clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Panthers could be the best team in the trenches, but what about everywhere else?

New, comments
NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Analysts and writers who feel the need to make predictions with total conviction — that their opinions are in fact not opinions but infallible peeks into the future — are not football experts at all, but carnival barkers. Over a century of evidence in American sports alone tells us that as of yet nobody can predict what will happen in the next season or even the next game with any level of consistency that would make a reasonable person look twice. So there are no predictions in these previews of opponents of the 2019 Seattle Seahawks — only my thoughts and within those thoughts, an opinion of what I believe they will most likely look like in the coming year and straightforward updates on changes to the roster and coaching staff. But any team could be turning over 30% of their entire roster or 100% of their coaches and in some cases, a complete changeover in ownership and/or how they plan to run their franchise. That makes things even more volatile when looking ahead, especially with over three months to go until Week 1, but it’s worth a look ahead anyhow. These are my thoughts, some of which will be wrong, but if I didn’t believe my experience in evaluating football things was at least a little bit valuable, I wouldn’t be writing these. Hopefully that experience gives you a clearer picture of what to expect, while also expecting that these pictures could be erased at any moment.

Previous previews:

Bengals / Steelers / Ravens / Browns / Saints / Buccaneers / Falcons

The 2019 Carolina Panthers

Well, it’s an odd-numbered year so I guess we can expect the Panthers to do a lot better than anyone’s giving them credit for right now. In the last seven seasons, Ron Rivera’s team has gone 27-36-1 in even years and 38-10 in the odds. Every time it seems like maybe Carolina’s ownership would let go of Rivera, he pulls them back in.

Does the 2019 version have enough talent to continue that trend and save Rivera again? For the Seattle Seahawks, they won’t get their chance to influence that decision one way or the other until Week 15 with a late season trip to Charlotte, their 10th game against the Panthers since Pete Carroll arrived in 2010 — and that’s assuming Rivera is still around by then.

Through the first eight games of 2018, Carolina started 6-2 with Cam Newton on perhaps his best stretch of games passing since 2015: 67% completions, 15 TD, 4 INT, 100.8 rating plus 342 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. The second season of Christian McCaffrey played a massive role in Newton’s completion percentage, which was 58.5% in Newton’s career prior to 2018. He has now completed nearly 80% of his 237 targets to McCaffrey over the last two years, most of which obviously are short passes because McCaffrey is a running back.

And that all worked magically in the first half of 2018, putting Carolina firmly ahead of the Seahawks for a playoff spot at that point, but then it all started to fall apart.

Over the following six games, Newton still had his completion% at 68, but he threw 9 TD, 9 INT, had a rating of 85.9 (much more in line with his career rate), his rushing production decreased significantly, and the team went 0-6. Newton was shut down for the final two games, listed with a shoulder injury. The shoulder injury first appeared on the practice report in Week 8, just around the time the Panthers began to descend from a team vying for the number one seed to a 7-9 finish.

What can we expect from Newton in 2019, a quarterback who I’ve actually spent a lot more time calling “overrated” than I have Andrew Luck? (You can see the exact moment right here where a Carolina fan reading this has dipped into the comments section to tell me to F*@$ off.)

Over the last three seasons, Cam ranks 21st out of 23 QBs (min. 1000 attempts) in passer rating and 20th in Y/A and net Y/A, just a hair behind Case Keenum in both cases. He’s 22nd in completion percentage, just barely ahead of last-place Blake Bortles.

My assumption is that we’ll see a typical Newton season because unlike the Panthers’ record under Rivera, I find Cam to actually be quite consistent. The one caveat to that is McCaffrey, who I assume will again influence his completion percentage and decision-making in a significant way. With offensive coordinator Norv Turner back for his second season under Rivera, I’d expect Newton to come in around 65% completions, 23 TD, 13 INT, 7.2 Y/A, 500 rushing yards and five touchdowns. It’s a guess, that’s all it is, but it’s based on a fairly long career.

The differences will of course be whatever has changed around him.

The Panthers bring back Taylor Moton at left tackle, one of the most highly regarded young players at the position, and re-signed Daryl Williams to a one-year, $7 million to play on the right side. Williams was excellent in 2017 but missed virtually all of 2018 so there’s some risk there. If healthy, Moton and Williams could be among the best tackle duos in the NFL, while right guard Trai Turner will be seeking his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance.

All three offensive linemen are 26 or younger.

The team brought in former Denver Bronco Matt Paradis to replace Ryan Kalil at center and Greg Van Roten goes into his second season as the starter at left guard. All told, the addition of Paradis, the return of Williams, the release of Matt Kalil, the growth of Moton, and the trade up to draft tackle Greg Little in round two could give Carolina one of the best offensive lines. It could also be the best line that Newton has ever had and certainly even if I do call Newton “overrated,” it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t fear him on a given play and especially with an elite offensive line.

Of course, a bigger focus around Newton over the last eight years has been not on his time to throw, but his weapons. I think that players like Steve Smith and Greg Olsen have been “overlooked” by fans who say that Newton has never had any elite players to throw to — but let’s focus on today.

New number one receiver D.J. Moore finished with 788 yards as a rookie on 82 targets. Against the Seahawks last season he caught eight of nine targets for 91 yards and had three kick returns — he only had two of those over the course of the rest of the season. Similar to Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense, there’s some question as to what the ceiling of a number one receiver in Carolina could really be. Could Moore ever be a 1,200-yard receiver with the Panthers even if he turns out to be great?

Maybe! More importantly, will he be great? That’s not for me to say, but as a starter he was productive and at just 21 years of age. He of course was even better with Newton than his backups, which also influenced his statistics. Overall, I’d think Moore is a great prospect at the position and a better reason for optimism than Kelvin Benjamin ever was.

But after him and McCaffrey (107 of 124 targets, 867 yards, 6 TDs) it’s a whole bunch of “I don’t know about that” receiving options.

Olsen is 34, has a foot injury, and coming off two very unproductive seasons (16 games, 482 yards). Jarius Wright and Torrey Smith don’t inspire much confidence among the veterans at receiver beyond making a play or two. Curtis Samuel, a second rounder in 2017, had his most productive stretch over the final six games (20 catches, 298 yards, 1 TD) but on 40 targets. Chris Hogan was brought in too. Okay.

Tight end Ian Thomas may be an interesting one to watch as he caught 36 of 49 targets as a rookie. He caught two touchdowns — one from Tyler Heinicke and one from Kyle Allen and none from Cam.

Overall, we can probably expect the ball to be spread around a lot and for no players outside of Moore and McCaffrey to stand out in a significant way in that regard. Much of the offense will be funneled through the running game and McCaffrey averaged 5 yards per carry in 2018, with some of his best work coming in the second half of the year when they couldn’t buy a win.

There’s a lot of talk about how Saquon Barkley and McCaffrey are “different” than other backs and “worth” a high draft pick because they’re versatile players who also do work in the passing game as receivers. And yet the Panthers went 0-2 in the two games where McCaffrey had over 100 yards receiving and 4-0 in his four least productive receiving games. They went 3-9 when he had over 35 yards receiving. The team also went 1-3 when he rushed for over 100 yards.

(The Barkley story is the same, by the way. The Giants went 0-7 in Barkley’s seven best receiving games and 3-4 when he rushed for 100 yards.)

There’s little chance that Carolina will improve its running game, however. They were first in YPC and second in rushing DVOA in 2018. That’s great and it may continue to be great. They were 19th in passing DVOA though and I could see that improving because of the offensive line, Moore and Samuel’s potential growth, and maybe a healthier Olsen.

I think the Panthers could have a top-10 offense but it was actually their defense that did more to hold them back last season.

Going back to odd vs even, Carolina was 3rd in defensive DVOA in 2013, 2nd in 2015, and 7th in 2017. Last season they ranked 22nd, including 24th against the pass. Their improvement in that area is most likely what’s going to make the Panthers a formidable or beatable team in 2019. That usually means two things: pass rush and secondary.

Because even though Luke Kuechly did miss six games in 2016 and has dealt with some health issues, the Panthers haven’t exactly stopped and started based on his availability. In fact, Carolina went 4-6 with Kuechly in 2016 and 2-4 without him, so there wasn’t much of a difference in results there.

The team was led in sacks last season by 31-year-old Mario Addison, who got to the QB nine times and has surprisingly racked up 29.5 over the last three years. Julius Peppers, now retired, was second on the team with five. The second-most returning sacks is 3.5 by Shaq Thompson. That leaves a lot of room for improvement and even if Addison is underrated, there’s a reason he’s not a household name; he’s very good but as a team’s most talented and experienced pass rusher by a critical amount that’s a signal that the pass rush could be weak.

The most-watched player on the defensive line for Carolina will be first round rookie Brian Burns, the 16th overall pick out of Florida State. The 6’5, 250 lb edge had 10 sacks and 15.5 TFL for the Seminoles last season and not only is there little in his way as far as opportunities but Burns could be playing alongside the best defensive tackle unit in the entire NFL.

Which might be something that’s a little overlooked right now when discussing the chances of the 2019 Carolina Panthers.

Gerald McCoy signed up after nine seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with six trips to the Pro Bowl. His 45 QB hits in the last two years is tied for the 12th-most across the entire league and is tied for third among strict defensive tackles. There’s little reason at this point to think McCoy won’t be effective this year at 31.

Kawann Short went to his second Pro Bowl last season and he’s proven more than capable of compiling 6-10 sacks in a given year. Dontari Poe joined the team in 2018 after five years with the Kansas City Chiefs and one with the Atlanta Falcons. He had just 17 tackles, one sack, and three QB hits, but Poe was once a two-time Pro Bowler before a few other nose tackles came around and changed the bar for what’s considered “great” at that position. Vernon Butler may be approaching the “bust” label if he hasn’t already, but has a first round pedigree which can be valuable when you’re that far down the depth chart.

Rounding out the perceived starting defensive line will be another former first round pick and the last player that John Schneider drafted in the top 25: Bruce Irvin. After four years in Seattle and stops in Oakland and Atlanta, Irvin signed with the Panthers as a consistent guarantee of around five sacks per season. Who knows if another level to Bruce will be unlocked by defensive coordinator Eric Washington, but he only has to be a role player next season next to some very talented players.

Overall, the Panthers’ defensive line could be among the greatest in the NFL. If Burns is effective as a rookie, that should only help to elevate the McCoy-Short-Addison-Poe combination that is just about as experienced and acclaimed as any in the NFC. However, if Burns gets hurt, takes time to catch up to NFL speed, or just plain fails to perform at the next level, there has to be some concern with an edge led by Addison and Irvin. That’s fine, but not near what they had in 2017 when Addison (11), Peppers (11), and Short (7.5) combined for nearly 30 sacks, plus another 5.5 by Wes Norton, who was recently signed by the New Orleans Saints.

Defensive tackle Kyle Love also returns for his ninth season and he’s about as good as it gets for your number five DT. We’ll see how that whole group shakes out by September though because I’m not sure if the plan is meant to include all of these guys once Week 1 hits.

So the defensive line and the pass rush may indeed be back to odd-numbered-years levels ... but for better or worse (likely worse) the secondary remains mostly unchanged from 2018.

Eric Reid did indeed continue his career mostly unheeded, finishing with 13 games and 71 tackles for Carolina a year ago. After 4 or 5 years as a free safety though, Reid is now managing strong safety and there are certainly limitations on his value to a defense in ways that did not really exist when he was a young Pro Bowl FS for the San Francisco 49ers. The reasons for Reid remaining unsigned as long as he did most likely had much more to do with football — and the value of safeties at the time — than bending the knee.

The write-up on the safety position over at Cat Scratch Reader is a mix of optimism and concern. Reid could hold the position down now that he has “a full offseason” to prepare with the defense. And there’s some truth in that, I’m sure. Time with a defense, at a new position, without being in limbo, should have a net positive effect, I’d think. But as a football writer, I also know optimistic writing when I see it. “Here’s a reason to hold out hope for something good to happen.” We could say the same right now maybe for Jamarco Jones or Rashaad Penny or maybe Mychal Kendricks, Mike Iupati, or Ed Dickson. I could name a lot of players who may benefit from more time and less off-field or injury concerns.

They could also all — Reid, Jones, Kendricks, I don’t know — find themselves playing a step below your most optimistic projections because most people fall well below the best case scenario. Just keep that in mind.

Eric Reid was a good free safety once, the idea that he’ll be a great safety at any point for Carolina is not something you can dismiss entirely and also not likely. The fact that Reid is the star of the secondary though would concern me if I was a Panthers fan.

The player currently in the lead at free safety is 2018 third round pick Rashaan Gaulden, who was described by CSR as such:

Rashaan Gaulden returns after his rookie play didn’t exactly give cause for optimism in limited action. Gaulden was drafted as an all around defensive back, but it seems like he’s a better fit as a nickel/box safety. Again, not really an option for free safety based on his athleticism.

After those two, Mike Adams and Colin Jones hit free agency, meaning there’s a ton of room for new additions. Adams is 74.75 years old and Jones is a career special teamer, so even if they do return, they cannot be relied on for anything substantial.

Jones re-signed, Adams is still a free agent. They took zero safeties in the draft.

It most likely comes down to Gaulden and Reid as the starting safeties, with Jones, Quin Blanding, Kai Nacua, Damian Parms, and UDFA Corrion Ballard in the mix behind them. If not one of those guys, they could re-sign Adams or Da’Norris Searcy, but they weren’t helping them any in 2018 when the defense struggled to stop the pass in a passing league.

The defensive back who fans are highest on is likely Donte Jackson, a 2018 second round pick who started every game at corner and finished with nine passes defensed and four interceptions. It’s a similar situation to the one the Seahawks are in with Tre Flowers: Jackson had an undeniably good season for a rookie thrown into the starting mix immediately, but he didn’t have that good of a season overall. There’s just a lot of hope there because this was only the beginning. Is Jackson ready to be the number one corner on the team and can Carolina’s pass defense improve dramatically with him?

The previous number one corner has been James Bradberry, an okay player and someone I’d assume is much safer as your number two corner. If Jackson develops significantly, the Panthers have a couple of decent, young starting cornerbacks. If they repeat last season, Rivera may need to dig deep for other options. It could turn out that when in nickel, veteran Ross Cockrell may take Jackson’s spot on the outside and kick him into the slot. Cockrell has spent the last four years with three different teams.

Kuechly is a 28-year-old in the middle of a Hall of Fame career, his concussion history being the only real concern though it is a big one. The team must replace Thomas Davis, a player who was extremely reliable and important to the defense over the last seven seasons — which followed three years he missed virtually all of, which came after five other years in Carolina ... Yes, Thomas Davis is so old that he played against the Seahawks in the 2005 NFC Championship game. Now he’s with the LA Chargers.

CSR said of Davis earlier this year:

I’m not here to argue for Davis’ return in 2019 but I will say his leadership will be missed. Davis is an inspiration to those around him and a guy who leads by example. He never shied away from owning up to his mistakes either. You know what I’m talking about.

While his 2018 performance wasn’t on par with some previous seasons he was still considered a top 100 player at the start of the season. I think if anything was missing it was the big plays we were used to Davis making in the past.

In the competition to replace him is rookie Christian Miller (4th round, Alabama), inexperienced vet Antwione Williams, plus maybe Burns, Addison, Marquis Haynes, or Irvin. Others will get involved. On the other side will be former UW linebacker Shaq Thompson, a former first round pick who has underwhelmed most of the way through his career and is considered a major liability in pass coverage. As the team transitions to more 3-4 looks in 2019, expect Thompson to spend more time on the inside next to Kuechly.

Overall, the defense is hoping that a combination of Kuechly, the tackles, and an immediate contribution by Burns is enough to cover up the inadequacies of a secondary that can only claim improvement through “addition by subtraction” and crossed fingers that Jackson is on his way to stardom. This was a bad defense in 2018 and especially so against the pass so while we can give them a little bit of credit by regression alone, it’s mainly coming down to McCoy and Burns and Jackson.

And maybe that is enough because it’s a team with a couple of elite talents, some good ones, and a coach going into his ninth year.

However, if Rivera is going to see year 10 it might take more than just some odd-numbered luck. The Panthers have been bouncing back and forth between relevancy and forgettable since Russell Wilson entered the NFL in 2012 and presented an interesting rivalry between him and Cam. That’s a long time to feel like it’s one step forward and one step back every year. Rivera may instead need to not only challenge for the NFC South crown but could need to get the Panthers back to at least the NFC Championship for the right to be back in 2020. Could they do that?

Newton is capable. The offensive line could be his best yet. Moore and McCaffrey are talented weapons to be blocking for and throwing to. The defensive line is a worthy opponent in practice to that offensive line. And Luke Kuechly. Carolina will have the advantage of being at home here but Wilson is actually 4-1 in Charlotte so that advantage hasn’t been effective enough for the Panthers against Seattle.

I do think Carolina could jump right back into being a 12-win team. And I also have my doubts that McCoy and Burns will be enough to improve one of the weakest secondaries in the league so the maturation of some young corners and safeties may need to come faster than you can usually hope for.