. The problem on the roster is that there are no younger options ready to take over when Olsen eventually moves on. Seven-year vet Ed Dickson gets plenty of reps as a backup, but he’s a liability if he has to start.
WR…The Panthers wisely moved on from the overrated Ted Ginn Jr. and are hoping to immediately replace him in the lineup with rookie second-round speedster, Curtis Samuel. Of course the real player to keep an eye on here is Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin regressed after a torn ACL injury forced him to miss the 2015 season. The hope is that he’ll return to form like most players do in the second-year off a major injury. Third-year pro Devin Funchess needs to take a major step forward or else. Funchess was considered a lazy and inconsistent college player and so far he’s done nothing to quell those observations. Free-agent pick-up Russell Shepard is a depth signing while Damiere Byrd tries to take advantage of Samuel’s camp injury for more playing time. Byrd has 4.3 speed and caught nine passes for over 40 yards during his four-year college career at South Carolina. After spending the past two years on the practice squad, Byrd might be ready to make a contribution.
OL…Left tackle Matt Kalil joins his brother Ryan and hopes to regain the form he displayed during his first few seasons in Minnesota. For $55-million over five years he’d better. Center Ryan Kalil is more talented than Matt, but he’s coming off a shoulder injury that forced him out in mid-November. The right-side of the line has a pair of decent yet unspectacular players in guard Trai Turner and tackle Darryl Williams. That’s why Taylor Moton was added in the second-round. Moton was a four-year starter at Western Michigan and has more experience at tackle than guard. But his versatility will be a valuable asset with this group whether he starts or not. Due to injuries, left guard Andrew Norwell was the only player along the line to start and play the same position last season. Norwell might not be flashy, but he’s slowly becoming an effective blocker. The Panthers also have a pair of solid backup centers in Gino Gradkowski and Tyler Larsen.
DL…The big off-season news for this group was the return of defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers has been an incredibly effective player his entire career while registering seven sacks a season or more since 2007. He’ll team up with an old friend in fellow end, Charles Johnson. Johnson is six years younger than Peppers and can still produce stout play against the run, even though his sack totals have dwindled to just five the past two seasons combined while missing nine games since the start of 2015. Peppers on the other hand has missed only six games in 15 years! If they can stay healthy they’ll be a formidable old pair. Mario Addison is coming off the best season of his nine-year career which included a career-high 9 ½ sacks as a pass rush specialist. Look for second-round pick Daeshon Hall and undrafted free-agent Bryan Cox Jr. to provide some intriguing youth to the position. Inside at tackle, Kawann Short has taken over as their top overall lineman and is one of the elite run defenders in the game. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for fellow tackle, Star Lotulelei. Much was expected from Lotulelei after being selected in the first-round in 2013 and after playing exceptionally well for a rookie. Things have not progressed though as expected and now he enters the final year of his contract which will determine whether he returns or moves on. That’s essentially why the Panthers added Vernon Butler in the first-round last year. Butler did miss six games last season, but he showed promise in limited reps and there’s hope he’ll develop in time.
LB…This is clearly one of the top 4-3 units in the league starting with star Luke Kuechly. Kuechly’s health though will be the most important detail of his game this season after suffering a serious concussion last November. Expect 11-year vet Thomas Davis to receive limited reps to preserve his body this season. Davis is still an effective player, but look for third-year up-and-comer Shaq Thompson to pick-up the slack for Davis following a nice second season. Depth could be an issue with top reserve A.J. Klein moving on to New Orleans and with the top returning backup (David Mayo) playing just 31-snaps last season. The most intriguing player to watch is undrafted rookie Ben Boulware who was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and helped Clemson win a national championship.
DB…There is growing optimism for the future at cornerback thanks to a pair of early round selections last year in James Bradberry (2nd-round) and Daryl Worley (3rd-round). Bradberry looks to be the clear top player of the two after arriving from small Samford College while Worley played his college ball in the Big 12 with the Mountaineers. Both players combined for six years of college starting experience and so far it’s paid off. The Panthers welcomed back another long-time former draft pick in corner, Captain Munnerlyn. Munnerlyn should be an ideal leader for the young pair after playing the past three seasons in Minnesota. At safety, Kurt Coleman appears to have found a home since arriving in 2015. Coleman has been a steady player for the Panthers including leading the team in interceptions with 11 over the past two seasons combined. Coleman will be paired with 36-year-old free agent signing Mike Adams, who seems to be getting better with age and should be a big improvement, at least in the short term, over recently departed Tre’ Boston. The major question in the secondary has more to do with the back-ups, just like at linebacker. There are no proven depth players currently on the roster after Leonard Johnson followed Sean McDermott to Buffalo. So unless someone can step up during the preseason, look for Carolina to possibly add a veteran body before Week 1.
Rookie place-kicker Harrison Butker has a great chance to unseat Graham Gano who’s missed 20 attempts during the past three years combined. Butker is the all-time leading scorer in Georgia Tech history. With Tedd Ginn Jr. off to New Orleans, there are plenty of options for the kick-return game now. Don’t be surprised if either McCaffrey or Samuel get some reps in key situations.
This season all comes down to whether Cam Newton can stay healthy and re-energize his career. He’s never really recovered since his post-game comments following the Super Bowl loss to Denver. If he does indeed bounce back, he’s going to have more speed to work with than ever before, which could make things very interesting and exciting around here all season long.
Luke Kuechly’s health is just as important for the defense as Newton’s is for the offense. If he can stay healthy along with Short dominating up-front the Panthers will be awfully hard to run and play against. And if they can get old-timers like Adams, Davis, Peppers and Johnson to play to their potential, I see no reason to believe Carolina won’t return to their winning ways. If they do, the Panthers have the potential to go as far as their health will take them.