Last year the Panthers lived out a dream season until their miracle run was brought to a screeching halt in February at the hands of the Broncos’ defense in Super Bowl 50, and the ensuing off-season has cast uncertainty over the 2016 season before Carolina even got a chance to show on-field signs of a Super Bowl hangover this fall. The team’s shocking split with cornerback Josh Norman over long-term contract talks ended with Norman in Washington and the Panthers with a very green group of cornerbacks. GM Dave Gettleman is one of the best in the business and gets credit for the vaunted defense that keyed Carolina’s NFC title, but this preseason will test his scouting department’s mettle as the coaching staff scours the roster for rising talents who can best replace Norman among the team’s recent draft picks.
On offense, Kelvin Benjamin returns as an extra offensive weapon for Cam Newton after the physical receiver missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL. Combine a healthy Benjamin with steady improvement from Devin Funchess and an encore performance out of top tight end Greg Olsen, and there’s potential for a lethal triple threat in the passing game.
The Rookie: If defensive tackle Kawann Short decides to test free agency after this season, Gettlemen has found his potential replacement in first-round pick Vernon Butler. A hulking line disruptor out of Louisiana Tech, Butler should flash enough potential early on to push Short to produce in a contract year.
Position Battle Spoilers: The Panthers spent three draft picks on the search for a cornerback to replace Josh Norman alongside Bene Benwikere. Expecting Zach Sanchez to maybe play nickel, but Benwikere has also spent a lot of time inside. Based on performance at early camps, third-round pick Daryl Worley seemed to be the front-runner to get early playing time outside over James Bradberry, the rookie out of Samford who chose Josh Norman’s former number.
The Stat: 23, years since the Super Bowl losers returned to the title game the following year, when the 1993 Bills won the AFC for the fourth consecutive year. Expectations are sky-high for the Panthers, and anything short of another Super Bowl trip will be a disappointment, but they’ll have to break historical trends.
Preseason Watchability Guide: The third preseason game is typically where the starters play close to a half, so the Panthers will get a long look at Jimmy Garoppolo when the Patriots come to Charlotte.