Panthers Preview: Declawed
After a dream season in which his club improved by five wins and took the NFC South, Panthers GM Dave Gettleman suffered through a nightmarish 2014 offseason. In February, left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Two weeks later, Gettleman made the tough decision to cut 13-year receiver Steve Smith.
Smith’s release came around free agency, which imposed its brutality on the Panthers. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell went to the Patriots, further depleting the receiving corps. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn left for the Vikings and safety Mike Mitchell joined the Steelers, rocking an already iffy secondary. With frightening holes at wideout, offensive line and defensive back, Gettleman went to the open market and came away with a handful of what could most kindly be described as “fill-ins”: Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant at wide receiver, Thomas DeCoud, Roman Harper and Antoine Cason at defensive back. No new left tackle was found.
A month-and-a-half after free agency wound down, Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy proved exactly why Gettleman franchise-tagged him instead of giving him long-term deal. Hardy was arrested in an alarming alleged domestic dispute—a legal problem that could be a distraction early in the season
Prior to Hardy’s arrest, Gettleman did manage to fill some holes via the draft, selecting wideout Kelvin Benjamin in Round 1, guard Trai Turner in Round 3 and safety Tre Boston in Round 4. But there were no additions at offensive tackle, meaning the Panthers will entrust the tackle spots to heavy-footed Byron Bell on Cam Newton’s blind side, and Nate Chandler, a guard who converted from defensive tackle less than two years ago, on the right side.
It may look like Gettleman had the worst offseason of any general manager, but the memory of it will be painted by what happens during the regular season. Or, basically, what happens with Cam Newton. It hinges on him. In a way, the organization is placing as risky a bet on Newton now as they did when they drafted him first overall in 2011. If he does not take a significant step forward, this team will take a significant step backwards.
The book on Newton is clear. The positive: almost unmatched athletic prowess; big-time arm; physical ability to make throws from a congested pocket; lethal on scrambles and designed runs.
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The negative: underdeveloped in the nuanced parts of quarterbacking, including consistency in pre-snap alertness; erratic mechanics, especially footwork; tendency to stay on a bad read for too long, indicating limitations in his coverage reading and understanding of routes; tenuous grasp of play designs, which he too often abandons in order to scramble.
Of course, the majority of Newton’s bad scrambles last season still resulted in very positive gains, which speaks to his greatest attribute: raw playmaking ability. But while good for SportsCenter highlights, raw playmaking can’t be game-planned around or relied upon week in and week out. It’s at the mercy of a lot of random factors.
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With downgraded aerial weapons, it’s vital that Newton become a more refined field general. He must develop good enough field vision to be an anticipation passer—someone who sees windows before they actually open. The only way Cotchery and Avant will consistently get open is through play designs that have them intersecting against man coverage through stack and switch releases, or out-leveraging zones as part of good progression read designs. Assuming Benjamin takes a little time to develop, the only Panthers receiving target who can create his own opportunities is tight end Greg Olsen—and that’s not to say the eighth-year pro is in the Gronkowski/Graham/Julius Thomas class.
A more manufactured offense requires more disciplined quarterbacking. It also requires more support from the running game. Though the Panthers have ranked a respectable 11th and ninth in rushing offense the past two years, they haven’t had a stabilized ground game since Newton’s rookie season. A lot of their rushing yards come from Newton himself. That will—and should—remain the case, as the 245-pounder has wheels that must be used. But there also needs to be more of a traditional black-and-blue ground attack to give Mike Shula’s offense the continuity and rhythm it too often lacks.
The personnel is in place. DeAngelo Williams is 31 but still offers short-area quickness and enough speed to reach the perimeter. Oft-injured seventh-year pro Jonathan Stewart is supposedly healthy and ready to serve as the No. 2 back. And don’t forget that bruising Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert can also handle the ball—including out of spread single-back sets. In a two-back set, the Panthers, counting Newton, have three viable backfield running threats. It’s a rare luxury for Shula, who will continue to use triple-option plays. But this alone won’t carry the ground game; Shula must also call more staple plays like “power” and “counter”.
Run-pass balance is not only important for Newton and his receivers, it’s imperative for a makeshift offensive line. Aside from Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil (an excellent second-level run-blocker and competitive pass protector), the Panthers are bereft of talent or experience at every spot.
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Garry Williams, coming off an ACL and MCL injury, will compete with the rookie Turner for right guard duties. Left guard falls to Amini Silatolu, who is coming off a torn ACL. At left tackle, Byron Bell needs constant help in pass protection, which could be difficult given that Chandler will almost certainly need help on the right side.
At best, the Panthers’ offense finishes somewhere near the middle of the pack, meaning that a second consecutive playoff appearance hinges on a dominant defense being even better in 2014.
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Last season the Panthers D, led by head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott, became only the second since 1935 to not allow a first-half touchdown through its first seven games. That’s the standard the club is looking to surpass in 2014.
Structurally, this defense is simple. It’s zone-based, with only selective blitzes that often involve a safety or slot corner, as well as linebackers threatening the A gaps.
The key to it all is Luke Kuechly. Simply put, he’s the best linebacker in the NFL, and if he stays on his current trajectory, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Kuechly’s play recognition is tremendous, and he has the speed and multidirectional range to act on it. That often means he shoots gaps and forces offensive linemen to abandon double teams along the line of scrimmage, making life easy on Carolina’s defensive linemen.
Kuechly is also a solid pass defender, joining 10th-year veteran Thomas Davis in football’s best nickel linebacking tandem. Davis, remarkably, is still an upper-tier athlete despite three knee operations during what would have been his prime. He can cover running backs in the flats and coaches are comfortable with him playing man-to-man against upper-tier tight ends, including division rival Jimmy Graham.
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This elite linebacking duo—which, by the way, will be completed in the base by savvy veteran Chase Blackburn or solid second-year pro A.J. Klein, both capable strongside players—makes life easy on the defensive line. And that relationship is a two-way street. Kuechly and Davis are often kept free to roam, as the Panthers have one of the fiercest front fours in the NFL. And, evidenced by Gettleman’s use of a second-round pick on defensive end Kony Ealy, the front line’s rotational depth is of utmost importance to this franchise.
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Ealy will back up Hardy, assuming the troubled 26-year-old is available. Hardy is the moveable piece when Rivera and McDermott dial up a hybrid look (usually on third down). He doesn’t have top-notch speed around the edge, but his combination of power and quickness is outstanding, which is why he can also excel at defensive tackle or standup joker.
A less dynamic but still impactful inside-outside player is Charles Johnson, an eighth-year veteran who has recorded at least 11 sacks three of the last four years. Joining him in the base—and likely more in the nickel given his initial quickness in gaps—is defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, last year’s first-round pick. He plays ahead of 2013 second-rounder Kawann Short, a somewhat enigmatic player who started to come on down the stretch of his rookie season.
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The Panthers are betting their array of pass-rushers—all of whom are excellent fighters in a phone booth—can hide what could be one of the worst secondaries in the league. Last season it hid an overachieving yet still middling defensive backfield. If they overachieve this year it will likely have something to do with newly signed cornerback Antoine Cason. A 2008 first-round pick of the Chargers, he’s lanky and gifted but never fulfilled his promise. He needs to regain the aggressiveness that he showed early in his career.
Vying for the starting job opposite Cason are Josh Thomas, Josh Norman and Melvin White. Thomas hasn’t always been reliable (recall his boneheaded personal foul late in the playoff loss to San Francisco that shut the door on any possible comeback), Norman is in the mix only because he was once a starter (he might not even make the final roster) and White struggled starting as an undrafted rookie last year.
None of these guys are apt slot defenders, which is why former safety Charles Godfrey, who is not only coming off an Achilles injury but is also learning a new position as he moves from safety, could play a majority of the snaps. Competing with Godfrey is fifth-round rookie Bene Benwikere.
Exacerbating the uncertainty at cornerback is the mediocrity at safety. Robert Lester couldn’t keep his job ahead of veteran street free agent Quintin Mikell last year. Mikell is gone now; in his place is ex-Saint Roman Harper, a solid run stopper but terrible pass defender. It will be interesting to see if McDermott risks having Harper, a superb blitzer, on the field in passing situations, or if he replaces him with Lester, a below-average player but one who is more comfortable in coverage. Holding down centerfield (hopefully) is boom-or-bust ex-Falcon Thomas DeCoud.
Graham Gano was 24 of 27 on field goals last year and an impressive 6 of 6 on 50-plus yarders. Punter Brad Nortman ranked fifth in net average despite having only 13 fair catches. With Ted Ginn gone, the return duties are up for grabs.
With glaring holes on both sides of the ball, expect the Panthers to take a substantial step back.