In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC South, continuing with the Carolina Panthers today.
Recap of 2015: The Panthers had the best regular season in the NFL going 15-1. They fell just shy of going 16-0 with a Week 16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. They had the best player in the league under center, Cam Newton. He was tied for second in the league with 35 passing TDs and tied for fifth with 10 rushing TDs. Cam was nothing short of a league MVP and a very well deserving candidate. They also had the one of the top defenses in the league. Led by Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, and Jared Allen, they led the league in total takeaways with 39 (10 more than second place Kansas City) and were sixth in the league in sacks with 44. They followed up that great regular season with a trip to Super Bowl 50, only to fall just short of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history. Their performance in the Super Bowl was less than stellar. Carolina lost the game to Denver 24-10, Cam Newton was sacked seven times (tying a Super Bowl record), and he was highly criticized for his lack of effort for trying to retrieve a fumble late in the 4th quarter. Cam Newton and company will look to build off of last year and get back to the Super Bowl to try and bring home Carolina’s first championship.
Significant Additions: DT Paul Soliai, P Mike Scifres, CB Leonard Johnson
Significant Subtractions: CB Josh Norman, DE Jared Allen, SS Roman Harper, CB Charles Tillman
Potential Impact Rookies: DT Vernon Butler, CB James Bradberry, CB Daryl Worley
Team Strengths: This team’s strength is at the quarterback position. Cam Newton is the reigning MVP and he should be right back in the MVP discussions again this season. He is the best all-around QB in the league. He can beat you with his legs and can beat you from the pocket with his arm. His 6’5”, 245 pound frame makes him hard to bring down and allows him to bully defensive lineman and linebackers in goal line situations. Cam puts this team on his shoulders week in and week out and carries them to new heights.
Team Weaknesses: This year will be very different for the Panthers in the defensive backfield. This team has seen the likes of Roman Harper and Josh Norman sign contracts elsewhere and Charles “Peanut” Tillman retire. The starting corners for Carolina this year are Robert McClain and Bene Benwikere have just 27 starts between the two of them. McClain stepped in last year in the playoffs after Tillman and Benwikere went down with injuries. The Panthers have significantly downgraded at this position and if the pass rush doesn’t step up, this team could struggle in the passing game.
Fantasy Players to Watch: CAMMMMMMMM. This guy is a yardage and TD machine. He scored more fantasy points (standard ESPN scoring) than any other player. He scored 45 total TDs, threw for 3,800+ yards, and ran for an additional 600+ yards. Cam is a must start at QB every week. Another must start for the Panther’s offense is TE Greg Olsen. Olsen is a TE1 and he draws a ton of attention from Cam (123 targets in 2015). He is also a red-zone threat for this Panthers offense (31 targets in 2015). Olsen is going to get his fair share of touchdowns in this offense and should break 1,000 yards receiving for the third consecutive year. Other players to pick up on draft day are RB Jonathan Stewart, WR Kelvin Benjamin, and the Carolina defense. Stewart showed he can handle the load of an every down running back. Benjamin missed all of last season with an ACL injury, but he burst onto the fantasy scene in his rookie season. He was a top-20 WR and had 145 targets in the 2014 season. He will be Cam’s top target this season and he should see that number of targets again, if not more. Carolina was a top-5 defense last season. They had more interceptions and fumbles than any other team and they also scored five touchdowns. Other guys worth taking a shot on in deeper leagues are second year guys Cameron Artis-Payne and Devin Funchess. Both players will start the season as back-ups but could both see time on the field if Stewart (missed 3 games in each of last three seasons) and Benjamin (missed all of 2015 with an ACL injury) go down for an injury.
2016 Outlook: If you find yourself looking for another team to root for because you are tired of watching teams like the Browns or Titans, I suggest you join the Panthers bandwagon (Note: my fellow colleague here at H&H wrote about why you should join that bandwagon). The Panthers play in the NFC South and are the cream of the crop. They have dominated this division over the last three years. They are 14-4 against the division and are reigning three time division champions. This offense isn’t going to miss a beat and will pick up right where they left off last year and have a chance to be better in my opinion. They get Kelvin Benjamin back and Devin Funchess has now had a full NFL season under his belt. Greg Olsen will be a 1,000+ yard receiver, Jonathan Stewart should rush for 1,000+ yards this year, and Cam Newton is still Cam Newton and is going to continue to do Cam Newton things. Their defensive front seven will also be one of the best in football again. Luke Kuechly is a defensive POY caliber type player and Kawann Short is one of the best defensive tackles in the game. They also have All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis lining up next to Kuechly. This team will go as far as the secondary will allow them to go. With three new starters in the secondary, it will take some time for this group to gel and come together. This secondary will be looking for the next Josh Norman. The future for this team is still bright and anything less than a fourth consecutive division title would be a disappointment for this franchise.
Record Prediction: I like the Panthers to go 12-4 this season and take the division. They open up the season against Denver in a rematch of Super Bowl 50. The Panthers will be playing with a chip on their shoulder and will look to spoil the Broncos’ championship celebration. Also, let me reiterate, the Panthers still play in the NFC South. They get to play the likes of the Saints, Buccaneers, and Falcons each twice. The Panthers will feast on these opponents again and will coast to a division title. Cam and Co. will be back in the playoffs this year and look to get another shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy next February.
Photo Credit: Fox Sports/Tim Heitman