Last year, through the Panthers' heroic turn around to their season after a 1-3 start, the vast improvement that the team has made over the past few years since firing John Fox were incredibly apparent. This was supposed to represent our long awaited rise into NFL significance, but looking at the team this year compared to last year, it makes me wonder if they have gotten better or worse since 2013. Here's a look at the Panthers' improvements and losses from last year on a position by position basis.
At quarterback, Carolina's personal looks identical to last season with Cam Newton at the helm and Derek Anderson as Cam's backup. However, with Newton coming off of ankle surgery, we have to wonder if he will be able to produce at the same level as last season. At the same time, there are some people saying that this injury is something that has tormented him since college, and that getting it fixed could improve his play. Cam Newton was already a fantastic player, but I wonder what he could do with a fully healthy ankle.
Running back is another position that will remain the same from 2013. Jonathan Stewart is once again injured so we will be without him for some time, and while DeAngelo is aging, he is still moving well. The real improvement that will come from the running back position will be if Kenjon Barner can start contributing. Reports from camp are that he has bulked up while losing little speed or athleticism.
Overall, the wide receiver position is a big question mark. Life without Steve Smith has been a hard transition for fans, especially when GM Dave Gettleman failed to make any significant splashes in free agency to fill Smitty's hole,as Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Tiquan Underwood were brought in to replace him, Brandon LaFell, and Ted Ginn. It is hard to say which group is better right now, but hopefully the new group of three taller receivers will be a better fit for our 6’5" quarterback. Hopefully, Kelvin Benjamin's success in training camp will transition into a big season for the rookie.
Greg Olsen will continue to be Olsen and be a reliable target for Cam. Training camp has had a nice battle between new free agent Ed Dickson and second year undrafted free agent Brandon Williams, both are playing well and look good enough for that second tight end spot. Hopefully this means that the Panthers can go back to the two tight end system that they ran with Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey two season ago that was so effective.
I have had some conversations with fans about the Carolina offensive line, and most of these conversations end in laughter more times than not. Looking at the offensive line makes you really scared for the safety of Cam Newton. Both tackle positions will either have the underachieving Byron Bell or defensive tackle convert Nate Chandler at each end, along with inexperience filling the guard positions. However, luckily, pro-bowler Ryan Kalil will still be in a Panthers' uniform playing center next season.
In my opinion, Gettleman has constantly said the answer is on the roster at the lineman position, this being the reason he stubbornly added no free agency acquisitions to the position. I believe Gettleman is a smart man and a good general manager, but it was irresponsible of him to leave such an unproven line protecting his franchise quarterback. Maybe these younger players are going to shock us, but it is impossible to know for sure. If Cam Newton gets hurt at any point this season, my first finger will be pointed at Gettleman.
On the defensive line, little has changed outside of Charles Johnson’s weight loss and second round draft pick Kony Ealy joining the team. The Linebacker is on the same boat remaining the same as last year. Considering our front seven was arguably the best in the league in 2013, I don’t see any problem with not making any changes.
The secondary has made strides with upgrading the safety position with Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper. While both are older players, they still have some good football left in them and will get to play behind one of the best front seven’s in football.
With the corner back position, the Panthers lost Captain Munnerlyn but replaced him with who I believe to be a superior player in Antoine Cason. In addition The development of Melvin White will also play big in the improving secondary, and Charles Godfrey will assume full time nickel corner duties after returning from a season long injury.
All in all, the defense is going to be much improved with the secondary being upgraded and able to help the team's front seven. Running backs will play the same role on the team as last season which is to do their job and take some pressure off Cam. The receivers and offensive lineman are the two positions that are going to have to prove that they can help this Panthers team earn a playoff position. The way I see it is the receivers will have play well enough for Cam to make plays like last year, the offensive line will be below league average but will not kill the team’s chances, and the defense is going to continue to be the best in the league and keep us in games. In my own opinion, while I do not think we will regress as much as some people believe, I do not think we will make any major improvement to our record from last year, but still at least make it into the wildcard spots.