2015 Season Preview: Carolina Panthers

Over the last few seasons, the Panthers have had to make some tough salary cap decisions and by doing so, have had to let go some players who have been productive. While going through that harsh exercise, they still have been competitive and have been able to reach the playoffs. If they weren’t a member of the weak NFC South, the playoffs would have been an afterthought, but, still, they got in and were competitive. With the salary cap problems behind them, the Panthers can look forward to continued growth. Quarterback The Panthers are solid at the quarterback position with Cam Newton. The Panthers management showed how they feel about Newton when they gave him a new multi-year contract extension earlier this month. Newton has shown improvement every year he has been in the league and has grown as a leader. This being only his fifth year in the league means he can still improve, and the sky is the limit as to how good he can become. The backup will be capable Derek Anderson. While you don’t want Anderson to be a full time starter, he can win some games if he has to play. Running Back The Panthers had to make a decision during this offseason as to who the running back would be. They chose Jonathan Stewart over veteran DeAngelo Williams. Stewart fits offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s offense a little better. With this being Stewart’s eighth year in the league, the Panthers have to hope rookie Cameron Artis-Payne is a capable backup. If he plays like he did at Auburn last year, that shouldn’t be a problem. Veteran Mike Tolbert, a powerful inside runner and a reliable receiver, will be the fullback. Tolbert also plays some as a single back. Wide Receivers and Tight End Going into the 2014 season, the receiver corps was a huge question mark. Last year’s first round pick Kelvin Benjamin had a huge rookie year and hopes to build on that. Opposite Benjamin will be this year's second round pick, Devin Funchess from Michigan. Funchess began his career as a “move” tight end but just played wide receiver in 2014. He is capable of doing both. Both Tedd Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery will find playtime as the third receiver. The tight end position is in good hands with Greg Olson and Ed Dickson. Olson is almost like a big wide receiver, and when he is paired with Benjamin and Funchess, it could create some big-time matchup problems. Offensive Line The Panthers went into the the offseason looking to shore up the offensive line, and it looks as if they have. The tackles going into camp will be free agent signee Michael Oher and Mike Remmers. Remmers will be challenged by Nate Chandler, who started 11 games a year ago, and rookie Daryl Williams from Oklahoma, who the Panthers selected in the fourth round. Williams has a lot of upside, and I look for him to be the starter before the season is over. At center, the Panthers have four time Pro Bowler Ryan Kalil leading the group. The guards will be last year’s third round pick Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell. Norwell was an undrafted free agent a year ago and really came on strong to start nine games. The main backups will be former starter Amini Silatolu and Jonathan Martin. Defensive Line With Ron Rivera as the head coach, the Panthers will always be strong on defense. They have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, especially at defensive tackle. The Panthers play with a four man rotation at defensive tackle, and all four are capable of starting in the NFL. The two starters are Kewann Short and Star Lotulelei. Both have the capability to become stars in the league. The two backups who get plenty of playtime are Colin Cole and Dwan Edwards. The leader of the defensive end group is veteran Charles Johnson, who was slowed a bit by injuries last year. Opposite Johnson will be last year's second round pick Kony Ealy from Missouri. Ealy started slow as a rookie but played well towards the end of the year. The Panthers have three solid backups in Mario Addison, who had 6.5 sacks a year ago, Wes Horton, and Frank Alexander. Alexander may be the most talented of the group but is slowed by off field issues. Linebacker With the drafting of Shaq Thompson from Washington in the first round, the Panthers may have the most athletic group of linebackers in the NFL. In the middle is Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly, who is quickly becoming the best Mike in football. He has rare instincts to go along with an outstanding competitive nature. At Will, Thomas Davis is back. Davis has overcome injuries in the past but still plays at a high level. Thompson gives the Panthers a player who is half linebacker, half strong safety. Because of his athleticism and coverage skills, he gives the Panthers a chance to be very creative with their nickel packages. Rookie David Mayo will be a hit on special teams while he learns, but he will be a starter in the future. A.J. Klein is more than reliable as a backup and can come in and start in case of injury. Secondary The Panthers brought in former Bear Charles Tillman to play one of the corner spots. When healthy, Tillman is still one of the better corners in the NFL. The problem is he hasn’t been able to stay healthy for a full season in some time. He also brings rare leadership to the locker room. Josh Norman, who came on last year, will start at the other corner. The depth at corner will come from Bene Benwikere and Melvin White. Both have started games and have upside. Second year man Tre Boston had his moments as a rookie and should improve. The other safety is veteran Roman Harper, who is near the end of the line, but his top instincts keep him on the field. Kurt Coleman and Colin Jones provide the depth. Outlook The NFC South will be improved in 2015 (how can’t it be?), and it is sure to be a division that is quarterback strong with Drew Brees, Newton, Matt Ryan and rookie Jameis Winston. The Panthers have the best defense in the division, and if the key players stay healthy, Carolina will challenge for the title. With his their receiving corps getting stronger, the Panthers should be able to put more points on the board and help out the D. Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

Upcoming Games