The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we head to the NFC South to provide a Carolina Panthers 2016 preview.
Here, we’ll be discussing a team that again hopes to have one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2016, despite losing a key player.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Carolina Panthers 2016 Preview
Head coach: Ron Rivera (sixth season)
Key arrivals: DT Paul Soliai, C Gino Gradkowski, P Mike Scifres, DT Kyle Love, WR Laron Byrd
Key departures: CB Josh Norman, P Brad Northman, SS Roman Harper
1. How much will the defense miss Josh Norman?
The Panthers had one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2015. One of last season’s breakout stars was Norman, who’s now a starting cornerback for the Washington Redskins.
During the 2015 season, a common question was asked. Is Norman really great, or is he just a good defensive back benefiting from a great defense?
How much was Carolina’s elite pass rush aided by Norman shutting down the other team’s biggest threats? How much was Norman aided by the Panthers getting to the quarterback early?
It’s a chicken vs. egg argument that the 2016 season will go a long way towards answering.
2. Can Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin be an elite 1-2 punch?
In the short-memory world that is the NFL, it’s easy to forget that Benjamin caught 73 passes for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. Unfortunately, a torn ACL ended his 2015 season before it even began.
The physically impressive Funchess caught 31 passes for 473 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie season of 2015.
If Benjamin comes back strong and Funchess really does break out, Carolina’s sometimes shaky group of receivers looks very solid. Ted Ginn Jr. is always good for a few big plays and Greg Olsen is as reliable as it gets at tight end.
That’s a potential embarrassment of riches for Cam Newton, who doesn’t exactly need them.
Unfortunately, there are some questions to go along with that.
Funchess looks good now.
Derek Anderson throws an absolute dart to @D_FUNCH…
— NFL (@NFL) August 12, 2016
He may seem like a breakout candidate, but that doesn’t always happen. Funchess certainly needs to improve on 2015’s totals to be considered a star receiver.
And can Benjamin really find his 2014 form again?
3. Which way will the ball bounce?
Even for a team that went 15-1 a season ago, it’s important to remember that parity rules in the NFL.
Six of Carolina’s 15 wins were decided by eight points or less. If a few plays had gone differently, the Panthers could well have had a season closer to 10-6.
Just to be clear, this is in no way an attempt to cheapen anything that Carolina did in 2015. But think back to through some of the Panthers close calls last season. How did the fumbles bounce? Did an opposing defensive back or receiver drop an easy catch? Did a Carolina receiver or defensive back make an extraordinary play?
If any of those 50-50 plays had gone differently, would the win/loss results have been different?
Bounces tend to even out over time. It certainly won’t be surprising if a few games that were close wins in 2015 turn into close losses in 2016.
Daryl Worley, cornerback
Funchess may get the bulk of the attention, but Worley is the true breakout player to watch this season.
3 WR DFunchess having great camp.
4 Three rookie CBs will play. Most impressive: 3d-rder Daryl Worley. Humble. Savvy. Athlete.
— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) August 4, 2016
Make no mistake, Norman is a fantastic talent at defensive back. The Panthers couldn’t have plugged in just any defensive back and gotten similar results.
With that said, the Carolina pass defense made his life a heck of a lot easier. Also, Worley is not just another defensive back.
Worley’s pre-draft measurables were slightly better than Norman’s in 2012. He has all of the physical tools needed to play receivers tight while the Panthers’ front seven attacks opposing quarterbacks.
That will also enable him to be an aggressive ball hawk, a role he played quite well while at West Virginia.
In his time as a Mountaineer, the cornerback intercepted 10 passes, including six in his final season. He also knows what to do when a ball is caught by a receiver. Worley caused two fumbles in his third and final year at West Virginia.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
There’s plenty of it.
In 2015, Carolina had 10 Pro Bowlers. All but one of those players (Norman) returns. Included in that group of returning Pro Bowlers are Newton and Luke Kuechly. Newton is the league’s reigning MVP, while Kuchely is arguably the NFL’s best, most versatile defender.
Now, it’s possible that a few players will regress. After all, this isn’t 2015 anymore.
But the good news about going 15-1 is that it leaves room for regression. The Panthers can comfortably be five games worse in 2016 than they were in 2015 and still likely return to the postseason.
And even with the close wins of 2015, it’s hard to see a five-game regression. This is one of the NFL’s best, most talented rosters. Additionally, Rivera has emerged into a top notch coach. An awful lot would have to go wrong for this team to not be playing well into January.
A part of that “awful lot” would include someone from the NFC South emerging to step up and challenge Carolina — the three time defending division champions. Besides the Panthers, no team in that division has finished with a winning record since 2013.
We’re just not sure that we’ve seen enough improvement from the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, or Tampa Bay Buccaneers to think that Carolina is in any real jeopardy.
REASON TO DOUBT
It’s more internal than anything else. It would be hard to find a roster in the NFL as talented as Carolina’s. But how does this team handle what happened in Super Bowl 50?
The Denver Broncos gave the Panthers a hard reality check. In doing so, they showed the rest of the league how this team can be handled.
If Carolina does things the right way, it will do what the Broncos did. Remember, a seemingly invincible Denver team got humiliated by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl just two years prior to winning Super Bowl 50. The Broncos learned from that, shifted the focus of their team around, and now that loss is in the rear view mirror.
But not every team has the mental strength to do that. Carolina’s talent is unquestioned. But until it bounces back, a measure of doubt will exist.
Prediction: 11-5, first place in NFC South.