The NFL prides itself on parity, so things can change quickly for a franchise, but in theory, Cam Newton and the current Carolina front-seven in place give the Panthers the pieces to put together a stretch of winning seasons. The Panthers' biggest question mark for 2016 is their secondary. Constructing a roster in the salary-cap era requires sacrifices by nature—a team simply can’t pay every player top dollar. The decision to release top cornerback Josh Norman (Redskins) was not one that General Manager Dave Gettleman wanted to make, but one he thought was in the best interest of the franchise
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
Cam Newton: True dual-threat quarterback
Quarterbacks: Fourth in PFF’s season preview rankings
Cam Newton is a true dual-threat quarterback, and was an unstoppable force at times last season during what turned out to be an NFL MVP campaign. Newton can run like a power running back, utilizing his huge, 6-foot-5, 244-pound frame—which he did to the tune of 636 yards last season, finishing second on the team in rushing attempts and yards. Due to the Panthers’ commitment to the run game, play-action was used on 29.8 percent of Newton’s passes, the highest rate in the league. Newton used the play-action deception to make timely throws, completing 63.3 percent of play-action passes for 13 touchdowns. Newton also made big-time throws downfield, and his 47.9 adjusted completion percentage on deep passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield ranked No. 5 in 2015. If Newton can continue or build on his late-season dominance from 2015, the Panthers will be a serious Super Bowl contender once again in 2016.
Stewart still a productive RB when healthy
Running backs: Fourth
Jonathan Stewart is still a productive lead back when on the field. He forced 49 missed tackles last season, which ranked third among running backs, so he is still capable of creating yards on his own. Stewart also did an excellent job of keeping Cam Newton clean, allowing only one sack on 276 pass plays. Newton should be considered part of this group, as he finished second on the team in rushing attempts and yards. Newton had 260 rushing yards after contact, and led the team with 10 rushing touchdowns. Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker both averaged over 4 yards per carry on their limited snaps, as well.
Kelvin Benjamin's return will help balance aerial attack
Wide receivers: 14th
The Carolina receiving corps resembles a basketball team more than a group of wide receivers and tight ends, as Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen are 6-foot-5, and Ed Dickson and Devin Funchess are 6-foot-4. In 2014, a healthy Benjamin recorded 1,116 yards and 11 touchdowns (including playoffs); losing that production in 2015 made Newton too reliant on Olsen in the passing game. The impact of Benjamin’s return is more than simply providing another target for Newton; he will also provide the passing attack with more balance, which will benefit the offense as a whole. With Benjamin out of the lineup, targets to wide receivers fell from 308 in 2014 to 261 in 2015. Olsen is one of the premier pass-catching tight ends in the league, and his receiving grades have ranked No. 2 at the position for the last two seasons, trailing only Rob Gronkowski.
Interior O-line strong, while tackles show deficiencies
Offensive line: Sixth
The Panthers are one of the most run-committed teams in the league, and their offensive line is a key reason why (as is having Cam Newton at quarterback). The middle of the Panthers' offensive line excels at run-blocking. Center Ryan Kalil’s run-blocking grade ranked No. 3 among centers in 2015, and the grades of Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner ranked No. 5 and No. 8, respectively, among the league’s guards. Tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers each had glaring deficiencies in 2015, however; Mike Remmers graded positively as a run-blocker, but struggled as a pass-protector, especially in the Super Bowl, whereas Oher excelled as a pass-protector, but his heavily-negative run-blocking grade ranked last among NFL OTs.
Luke Kuechly the league's top linebacker
The Panthers have assembled a front-seven filled with big men with quick feet and safeties playing linebacker. Carolina's front-seven is one of the best in the NFL, with the numbers to back up that assertion. In 2015, when the Panthers were in base defense, they stopped a league-leading 34.0 percent of run plays for no gain or a loss. Kawann Short emerged as one of the best defensive tackles in the league last year, both as a run-stopper and an interior pass rusher. If Kony Ealy plays anything like he did in the playoffs, watch out NFC—he provided a playmaking presence on the edge, and the Panthers hope he can continue to produce with an increase in snaps in 2016. The Panthers have placed a premium on reloading front-seven defenders—in the past five drafts, Carolina has spent six first- or second-round picks on front-seven defenders. The Panthers' linebacker corps of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson is the best coverage unit in the league, with their coverage grades ranking No. 1, No. 5, and No. 19, respectively, among NFL linebackers last season.
Depleted secondary Carolina's biggest liability
While the front-seven continues to be re-stocked with high draft picks, the secondary became depleted this offseason due to the release of Josh Norman and the retirement of Charles “Peanut” Tillman, and the Panthers drafted three defensive backs as a result. A realistic decline in overall defense is to be expected, as a team simply can’t lose that much veteran production at such a crucial position and not feel the negative impact. The key for Carolina will be to minimize the negative impact of their losses and protect the young players. It’s possible that the Panthers could compensate for their inexperience at secondary by playing more base defense than the current league trends, which would allow them to keep their three outstanding coverage linebackers on the field. The Panthers play much more zone-coverage than man-coverage, and are largely playing with three or four deep zone defenders, so their new DBs should have help from the scheme and the front-seven ahead of them. The success of the Panthers’ 2016 season, however, will largely hinge on how well these young secondary players can replace some of the lost production of Norman and Tillman.