After going 15-1 and reaching the Super Bowl with their MVP quarterback, the Carolina Panthers cratered in 2016. Which group should be expected moving forward?
The Carolina Panthers were terrible last season, one year after ruling the NFC with an iron fist. In 2015, Cam Newton was a first-team All-Pro and the league MVP, accounting for 45 touchdowns. Last year, he was the fourth-best quarterback in his own division, an individual showcase of the NFL’s annual volatility.
Carolina experienced a nine-game regression in 2016, finishing 6-10. The reasons for this are many, perhaps beginning with the puzzling move by general manager David Gettleman to rescind the franchise tag from All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. Norman quickly signed a five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins, leaving the Panthers with a starting duo of Bene Benwikere and rookie James Bradberry at corner. The result was stark. Carolina ranked 29th in pass defense one season after checking in 11th.
With that said, the secondary should be much better. Bradberry, 23, took his lumps early in the season, but the film shows a player who rapidly improved. By season’s end, the youngster ranked 20th among all corners with a Pro Football Focus grade of 82.6. A second-round pick out of small-school Samford, Bradberry is a rising star who Carolina hopes will replace Norman’s role as a shutdown corner on the boundary.
“He has the potential to be that player,” said Jourdan Rodrigue, the team’s second-year beat writer for the Charlotte Observer. “His youth and quiet manner have people fooled a little bit when they look at or speak to him. Watching him in space and his awareness of the quarterback, and how he can envelop a receiver, he’ll be really fun to watch this year.”
Additionally, the fifth-round selection of Corn Elder this spring should also factor into this revamped group. Elder has been getting rotated into the first team during OTAs and minicamp both on the outside and in the slot. Captain Munnerlyn will receive most of the inside snaps in the regular season, but Elder’s versatility is a key component in reversing the defense’s alarming problems last year.
“The defense is really going to carry them early in the season,” Rodrigue said. “We’ve already seen crazy intensity from these guys this spring.”
Offensively, ample questions loom. For starters, which version of Newton — who is coming off rotator cuff surgery — should be expected after the skill sets around him were largely overhauled?
In 2016, the former Heisman Trophy winner saw significant dips in completion percentage (59.8 to 52.9), yards per attempt (7.75 to 6.88), touchdowns (35 to 19) and an increase in interceptions (10 to 14). Newton’s legs were also less impactful, gaining 359 yards compared to the 636 yards in 2015.
While these numbers may surprise some, perhaps they shouldn’t. Newton has been much more his 2016 season than the MVP campaign throughout his career. Over his first four years, Newton averaged a 59.5 completion rate while throwing for 3,607 yards and 21 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Other than his career-low completion percentage in 2016, many of Newton’s numbers are almost identical to the previous norm.
To understand why Newton’s numbers decreased so sharply, other factors have to be included. The offensive line was largely a sieve, due to a mix of poor play and rampant injuries.
In the offseason, Gettleman attempted to address the issue by signing left tackle Matt Kalil to a much-maligned five-year, $55 million deal with $24 million guaranteed. Kalil, 27, was a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2012 but has seen the quality of his play drastically diminish.
In the draft, the Panthers selected Taylor Moton with the last pick of the second round. Moton, a 6-foot-5, 365-pound behemoth out of Western Michigan, could find a starting job at right tackle, alongside standout guard Trai Turner. Andrew Norwell is an athletic guard on the left side, while while Ryan Kalil remains a top center. With better health, the interior should be excellent.
Gettleman also upgraded the supporting cast around Newton. Carolina drafted do-it-all weapon Christian McCaffrey in the first round and followed him up with wide receiver Curtis Samuel in the second. McCaffrey will immediately become a staple of Carolina’s attack, while Samuel figures to take over Ted Ginn Jr.’s role in the slot.
The rookie additions will add speed to a previously plodding offense. Kelvin Benjamin is a massive target at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, but he won’t outrun any defensive back. Tight end Greg Olsen is an exceptional route-runner with superb hands, but he’s limited in vertically stretching a defense. McCaffrey and Samuel should open up space for Benjamin, Olsen and third-year receiver Devin Funchess, another big-bodied type.
“They helped out their line and Newton but picking up Curtis and Christian,” Rodrigue said. “Gadget guys keep the defense on their heels with quick outs and quick throws, and they can make some guys miss on the second and third tiers.”
However, short passes call for timing and accuracy, two talents that have bedeviled Newton at times. In 93 career regular-season games, the former Auburn star has completed at least 65 percent of his throws on 17 occasions. Last year, Newton didn’t hit on 63 percent of his throws once.
At this juncture, Newton has little excuse not to perform weekly as an elite quarterback. Few teams have more talent at multiple skill positions, a fact that also puts the impetus to succeed on offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Shula, who has been in his current position since 2013, has yet to guide his offense to a top-10 ranking.
“Can he get the offense firing on all cylinders?” Rodrigue said. “He has an enormous tool belt at this point. … If he can’t figure out a way to make it work I think he’s gone.”
For Shula and the Panthers, time is of the essence. Carolina has an opportunity to prove that last year was nothing more than a mirage, a mere blip on the radar from a team with an upward trajectory.
If they fail to do so, the Panthers force much deeper questions about their future.
Top 10 head coaches of all-time
1. Paul Brown, Cleveland Browns
2. Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers
3. Bill Walsh, San Francisco 49ers
4. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots
5. Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys
6. George Halas, Chicago Bears
7. Don Shula, Miami Dolphins
8. Joe Gibbs, Washington Redskins
9. Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Bill Parcells, New York Giants
Honorable mention: Mike Holmgren, Hank Stram, Weeb Ewbank, Sid Gillman, Don Coryell, Bill Cowher, Bud Grant, Marty Schottenheimer
“We put a lot on his plate during the spring, and he handled it very well,” O’Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle. “He made mistakes, and he corrected them. You don’t see him make the same mistake twice. He can do a lot of things. He can operate our running game and in our passing game. He’s got a lot of athleticism. I don’t think we’ll have to limit him. Training camp and preseason games will be a big test.”
– Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien on Deshaun Watson’s development
The talk out of Houston has largely been about the recovery of J.J. Watt from two back surgeries and the impending quarterback battle in training camp. Although Tom Savage is entering his fourth year in both the league and O’Brien’s offense, it appears Watson will have every opportunity to win the job.
It was widely-speculated that Watson would need a proverbial redshirt year, but O’Brien talking about preseason being a “big test” should give everyone pause. Of the three quarterbacks selected in the first round quarterbacks this spring, Watson is the only one with a realistic chance to start Week 1.
J.T. O’Sullivan played for 11 teams throughout his NFL career, setting a record that may never be broken. O’Sullivan was a member of the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.
Info learned this week
1. Zach Orr making NFL comeback
In January, then-Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Zach Orr announced his intention to step away from football at 24 years old due to a vertebrae that was not fully formed. Doctors told the second-team All-Pro that if he continued to play, he was at a heightened risk for paralysis or death. Fast forward five months, and Orr is returning to the game. It remains unclear if Orr will pass a physical, although some in the medical community believe he will.
With his return to the NFL seemingly inevitable, the demand for Orr is significant. The Maryland native is an unrestricted free agent because he did not file retirement papers and the Ravens, who believed he was going to retire, didn’t offer a tender. The Lions had the first chance to sign Orr, bringing him in last Thursday.
An undrafted free agent in 2014, Orr was a relative unknown with the Ravens before bursting onto the scene in 2016 with 133 tackles and three interceptions.
2. Pats’ Gilmore makes strong statement
In March, the New England Patriots stole Stephon Gilmore away from the Buffalo Bills, signing the star corner to a five-year, $65 million deal. Most expected Gilmore to replace Malcolm Butler, who was rumored to be on the trading block throughout March and April. Instead, they will become a duo for at least one year. Gilmore believes they will be the best duo, per NFL.com.
New England may indeed have the best pair of corners, but it isn’t without debate. The Denver Broncos have a pair of All-Pros in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., while the Los Angeles Chargers showcase Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward. The Jacksonville Jaguars are also in the conversation with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
3. Chiefs interviewing candidates for GM job
After firing John Dorsey a week and a half ago, the Kansas City Chiefs are still searching for the right replacement. Kansas City has been going through the interview process, already speaking with co-director of player personnel Brett Veach. The Chiefs also brought in two candidates from the outside, including co-director of player personnel Scott Fitterer of the Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans director of player personnel Ryan Cowden, according to the Kansas City Star.
It would be surprising if Veach doesn’t get the job. He has worked alongside Andy Reid since his days with the Philadelphia Eagles, dating back to 2007. Additionally, Veach served as Dorsey’s right-hand man this offseason, following Chris Ballard’s departure for the Indianapolis Colts’ general manager job.
4. Karlos Williams sees career slipping away
The Buffalo Bills appeared to have a steal in the fifth round of the 2015 draft with running back Karlos Williams. The Florida State standout was terrific in limited duty as a rookie, gaining 517 rushing yards on 5.8 yards per carry. He also scored seven touchdowns, leading to talk about an expanded role in 2016 alongside LeSean McCoy.
Now, Williams will miss at least one season after being suspended for Substances of Abuse for a third time. Williams was cut by the Bills in the summer of 2016 and signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but has yet to play a game for them. At this point, it appears the 24-year-old might be out of chances in the NFL.
5. Dorial Green-Beckham released by Eagles
Only two seasons into his career, Green-Beckham is already searching for his third team. The former University of Missouri standout was drafted in the second round by the Titans in 2015, but was traded a year later to the Eagles. This despite a promising rookie campaign that included 549 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Last year, things went sour in Philadelphia. Green-Beckham slipped behind Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews on the depth chart, resulting in 36 catches for 392 yards and two scores. Philadelphia released Green-Beckham on Friday, a move that isn’t surprising considering the offseason addition of Alshon Jeffery.
Despite issues with route-running and rumors of poor effort, the 24-year-old will get another shot. The New York Jets would be a great fit considering their youth movement and desperate need for receivers. If not the Jets, the Chiefs are an option after the release of Jeremy Maclin. It would also be a homecoming for the youngster.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 32 seasons before scoring on a kick return, finally doing so with Michael Spurlock in 2007. For the New Orleans Saints, the wait was much shorter. On their first play in the NFL, John Gilliam raced 94 yards with the opening kickoff to score against the Los Angeles Rams.
Starting this week, I am expanding my Stacking The Box franchise into a podcast, with yours truly as the host. The first show will be on iTunes Wednesday, and can be downloaded from the iTunes store. Please make sure to check it out, give a rating and subscribe. It will be a weekly podcast, with a national guest each week. I’m very excited about this new endeavor, and I appreciate any and all support. Thanks!
The NFC West has been given to the Seahawks by most experts, but the Arizona Cardinals might have something to say. General manager Steve Keim endured a tough offseason, losing the services of Calais Campbell, Tony Jefferson, Kevin Minter and Alex Okafor. Still, the talent in Arizona should wield a winning team.
Every year, pundits look for that one squad capable of making a run. The Cardinals could do so if Carson Palmer stays healthy and Larry Fitzgerald staves off Father Time. Bruce Arians is one of the best head coaches in the league, and should be considerably motivated to prove the 7-8-1 campaign of a year ago is nothing more than a fluke.
Look for the Cardinals to come out swinging. They play only two 2016 playoff teams over their first seven contests. The West could come down to Week 17, when Arizona visits Seattle.