NFL 2015 Season Preview: Carolina Panthers

2015 is about… Getting past the fact they’ll be without No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the entire season. The second-year wide tore the ACL in his left knee during a non-contact drill in training camp and it’s a massive blow to their playoff hopes. Imagine if the Cowboys lost Dez Bryant, or the Falcons lost Julio Jones, or the Bengals lost A.J. Green. Benjamin, while not quite on their level, is just as valuable if not more valuable to his team.

The Panthers managed to win their division last year with a sub-.500 record, which won’t happen this year (the NFC South can’t be that bad again, right?). With Benjamin out of the picture the Panthers will once again have to lean heavily on their strong defence. We’ll see Cam Newton rely on Greg Olsen a bunch, but unlike last season Newton’s entering the season healthy so he could get back to rushing the ball more frequently as well.

They lost… Greg Hardy. The defensive end played only one game last season due to a suspension stemming from domestic-violence charges, yet the Panthers still had one of the best defensive lines in the league. So, between Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who is poised to have a breakout year, the Panthers won’t miss Hardy too much.

As mentioned above, the biggest absence is Benjamin, but they also lost longtime Panther DeAngelo Williams. The running back could never match the back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons he had in 2008 and 2009 but he was a serviceable weapon in the backfield. The team cut veteran free safety Thomas DeCoud with one year remaining on his contract because they’re confident in Tre Boston.

Yeah, but they got… Michael Oher. With a lack of quality receivers in Carolina, opposing teams will be able to stack the box and Newton is bound to be under more pressure. Having a veteran left tackle like Oher protecting Newton’s blind side is a huge upgrade to an offensive line that allows its quarterback to get hit too often.

With Williams gone and the fact starter Jonathan Stewart has been injury prone his entire career, running back Jordan Todman was a solid pickup. If Stewart misses any time Todman could be counted on to split carries with Fozzy Whittaker or even start.

Charles Tillman joins the Panthers after 12 years with the Bears. When healthy, the veteran cornerback can still make plays. He can also be a positive influence in the dressing room.

Following a season in Arizona, Ted Ginn Jr. is back in Carolina. He’s an excellent special teams player, but he could slide into the No. 2 receiver spot with Benjamin out. The No. 1 spot is now occupied by rookie Devin Funchess. He’s a massive target like Benjamin but he’ll be going up against the best corners opposing teams have to offer, and that’s a tough ask.

Growing from within: The defence is undoubtedly the strength of this team and there’s no one better at his position than middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He and Thomas Davis make up arguably the NFL’s best linebacking duo and they’re surrounded by some young talent like rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson, who has impressed in the pre-season. Cornerback Josh Norman was excellent last season against division rivals Julio Jones and Mike Evans.

Why this team? Unlike the three other teams in their division, they’ve actually got a great defence. Ron Rivera is a good coach and Cam Newton is the type of athlete that can make something out of nothing. The star QB is continuing to mature and he’ll have to remain composed if/when his receiving corps struggles.

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