The Carolina Panthers are coming off a big 2013, including a division title and 12-4 overall record. But in a division that has never had back-to-back champions, the Panthers find themselves set up for a let down in 2014.
For starters, the loss of Steve Smith is going to have a much bigger impact than people care to admit. The most reliable receiver in team history, hauling in 836 receptions for 12,197 yards and 67 touchdowns, was shown the door this offseason. He signed on to be the veteran leader of the Ravens’ receiving corps with a new found energy as well as a huge chip on his shoulder. The Panthers did little to nothing to try and replace the production Smith had on a regular basis. Their depth chart at wide receiver is filled with has-beens, rookies, and no-namers. It appears as follows (‘R’- Rookie):
RWR: Kelvin Benjamin(R), Brenton Bersin, Tiquan Underwood
These are not receivers that are going to strike fear into the hearts of too many secondaries. Benjamin seemed somewhat impressive in his preseason debut, but it was hardly a large enough sample size to make any real evaluation of his ability to face NFL level defenses. Cotchery, Avant, and Underwood seem to be the leftovers Carolina pursued after it seemed as if no one else wanted them. And although Cotchery has made some great plays in his career, he is hardly the kind of receiver any other team would peg as a “#1″ target. If they feel Benjamin is their top guy, that is a lot of pressure to put on a 23 year old kid in a very unforgiving division.
This means Carolina may have to rely heavily on their running game, which was ranked 11th overall in 2013. However, DeAngelo Williams ranked 18th with 843 yards and only 3 touchdowns. Cam Newton was their second-highest ranked rusher coming in at number 33 with 585 yards and 6 touchdowns. Then there was Jonathan Stewart ranked 89th overall with 180 yards and no touchdowns. If the Panthers have to pound the ball to win games, having Newton be the second-leading rusher on the team is recipe for disaster. In this new age of mobile quarterbacks, the most important player on the team is now making himself far more susceptible to injury. Guys like Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and rookie sensation Johnny Manziel will find themselves with very short careers due to the hits they will take.
The saving grace for this franchise in 2014 could very well be it’s defense, who ranked second overall in the NFL for 2013. Luke Kuechly gets a lot of the credit and attention, but this juggernaut that the Panthers have constructed on the defensive side of the ball is an absolute force. They allowed only an average of 305.5 yards per game and 19.1 points per game, and that was with a schedule that went against the NFC West, AFC East, and the New Orleans Saints (twice). The defensive line was the second-best in the league against the run, allowing a meager 86.9 rush yards per game last year. Tackles Dwan Edwards and Star Lotulelei and ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are sure to make the lives of offensive linemen miserable all season long as they attempt to replicate their 2013 success.
But if the Panthers are unable to move the ball, whether it’s by trying to run with their 3-headed monster, or pass to one of the weakest receiving corps in the league, the defense will only be able to stand tall for so long. No matter how good the defense is, when they only get three plays off before the team is punting and they’re thrown back in the fire, they will tire and be exposed. The inability for Carolina to bring in, or even keep, any high caliber receivers may be their undoing in the upcoming year.
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