Will the Panthers take a step back?

In the topsy-turvy NFL, division winners from the previous year can end up in the cellar the next.

After AFC South-winning Houston went 12-4 in 2012, it fell to a last-place, 2-14 record in 2013. The Redskins similarly dropped from first place at 10-6 to 3-13 and the bottom of the 2013 NFC East; the Falcons descended from 13-3 to 4-12.

The cap-strapped Panthers, 12-4 and atop the NFC South last year, may suffer the same fate this season.

Carolina, which started 2014 about $16 million over the salary cap, simply lost much more than it gained over the offseason — particularly in the receiver department.

Though that unit was never a strength, it lost its top four wide receivers — Steve Smith (to the Ravens), Brandon LaFell (Patriots), Ted Ginn Jr. (Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Bears) — from last year.

That means the Panthers, a team that has never reached the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, must replace a cumulative total of 156 receptions, 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns.

To do so Carolina is relying on a fairly anonymous bunch.

It added Jerricho Cotchery from the Steelers, Tiquan Underwood (Buccaneers) and Jason Avant (Eagles). Holdovers Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King — neither of whom have caught an NFL pass — also could factor into the equation.

First-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin must produce early. He caught the game-winning touchdown in the 2014 BCS National Championship and had 54 receptions for 1,011 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He has mammoth size — 6-5, 240 pounds — but is raw.

Offensive line and secondary issues

The Panthers also lost Jordan Gross, Cam Newton’s blind-side tackle, to retirement. The 2013 Pro Bowler started 167 games during his 11 years. The only team he’s ever been with did not address offensive tackle in free agency or the draft.

Cam NewtonNewton could come under heavy fire due to a young and inexperienced offensive line.

As a result either Nate Chandler, a 2012 undrafted free agent, or Byron Bell, a 2011 undrafted free agent, will start at left tackle. They are part of a very unheralded group, which likely will have Amini Silatolu at left guard, Garry Williams at right guard and Bell or Chandler at right tackle alongside seven-year veteran center, Ryan Kalil. (Guard Trai Turner was drafted out of LSU in the third round.)

Aside from Kalil, the presumed 2014 Panthers O-line starters only started a collective total of 27 games last year.

The front seven remains the strength of the team, but the defensive backfield suffered two major defections in free agency, which could hinder that unit. Two quality players — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Mitchell — moved on, signing with the Vikings and Steelers, respectively.

Mitchell was a ballhawk and a playmaker last year, recording 10 passes defended, four interceptions, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Munnerlyn also changed games with three sacks, 12 passes defended and two pick-6s, accounting for the fourth and fifth touchdowns of his career.

Carolina replaced them with Thomas DeCoud, an underrated safety from the Falcons, though he didn’t have any interceptions last year, and Cardinals cornerback Antoine Cason, who had two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in 2013.

Quintin Mikell and Drayton Florence — both starters last year — remain unsigned, but Carolina may choose to go with 2014 draft picks Tre Boston, a strong safety selected in the fourth round, and Bene Benwikere, a cornerback selected in the fifth round, instead.

A beefed up NFC South

While Carolina lost valuable starters, the rest of the division seems to have improved.

Tampa Bay had one of the more active offseasons, hiring a new coach in Lovie Smith and adding free agents, including defensive end Michael Johnson, defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, cornerback Alterraun Verner and offensive linemen Anthony Collins and Evan Deitrich-Smith.

Mike EvansTampa got even bigger at the wide receiver position with the addition of Texas A&M's Mike Evans (left).

The Bucs drafted two huge targets — 6-4 3/4, 231-pound receiver Mike Evans and 6-5 1/2, 262-pound tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins — in the first two rounds. They should nicely complement 6-5, 230-pound wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

The Falcons could be due for a bounce-back year, considering much of their struggles last year were injury-related.

Atlanta lost wide receiver Julio Jones (broken foot) for the season, and wide receiver Roddy White missed three weeks with a hamstring injury, an ailment that also sidelined running back Steven Jackson for six weeks. Offensive tackle Sam Baker missed five weeks before eventually going on injured reserve with a knee injury.

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive lineman Kroy Biermann was lost for the entire season with a torn Achilles, and the team’s best linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, missed nine games with foot and knee injuries.

The Saints, who split their two games with the Panthers last year, will always be a tough out as long as Drew Brees is behind center.

Bad offseason

Two of the Panthers’ best and most valuable players have endured a rough path, heading into the 2014 campaign.

After having the highest completion percentage (61.7) and most touchdowns (24) — and consequently the highest rating (88.8) — of his career last year, Newton underwent ligament surgery on his left ankle on March 18.

At the time of his surgery, it was estimated to take about four months to recover. So although Newton should be back in plenty of time for training camp, it makes for a less than ideal situation for a guy needing to become comfortable with all of his new targets.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning also endured offseason ankle surgery — though it was deemed a less serious injury — and offseason clean-ups aren’t out of the ordinary, but it could potentially be more problematic for a player like Newton, who relies on his mobility and scrambling.

Another Panthers pillar, 25-year-old defensive end Greg Hardy, is slated to make $13.1 million this season (after signing the franchise tag) unless he negotiates a long-term deal with the team. Retaining Hardy was important, considering he led the team and finished third in the NFL with 15 sacks last season.

Hardy, however, could miss time this season after being charged with assault. Hardy’s girlfriend, Nicole Holder, has accused him of throwing her onto a couch covered in guns, strangling her and threatening to shoot her.

If any of those charges ring true, expect NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to come down on Hardy.

That would only add to the Panthers’ difficult quest of repeating as NFC South champions.

Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JFedotin

Jeff Fedotin has written for Packers.com, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World and Rivals.com. After graduating from Northwestern University, he interned for the Buffalo Bills. During his football playing days at Pembroke Hill (Mo.) School, Fedotin was known for his bad knees and even worse blocking. 

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