By Allan Erickson
The Panthers looked like a playoff team last season (6-2 through the first eight games of the season). Then, a Thursday night debacle at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers was more than just an “L” in the loss column. Cam Newton took a shot to his throwing shoulder in that game, and the Panthers were doomed for the remainder of the year. A few games with Cam Newton at less than 100% were close, and late-game blunders by the secondary cost the Panthers a shot at the playoffs in 2018. Five straight losses by less than a touchdown to Detroit, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and the Saints, was the end-all for their postseason hopes. Let’s dive in; I’ll give you the three keys for the Panthers returning to the glory days of 3-straight NFC South Titles.
This should be obvious. The health of Cam Newton is the most critical factor in this team’s success. Cam Newton is surrounded by weapons, both crafty veterans (Greg Olsen, Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright,) and up-and-comers (Christian McCaffery, DJ Moore, and Curtis Samuel.) These skill position guys are going to get open; they’re going to find holes in the defense, the Panthers need the offensive line to keep Cam Newton upright, and give him a chance to throw the ball to the most talented skill group he’s ever had around him.
The Panthers were second in the league in sacks the year they went to the Super Bowl. Last year, they finished 24th in sacks, and 27th in quarterback pressures, which exposed the secondary for what it is- average. James Bradberry, Donte Jackson, Eric Reid, Tre Boston, Corn Elder, and Rashaun Golden will all play a crucial part in the defensive backfield this upcoming season. While the outside cornerback positions are solidified with Bradberry and Jackson, neither of those guys are lockdown corners. The Panthers, on paper, could have the best front 7 in all of football with the additions they made to the defensive front. They’re also implementing a 3-4 defense to mix things up and allow some stand-up edge rushers to shine. The defense doesn’t allow many rushing yards, but the secondary has been the weak spot in the lineup. I don’t believe the secondary is weak; I feel like the pass rush just hasn’t been getting home like we’ve come to expect a Ron Rivera lead defense. If the front seven plays to their potential, the secondary will have a strong year, and get back to forcing turnovers. It starts with getting after the quarterback, and the Panthers addressed those needs in the offseason. I expect the Panthers to field a top-5 defense this season, barring any injuries to some key guys, this defense will be a force.
Last but not least, the Carolina Panthers must find someone to spell Christian McCaffery and get him some rest. He’s more than just an every-down back at this point, he’s a superstar. My worry is the workload being put on him will create an injury. The Panthers need to move on from Cameron Artis Payne, his track record is abysmal, he’s a borderline 3rd string running back, and if anything happens to McCaffery, the Panthers need somebody behind him that can come in a be an effective player. Christian will need spells, though he could join the elite 1,000-yard rusher and receiver club this season. The Panthers need to find a running back that isn’t such a substantial drop off from when Christian’s in the game.
We’ve seen Cam Newton’s throwing motion change, we’ve seen him air it out a few times in practice, quite successfully. The Panthers have weapons all around Cam and made a massive upgrade on the defensive front adding Gerald McCoy, Bruce Irvin, and rookie sensation Brian Burns to help the Panthers get after the quarterback. They may have the best front 7 in football, with Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson combining for 206 tackles last season, the linebacker core is as good as they come. The offensive line should be better than last year. Unfortunately, it’s still not what most would consider a “great unit,” but they have to keep Cam off the turf, if not, the Panthers quarterback could suffer another injury, and Will Grier and Kyle Allen are fine backup quarterbacks, but they won’t take the Panthers where they need to be. Cam Newton is the X factor for the offense, and the defensive front will bring the defense back to an elite level.
I don’t believe the Panthers are the best team in the NFC South; I still believe that title goes to the Saints. However, I do feel like the NFC South will be represented well in the postseason this year. I expect the Falcons, Saints, and Panthers to win the division. Panthers and Falcons will go 10-6 or 11-5 and be the two wildcards in the NFC; the Saints will win the division with a record of 12-4. This division is brutal, and the quarterbacks in this division are truly unbelievable, all MVP caliber players. It’s great to be a part of the toughest division in football; I expect three teams from this division to make the playoffs, one of which will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. We’ve got some exciting football going on this season, and it’s going to be fun. The Panthers will be a very very good team; I expect a playoff run.
Until next time, y’all Keep Pounding, and remember- it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice!