The Panthers would love to still have him. But in a linebacker-centric defense led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Carolina couldn’t afford to drop top-market money on a cornerback—even one of the game’s best
1. Cam Newton, the reigning MVP, will be the most fascinating case study in football this year. Prior to 2015, I wrote that Newton would be “the exact same quarterback in five years that he is now.” This, of course, has already been proven wrong. Still, I don’t regret saying it. For his first four NFL seasons, Newton again and again showed the same inconsistencies in his footwork and throwing motion, and his field-reading was nothing special. That all changed in 2015, when he blossomed into an elite pocket passer. (A pocket passer who could still run, no less, and a dual-threat to such degree had not previously been seen in the NFL.) All this said, it’s worth noting: in the biggest game of his life, Super Bowl 50, Newton reverted back to his old ways. This included not just mechanical flaws, but also the sulkiness that has compromised his leadership legitimacy. Was this setback an aberration or a harbinger? Deciding one way or another would amount to analyzing Newton’s psychological makeup. Making a boldfaced, unfair guess, in other words. I learned long ago not to do that. But I can’t wait to see where the evidence on Newton points this year.
2. The Panthers have the most unique rushing attack I’ve ever seen—and Newton’s mobility is its backbone. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula capitalizes on the threat of Newton by incorporating layers of deception in his run designs. He does this with formation wrinkles, presnap motion, pull-blockers and zone-read looks, which essentially build two (and sometimes three) different run plays into one. Without question, Carolina’s rushing attack is the hardest in all of football to defend.
3. The multifaceted rushing attack is what sets up Carolina’s passing game, which is aggressively vertical. The run looks mean heavy formations, with extra tight ends and running backs aligned near the ball. Those tight ends and backs become extra blockers. Extra blockers mean extra time in the pocket, which means extra time for receivers to run routes. And those routes? They’re as well designed as the running plays. If you play a predictable coverage against Carolina, you’ll get beat downfield.
4. With all those extra bodies helping in pass protection, you don’t need to have elite offensive tackles. That’s why the Panthers re-signed clunky-footed left tackle Michael Oher. And why, despite his Super Bowl nightmare, they’ll stick with Mike Remmers at right tackle. Remmers got eaten alive by Von Miller, but for much of the season—including in Week 2 against J.J. Watt—he survived just fine, thanks to help blockers. The most important positions along Carolina’s front five are the guards and center. They’re the ones featured most in this ground game. The offensive tackles are small pieces to the puzzle.
5. If you stop tight end Greg Olsen, you stop the Panthers passing game. Stopping Olsen isn’t easy. He’s become lethal on the backside of 3x1 sets (especially when he’s flexed out just a few yards from the offensive tackle, which gives him a lot of field to work with), and he’s the best seam route runner in the league not named Gronkowski. The question this year is whether the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will redefine the passing game and take some stress off Olsen.
6. GM Dave Gettleman made the right choice letting Josh Norman walk. Gettleman may have felt he didn’t even have a choice. The Panthers are built around their linebackers and defensive line. After that, there’s little cap space for the secondary. With a zone-based scheme, smart and rangy linebackers like Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, plus a viable four-man rush, the Panthers don’t have to ask a lot of out of their corners. The linebackers’ range leaves less field for defensive backs to defend and the D-line’s pass rush means less time those DB’s have to maintain their coverage. Money aside, would the Panthers rather have Norman than not have Norman? Of course. Norman was one of the few corners in football last year who traveled outside with opposing No. 1 receivers every week. And he usually won those matchups. Still, this isn’t worth $15 million a year in a scheme that minimizes the cornerback position.
7. Along the same lines above, a player Gettleman can’t afford to lose is defensive tackle Kawann Short, who is in a contract year. Short has a rare combination of light feet and strong hands. Gettleman drives hard bargains; this negotiating process could be ugly. But it’ll be worth slogging through.
8. Everyone can see that Luke Kuechly is the crème de la crème when it comes to understanding play designs and taking angles to the ball. Tying into this is perhaps the most overlooked part of Kuechly’s game: his awareness before the snap. He is a master at calling defensive audibles and adjusting fronts.
9. Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott gets more bang for his buck on blitzes than any defensive play-caller in the NFL. The Panthers are mostly a straight zone coverage defense, so McDermott does not call a lot of blitzes. But when he does, they’re always efficient. The Panthers are particularly good with zone blitz concepts, where a linebacker or defensive back rushes while a defensive lineman drops into coverage. (In the Super Bowl, a zone blitz fooled Peyton Manning on defensive lineman Kony Ealy’s interception.) It’s not just third down where you see these zone blitzes. Against zone rushing teams—and especially ones with mobile quarterbacks—the Panthers love to blitz slot defenders and boundary corners on first down in order to take away outside running edges.
10. McDermott and head coach Ron Rivera should consider playing Thomas Davis at defensive end in certain nickel situations. Yes, Davis is tremendous in pass defense, both in coverage and as a blitzer. But his skillset also lends itself to superb speed-to-power edge rushing. That’s something Carolina, despite a deep D-line rotation, does not necessarily have in spades. Last year’s first-round linebacker Shaq Thompson has the athleticism of a big safety. Assuming he improves his coverage awareness (which, granted, might take another year), he could fill Davis’s nickel linebacking role alongside Kuechly.
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