With the NFL season starting next week, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Carolina Panthers, who finished 11–5 in 2017.
1. New Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner has never coached a quarterback with Cam Newton’s mobility and power. (For that matter, no coordinators have, other than Turner’s predecessors Rob Chudzinski and, more recently, Mike Shula.) The fate of Turner’s offense hinges on how he incorporates Newton’s ability to run.
Yes, stylistically, Turner’s passing game is an excellent fit for Newton, a downfield power thrower. But Newton’s accuracy is not consistent enough for an aerial attack to be his offense’s backbone. Newton can complete throws that some QBs can’t even attempt, but erratic mechanics cause him to miss—often wildly—on routine balls every game. That won’t change eight years into his career.
Turner must live with the ups and downs of Newton’s arm, making it all the more important to find stability through Newton’s legs. Not only is Newton a tremendous runner, but many NFL defenses still are not schematically equipped to handle him. Such unique mobility skews a defense’s box numbers and angles, and it compels opponents to read and react a beat slower.
Shula brilliantly augmented these advantages with misdirection in his run designs. You’d see multiple options built into the same run play, with pull-blockers, ghost reversing receivers and extra running backs all going in different directions. Turner has favored conventional man-blocking run designs over the years, but you don’t become one of your era’s most venerated offensive minds without being adaptable. If he expands his ground game to highlight the QB, Newton will have an easier time acclimating to Turner’s QB-friendly high-low routes in the passing game.
2. Even with Newton’s running ability, it’s imperative the Panthers get better at executing traditional run plays—the offense was simply awful here last year. Replacing Jonathan Stewart with ex-Bronco C.J. Anderson, who runs low to the ground and with strong lateral movement, helps. And Christian McCaffrey, whose patience and shiftiness fit well behind man-blocking designs, should be better in Year 2. But improvements at tailback won’t matter if Carolina’s front five doesn’t generate more movement—and that might not be easy. Center Ryan Kalil is 33 years old and coming off an injury-plagued season, while last year’s top blocker, Andrew Norwell, joined Jacksonville in free agency. (If 2017 second-round tackle Taylor Moton doesn’t win Norwell’s old left guard job, career backups Amini Silatolu and Jeremiah Sirles will compete for it).
3. This offensive line must also improve its pass-blocking. A healthy Ryan Kalil will fix some of the tactical glitches against disguised pressure, but the question is whether Kalil’s brother, Matt, who is battling a knee injury, can get stronger at left tackle. He struggles too often against power moves. More strength is also needed at right guard, where Trai Turner has lately floundered against quality bull rushers.
4. Many believed McCaffrey was drafted to give this offense a quick-strike spread passing game. Indeed, he can align anywhere in the formation and win underneath. But he is most effective on routes out of the backfield, which, like the man-blocking runs, take better advantage of his patience and shiftiness. McCaffrey has a chance to become the NFL’s best checkdown weapon, like what Brian Westbrook was for the Eagles years ago.
5. Scouts adore first-round rookie receiver D.J. Moore’s contested catch ability, and hopefully that ability can stretch into snagging off-target balls. When Newton misses, it’s usually high and wide on throws outside. Deep inside routes like digs and seams are Newton’s strength.
6. Last year’s defensive coordinator Steve Wilks turned the classic zone-based Panthers into an exotic “fire zone” team, blitzing regularly and covering with one less zone defender. It worked early on, but offenses exploit it late in the year. Still, Wilks got the Arizona head job. Expect new defensive coordinator Eric Washington to reintroduce more of the conventional zone coverages that Wilks’s predecessor, Sean McDermott, ran. Washington, a longtime defensive line coach, believes in a four-man rush. He’d be wise, however, to at least show blitz with different fronts. Linebackers Luke Kuechly’s and Thomas’s Davis high IQs have always made Carolina potent with presnap disguises.
7. Something else Wilks did was combat three-receiver sets with conventional 4-3 personnel, as opposed to nickel. The nature of a zone scheme paired with the unique athleticism of No. 3 linebacker Shaq Thompson, who covered the slot, allowed this. Thompson will play every down alongside Kuechly in Weeks 1-5 while Davis serves a four-game PED suspension. So we won’t know until mid-October whether Washington will feature base 4-3 against passing formations.
8. James Bradberry has a strong feel for zone coverage, but he is not a true No. 1 corner. Still, as Carolina’s best defensive back, he traveled with No. 1 receivers outside through November last year. That’s mildly unusual for a zone corner, but Carolina didn’t always have a trustworthy No. 2 corner—hence the second round selection of Donte Jackson and the third round choice of Rashaan Gaulden (who might ultimately play free safety). If those rookies come along slowly, the Panthers can still tread water with corners Ross Cockrell, Captain Munnerlyn and Kevon Seymour. There are too many options for this position not to get figured out. The real concern is at safety, which was a problem spot in 2017. If 37-year-old Mike Adams doesn’t hold up, the Panthers would be counting on former Bills/Titans fringe starter Da’Norris Searcy and limited backup Colin Jones.
9. Luke Kuechly is football’s best defensive player. Besides having the speed and play recognition to be unblockable against the run, he has developed into the game’s preeminent vertical coverage linebacker. That was the area Kuechly, who has also honed his ball skills, felt he most needed to improve early in his career.
10. Panther linebackers benefit from playing behind a dynamic defensive line. If that’s going to continue with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei now in Buffalo, 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler must build on the flashes he’s shown. Ideally, Butler becomes the next Mario Addison, whose underestimated athleticism now shines through regularly at defensive end, thanks to polished technique.
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