Carolina Panthers: 2017 Outlook

 
 
 
 
 
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Carolina Panthers

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By Shawn Childs, Saturday, August 19, 2017

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers were one of the biggest busts in 2016 after their great success the previous when they went 15-1 with a Super Bowl loss to the Broncos. Carolina finished 6-10 in the sixth season under Ron Rivera who has a 53-42-1 career record with one Super Bowl appearance. Their failure came on both sides of the ball. They scored 131 fewer points than 2015 (500) leading to a 15th rank in points scored (369) and a 19th place finish in offensive yards gained. Mike Shula will have a chance to redeem himself in 2017, but it wasn't his fault that Cam Newton struggled to repeat his high level of play. Mike has been in Carolina's system for the last seven years with the last four coming as the offensive coordinator. Their defense allowed 94 more points than 2015 (308), which led to a drop of 20 spots in the ranking in points scored (402 – 26th). They dropped from sixth in yard allowed to 21st in 2016. Steve Wilks takes over as the defensive coordinator. He's been the defensive back coach for the Panthers over the last five years while holding the same position for six other seasons for the Bears and the Chargers.

Free Agency

Carolina added four players to their roster in the offseason. They brought back CB Captain Munnerlyn who has been a steady option in the secondary in his career. S Mike Adams has a long resume of success in the NFL, but he'll start 2017 at age 36. Mike's been a league average player of better over his last six seasons.

The Panthers took a swing on T Matt Kalil. He's a former first-round pick who signed a $55.5 million contract in March. Matt played his best ball in his rookie season while struggling in the last three seasons. WR Russell Shepard was added for WR depth.

They parted ways with FB Mike Tolbert, WR Corey Brown, WR Ted Ginn, and T Mike Remmers. Ginn was a key part of their Super Bowl run in 2016 thanks to his big play ability. Remmers had starting snaps last year while failing to be an asset.

The biggest losses on the defense look to be DE Kony Ealy and S Tre Boston. Ealy was traded to the Patriots for a draft pick after recording 14 sacks over three years in the NFL. Boston had his best season in the league while starting for the first time. Tre was about a league average player at his position with 53 tackles, two sacks, and two Ints.

Carolina moved on from CB Leonard Johnson, CB Louis Young, S Michael Griffin, and LB A.J. Klein. Each player had minimal playing time in 2016.

Draft

The top end of this year's draft was dictated to help improve the offense for the Panthers. They invested in RB Christian McCaffrey with the eighth overall pick. He lit up the 2017 NFL Combine with multiple stars where he showcased his plus quickness and athletic ability. Christian has the skill set to be a three-down back with high upside in the passing game. His biggest questions come with his size (5'11" and 202 lbs.) and his strength. He'll need to improve his technique and power in pass protection. McCaffrey has a nice combination of vision and patience where his acceleration will offer upside if/when breaking into the second level of the defense.

With two picks in the second round, Carolina added WR Curtis Samuel and G Taylor Moton. Samuel was a dual threat at Ohio State where his elite speed (4.31 in the 40-yard dash) creates mismatches and big plays. The Panthers are expected to use him at WR while being a change of pace options out of the backfield. His best asset with his speed and shiftiness out of breaks and in the open field as a runner. Curtis needs to improve his route running while needing to prove he can beat press coverage. The Panthers will use him in the run game where his explosiveness will lead to an edge in misdirection plays. Moton is a power blocker who will offer more upside once he improves his technique with his hands and his feet. Taylor has some work to do in his pass protection.

DE Daeshon Hall was the choice in the third round. He projects a moveable pass rusher on the defensive line or at linebacker. His angle out the blocks tends to be upright leading to him losing an edge in his pass rush. Hall has enough quickness to create disruption after the snap, but he needs more finishing strength. His game should improve at the next level.

The Panthers drafted CB Corn Elder in the fifth round. Despite being undersized (5'10" and 183 lbs.) while lacking elite speed, Elder handles himself well in coverage. He's a physical player with a good feel for defending pass routes where his quickness is an edge. Corn can handle the press as long as he's not matched up with the top WRs in the game. He has a risk in deep coverage while offering value in run support. Nice rotational corner, who will work well in the red zone.

Carolina bought FB Alex Armah in the sixth round to help offset the loss of Mike Tolbert. He played both fullback and linebacker at West Georgia. Alex has strength, but he needs more experience at a power blocker. Armah may end up one the defensive side of the ball as well.

With their last pick in the seventh round, the Panther tried to improve their kicking game with Harrison Butker. He'll compete with Graham Gano for the kicking job on the Panthers after spending three seasons at Georgia Tech.

Offensive Line

The Panthers fell to 10th in rushing yards (1,814) with 16 rushing TDs. They gained only 4.0 yards per rush with ten runs over 20 yards. Carolina had 38 negative rushed with 47 runs over 10 yards. In 2015, they had the second highest most rushing yards (2,282) with 19 rushing TDs.

Their regression came in passing yards (3,685) with a short completion rate (54.4). The Panther had 21 passing TDs and 19 Ints while their offensive line allowed 36 sacks and 93 QB hits.

LT Matt Kalil was paid a ton of money ($55.5 million) to protect Cam's blindside. He missed 14 games in 2016 due to a hip injury (labrum) that required surgery. Matt didn't play well in 2014 and 2015 so he has a lot to prove even after getting drafted fourth overall in 2012.

LG Andrew Norwell has been a steady force on this line in all three of his seasons in the NFL while improving in each year in the league. Norwell offers the biggest edge as a run blocker.

C Ryan Kalil missed eight games over second of 2016 due to a right shoulder injury that had surgery in November. When healthy, Kalil is a top option at center over the last eight seasons. Carolina selected him in the second round in 2007.

RG Trai Turner couldn't repeat his high level of success of 2016, which was partly due to the weakness/injuries around him in the starting lineup. He tends to play well in pass protection while holding his own in the run game. The Panthers selected him in the third round in 2014.

RT Daryl Williams struggled in his first season as a starter for Carolina. His low bar may clear the way for rookie Taylor Moton to steal the starting job. Moton has experience at guard and tackle, but his game projects better at guard.

There is enough talent on the offensive line for Carolina to regain some of their momentum created in 2015. Four positions have talent if all players play up to their skill set and stay healthy. The right tackle is a clear issue, but it has a chance to be improved in 2017. At the very least, this offensive line will be improved while ranking above the league average.

Offensive Schedule

The above data shows the strength of schedule as far as rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing TDs touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA), and passing TDs (TDS).

This information is based on 2016, which will work as our starting point for 2017. We'll look at all the changes on offense on each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades on each team on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish the research on all 32 teams.

2016 LG Average = the league average of all stats from all 32 teams in 2016.

2016 Results = this is the results for each team in the NFL last year.

2016 Adjustment is based on the 2016 league average and the 2016 results for each team, this number will show if each team is above or below the league average in each stat and the basis for strength of schedule.

The Panthers have three favorable matchups (BUF, MIA, and SF) for their rushing offense. Their only tough game rushing the ball looks to be against the Patriots. Carolina opens up the season with two favorable games to Christian McCaffrey may shine out of the gate.

They have five games vs. teams (NO X 2, ATL X 2, and GB) with risk defending receivers. Their four poor matches will come against Philadelphia, Buffalo, Chicago, and Minnesota.

Offense

Carolina ran the ball 44.6 percent of the time, which was a much lower number than 2015 (50.5 percent). Game score was a big part of the reason. Their lack of success in the passing was due to a sharp decline in the play of Cam Newton and the offensive line.

Defensive Schedule

The Panthers' run defense will be tested in only one game (BUF) while facing two weak rushing opponents (DET and MIN). They have almost a neutral run schedule.

Their pass defense has two easy games (SF and BUF) to start the year followed up by three more favorable matchups (PHI, MIA, and NYJ) during the year. Most of their struggles will come in games within the division (NO X 2 and ATL X 2) while being challenged by NE, GB, and DET.

Defense

Carolina ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,465) with ten rushing TDs. They gave up 3.9 yards per rush with seven runs over 20 yards. Even with a losing record, teams only attempted 23.5 runs per game against them.

The loss of CB Josh Norman was felt in the pass coverage. The Panthers fell to 29th in passing yards allowed (4,291) with 27 TDs and 17 Ints. Their defensive line did produce 47 sacks.

DT Kawann Short has been one of the top interior linemen in the league over the last two years. He matched his total in tackles (55) while failing to repeat his breakout 2015 season (11) in sacks (6). The Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2013. DE Julius Peppers may be asked to play inside at the age of 38. Peppers has seven sacks or more in 13 of his 14 years in the league. DE Mario Addison had a career-high 9.5 sacks in a rotation role in 2016. DT Star Lotulelei had a career-high four sacks last year while seeing a rebound in his value against the run. DE Charles Johnson had 52.5 sacks from 2010 to 2014, but he's been injured over the last two seasons leading to a huge drop off in play. Johnson had surgery in the offseason to repair an issue with his back.

LB Luke Kuechly missed six games in 2016 due to a concussion and three games in 2015 for a groin issue. Another concussion may put his career at risk. When healthy, he's one of the best all-around players in the league at his position. LB Thomas Davis has 100 or more tackles in each of his last five seasons with value in the pass rush and pass coverage. He'll start the year at age 34, so his game is starting to fade. LB Shaq Thompson showed improvement in pass coverage in his second year in the league after getting drafted in the first round in 2015. Shag plays well vs. the run with limited upside rushing the QB at this point of his career.

S Mike Adams will try to squeeze out one more solid season at age 36. He tends to play well in pass coverage and against the run. S Kurt Coleman had two of his better seasons after moving to the Panthers in 2015. Last year he set a career high in tackles (95) while securing 11 Ints over the last two seasons with two TDs. CB Caption Munnerlyn wasn't asked to be an outside CB in many games in 2016 for the Vikings leading to solid success in the slot. Carolina will need him to play better this season. At best, Caption is a league average player. CB James Bradberry started 13 games in his rookie season with improvement over the last nine games of the year. He did miss three games due to toe injury. The Panthers drafted him in the second round in 2016. CB Daryl Worley handled himself well in his rookie season after getting drafted in the third round.

This defense should be much better in 2017. They continued to have strength on the defensive line with upside in sacks. The second level of the defense has two proven NFL vets plus a young player on the improve. The secondary should be improved with one year of experience for two of their young CBs plus Adams will at least be a steady pro with a long resume in the league. The return game should produce TDs as well in the return game from Samuel or McCaffrey if they are given the chances to return kicks. Top 12 defense for me with matchup value at the very least.

Newton lost his 'Superman' jersey in 2016. It almost looked like a hangover from his loss in the Super Bowl. His completion rate (52.9) fell off the chart with a sharp decline in his yards per rush (4.0) with both numbers being career lows by a wide margin. He missed one game due to a concussion while playing through a right shoulder injury (torn labrum) that required surgery in March. Cam passed for over 300 yards in two of his first five starts with seven TDs in those two games. He had one passing TDs or fewer in 11 of 15 games while passing for 300 yards in only one other game. His shoulder was a clear issue, which is why Newton was missing in action rushing the ball over his last seven games (5/7, 3/6/1, 3/12, 8/31, 3/0, 8/36, and 3/6). The Panthers expect him to be 100 percent healthy by the start of the regular season while limiting his workload over the summer. I hate players coming off of injuries, but Cam will have a much lower price point in 2017. His short-area receiving game will be improved with Christian McCaffrey, and Curtis Samuel added to the roster, but his upside will come down to the rebound of Kelvin Benjamin. I respect his talent enough where 4,500 combined yards with 30 combined TDs is still within reach. With better options in the short passing game, Cam should have his best completion rate of his career.

(Updated: 08/01/17)

NEWS: Cam Newton was limited by soreness in his surgically-repaired shoulder on Tuesday.

RONIS: It's not a surprise. There's going to be some pain in the shoulder along the way as he recovers and the Panthers are going to take it easy with Newton. He experienced pain in his throwing shoulder and didn't participate in passing drills. Newton also missed some teams drills in Sunday's practice and head coach Ron Rivera said it was routine maintenance. Newton has an ADP of 115 in FFWC drafts as the QB8. He has the ability to be a Top 5 QB, but a lot depends on his running. Logic says Newton would run less, but Newton said he won't shy away from running. The Panthers could call less designed runs for Newton and they are clearly trying to get the ball out of his hands quicker. I will not draft Newton as a Top 8 QB.

The Panthers weren't the same team offensively in 2016. Was it Cam's right shoulder, his head, or even lack of playmakers at WR? Their RBs had 362 rushes for 1451 yards (4.01 yards per rush) with 11 rushing TDs. The downside here is Carolina's backs only caught 44 passes for 369 yards and a TD on 69 targets. McCaffrey had a great season in 2015 at Stanford where he touched the ball 382 times for 2,401 yards and 21 TDs plus 45 catches. He missed a couple of games last year leading to a drop-off in production (1,913 combined yards with 16 TDs and 37 catches). This isn't a third down back. Some have compared him to LeSean McCoy due to his open field ability and speed. McCoy gets the nickname "Shady" so Christian may earn the handle "Daylight." When he sees a hole, he is going to be explosive. I don't think the Panthers will write off Jonathan Stewart out of the gate, but I'm sure he'll limp his way out of the picture. The Panthers will throw the ball much more to the RB position in 2017, but Curtis Samuel will steal some of those targets as well. Christian's floor should be about 50 passes for 450+ yards in the passing game. Carolina should use him on sprint outs at the goal line with Cam controlling the TDs in the middle of the field. Over the whole season, McCaffrey will get a minimum of 200 rushes with his best success coming late in the year. The overall package of Newton will create more open space for him in the run game. I'll give him 4.5 yards per rush. Christian is in position for 900+ rushing yards with eight to ten TDs. He runs with patience with a trip step where he gets a defender flat-footed leading to Christian breaking free in open space. McCaffrey has a way of running parallel to the line of scrimmage just waiting for the moment to turn on the juice to cut to daylight where he has enough speed to score long TDs. McCaffrey needs to improve in pass protection while falling short in the power department.

The addition of McCaffrey won't change the role or value for Stewart in 2017. He'll still get plenty of carries on early downs plus be a factor in short yardage TDs. Over 39 games over the last three seasons, Jonathan had 635 carries (16.3 carries per game). Health will always be a concern with Stewart missing 26 games over the last five years. His yards per rush (3.8) came in short after showing more value in 2015 (4.6) and 2016 (4.1). With Cam banged up, Jon had nine TDs, which was his highest total since 2009 (10 TDs). Stewart hasn't been a major factor in the passing game since 2011 (47/413/1), so he'll be on the bench on passing downs as long as Christian proves himself in pass blocking. This team should run the ball over 500 times with Newton getting over 100 chances. This leaves Jonathan with 150 to 200 rushes with minimal upside in TDs and yards (about 750).

After missing the 2015 season with a torn ACL, Benjamin looked to be on his way to a plus season after his success in Week 1 (6/91/1) and Week 2 (7/108/2) with 21 combined targets. The Vikings showed the league how to defend him the next week leading to no catches on one target setting up an uninspiring finish to the year. Over his last 13 games, Kelvin never had another 100-yard game with two double-digit target games. Benjamin had a stretch of six straight games over the second half of the year with four catches or fewer while never reaching 65 receiving yards. He did finish on the uptick in Week 16 (4/63/1) and Week 17 (6/93/1). Over the last two offseasons, Kelvin has been earning the soft tag due to him being out of shape with excess weight. In the end, Benjamin finished with about a ten percent drop off in production (63/941/7) while receiving 27 fewer targets and a weak catch rate (53.4 percent). Still, the best WR on the roster with the highest scoring ability, so his bar looks to be about 75 catches for 1,100 yards with a chance at double-digit TDs if Cam regains his previous form.

Ohio State listed Samuel as a RB for his whole career. He had minimal touches in his freshman and sophomore years (899 combined yards with nine TDs and 33 catches). His game shined in all areas in 2016. He rushed the ball 97 times for 771 yards with eight rushing TDs while making a huge step forward as a receiver (74/865/7). He's expected to take over the role of Ted Ginn in the Panthers' offense where his deep speed will offer an edge. Curtis runs with vision, but his success is driven by his ability to outrun defenders. He has more strength than meets the eye with an excellent gear to create separation on pass routes. Samuel will be the WR2 in this offense with a chance at 60+ catches for 700+ yards. Carolina has to give him four to five rushes per game as well leading to another 500+ yards with sneaky value in TDs.

Many Fantasy owners expected Funchess to be a much better player after posting 31 catches for 473 yards and five TDs on 63 targets in his rookie season. It took about three weeks to see Devin was a losing investment. He only had one catch in Week 1 for nine yards followed up two catches for 19 yards and a TD the next week. After getting shutout on two targets in Week 3, his name should have been found on the waiver wire in every league. On the year, Funchess didn't have one game with over three catches and only one game with over six targets. He finished with 23 catches for 371 yards and four TDs on 58 targets. His catch rate went from 49.2 to 39.6 percent. If you can't catch and you can't get open, it won't take long to earn a ticket out of the league. Devin suffered a knee injury late in the year leading him to missing Week 17. Even with the improvement in 2017, he'll only be the fifth option in the passing game behind Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, Curtis Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey. I wouldn't expect much more than 50 catches for 750 yards with a handful of TDs even as the WR2 in this offense.

If a Fantasy owner is looking for a player to show up every Sunday, Greg is that guy at TE. He's never missed a game in his career while setting a high floor over his last three seasons. Olsen has three straight years with over 1000 yards receiving while averaging just over 80 catches over this span. His targets have grown in each of his last six seasons (69, 89, 104, 111, 123, 124, and 129). The weaker play of Newton led to a career low in TDs (3). Greg scored over 200 Fantasy points in PPR league in his last three years (84/1008/6, 77/1104/7, and 80/1073/3). In 2016, his best success came over the first six games of the season (39 catches for 610 yards and two TDs on 60 targets) highlighted by Week 2 (5/122/1) and Week 5 (9/181). Olsen only scored one TD over the last 12 games of the season. More of the same (80/1000/5) with a top 5 TE opportunity.

Carolina scored 25 fewer TDs in 2016 (34) than 2015 (59) leading to a shorter ranking for Gano. He missed six of his 93 extra point chances over the last two years. Graham repeated his success in made field goals (30) while receiving a career high 38 chances. Gano had a drop off in his success rate (78.9) leading to the Panthers drafting Harrison Butker to compete for the starting job. Butker only made 71.7 percent of his field goals in college while showing growth in his senior year (88.2 percent). Harrison missed two of his 210 extra point chances. Graham has been solid from 50 yards or longer with the Panthers (13-for-21), which may be the edge needed to win the starting job. Carolina created 109 field goal chances over the last three seasons giving the winner here a viable top 12 opportunity. I do expect Carolina to be improved scoring TDs in the red zone in 2017.