- Expect a big season from Christian McCaffrey, but questions about Cam Newton's return from shoulder surgery and also the defensive backfield create a dim outlook for the Panthers.
The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Today he considers the Carolina Panthers, who finished 7–9 and tied for second in the NFC South last year.
The passing game remains inconsistent. Cam Newton is an up-and-down passer when fully healthy, and this year he is coming off major surgery on his throwing shoulder. He has a strong arm and is tough in the pocket, but his erratic mechanics and streaky field vision lead to inaccurate passes every week. That’s especially problematic given that tight end Greg Olsen, who is 34 and has missed 16 games over the last two seasons with foot problems, is Newton’s only regular target who is taller than 6'1".
Christian McCaffrey tops 2,000 total yards. Patience, balance and vision make the third-year back perfect for Carolina’s ground game, which features misdirection, multiple moving pieces (jet sweepers, pull-blockers, etc.) and the rushing threat of Newton, history’s best down-to-down running QB. Carolina’s offense begins here, with 30-plus rushes a week and a downfield play-action passing game built off their convoluted run looks. Those downfield looks also set up opportunities for McCaffrey, since nearly 90 percent of his catches come underneath on routes out of the backfield where, after the catch, he is superb at turning downhill.
A defensive switch equals more of the same. Much has been made about the Panthers D, which has been a traditional 4-3, starting to employ more 3-4 looks, but that’s all these are: looks. What matters more is how they defend run gaps after the snap. The Panthers continue playing their usual one-gap, attack-oriented 4-3 principles, built around penetrating defensive tackles Kawann Short and Gerald McCoy, and also edge men Mario Addison, Bruce Irvin and first-round rookie Brian Burns. Then there’s Luke Kuechly, whose remarkable speed and play recognition make him football’s best linebacker by a clear margin. Carolina joins the growing group of classic 4-3 defenses that now align in a 3-4 structure simply to prevent blockers from double-teaming defensive linemen.
Second-year defensive backs are Carolina’s bellwether. Cornerback Donte Jackson, a 2018 second-round pick, ran hot and cold as a rookie, flashing top-level athleticism but losing on far too many vertical routes. Third-round safety Rashaan Gaulden never captured a starting job last year, even as veteran Mike Adams became a liability. Adams wasn’t re-signed after the season, so the job falls to Gaulden. The chemistry and awareness of the young starters determines how the zone-oriented Panthers D performs in 2019.
BOTTOM LINE: The Panthers have alternated between 6-or-7 win seasons and 11-plus win seasons for the last seven years. But coming off a 7-9 campaign, these Panthers have too many questions to expect a plus-.500 record, let alone 11 wins.
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