The TSB NFL Training Camp Previews continues look at the NFC South by making a trip to Charlotte. Maybe the biggest surprise of the season happened last year in Carolina as a Quarterback came into his own and the defense become one to be reckoned with. A humbling loss in the playoffs on top of a very turbulent off-season has people wondering if last year will be a one off or whether or not they can get back on top of the NFC South this year.
So lets take a look at the defending NFC South Champion Carolina Panthers
2013 Record: 12-4; NFC South Champions (Lost 23-10 to San Francisco in NFC Divisional Round)
Passing Leader: Cam Newton 3379 YDS 24 TD 13 INT
Rushing Leader: DeAngelo Williams 843 YDS 3 TD (Newton led team with 6 TD)
Receiving Leader: Greg Olson 816 YDS 6 TD
Leading Tackler: Luke Kuechly 156 Tackles/93 Solo
Sacks Leader: Greg Hardy 15 Sacks
Int Leader: Mike Mitchell/Luke Kuechly 4 INT
FA losses: Steve Smith WR, Ted Ginn Jr. WR, Domenik Hixon WR, Brandon LaFell WR, Mike Mitchell S, Captain Munnerlyn CB
FA signings: Roman Harper S, Jerricho Cotchery WR, Tiquan Underwood WR, Jason Avant WR, Antoine Cason CB
1st Round: Kelvin Benjamin, Wide receiver, Florida State
2nd Round: Kony Ealy, Defensive End, Missouri
3rd Round: Trai Turner, Offensive Guard, LSU
4th Round: Tre Boston, Safety, North Carolina
5th Round: Bene Benwikere, Cornerback, San Jose State
6th Round: Tyler Gaffney, Running Back, Stanford
An off-season of turbulence really begin when the clock hit zero in mid January when the 49ers finished off the Panthers season with a win in Charlotte in the NFC Divisional Round.
The Panthers have seen a mass exodus of talent from the Wide Receiver position that this writer has never seen before. Steve Smith was cut and signed with Baltimore while Brandon LaFell (New England), Tedd Ginn Jr. (Arizona) and Domenik Hixon (Chicago) all left via free agency.
They addressed this issue by bringing in veterans like Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery (a personal favorite of mine from his Jets days) who are solid but don’t exactly scare people. The Panthers also used the draft to address their WR issues by taking Kelvin Benjamin who is a huge target and caught the game winning touchdown in the BCS National Title Game.
The Panthers are built around two major parts of the team that will be the reason why they pick up where they left off last season or fall back from the top of the division.
Cam Newton had off-season ankle surgery and is still working his way back. Last season he matured before everyone’s eyes and with Steve Smith now no longer in the locker room, this team squarely belongs to Newton to be the leader. If he can comeback 100% from the injury and develop a relationship with his new WR’s then the team could be as good as next year.
The reason why thats even possible considering all the changes on offense is because the Panthers have a defense that might be one of the best in football. They did lose Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn from their secondary but the defensive line led by Greg Hardy and linebacker core led by Luke Kuechly are fantastic.
When it comes right down to it, the Panthers have got the defense to keep them in every game but with the Saints still in the division and the Falcons returning to health the division is extremely tough. Add to that needing to break in an entirely new WR core, Newton still working his way back from his off-season surgery and a running game that minus Newton is ok at best, a step back will probably happen this year.