We hate to think of any NFL player being injured, let alone a serious one. When it's a player on your favorite team it seems ten times worse, and when it's a key player, it often is.
Look at what happened last year when the Green Bay Packers lost AR-12 for almost half the season when he broke his collarbone. They were quite beatable and if memory serves, went 2-5 during that stretch. It wasn't until Rodgers got back on the field and led a game-winning drive against Chicago to seal their division crown that they were back to their "old ways" once more.
As for the Carolina Panthers, I've made a short list of players that are the biggest keys to repeating the NFC South division crown....and the order might be a little surprising.
#1 - MLB Luke Kuechly
NOT Cam, you say? I say no, and for multiple reasons:
First and foremost, the Panthers are built heavily on the defensive side that would be just as comfortable playing in the 1960's - with the rules of that era intact - as they are today. Kuechly is indeed the glue that holds the defense together, and if something happens to him I can see a MASSIVE drop-off in overall effectiveness. When we HAD to win against the Drew Brees high-octane Saints in week 16 last year, Kuechly responded with an NFL record-tying performance of 24 tackles....not to mention an interception in a driving rainstorm.
He won the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year honors last year for a reason, and in only his second year in the league! The scary part for opposing offenses? He's only going to get better with time. While I don't think he can improve on his statistics, having put the bar very high already in leading the NFL in tackles over his first two seasons, he has elite instincts and speed (sub-4.6-40 for a MLB is insanely fast) to cover the entire field and can only learn more about offenses, tendencies, and other technical minutiae from film study. He's already the defensive unit's unquestioned leader - something Cam hadn't yet accomplished by his sophomore season - and I can easily see the Panthers giving up 7-10 points per game more without his presence. I don't see a backup calling out the offensive play BEFORE the snap the way Kuechly often does nor have the athleticism to make the play as quickly.
In short, Kuechly is the team's biggest star and most developed talent at any position and his loss would be completely devastating. If I had to pick a single player off Carolina's team to start my own franchise with, it wouldn't be Cam. It would be Luke.
He's also the only true MLB on the current roster, so there's that as well. A.J. Klien is the next closest thing, but he's only entering his second season to Luke's third, but was injured last year and I'd cringe if he had to start and produce at the drop of a hat.
#2 - QB Cam Newton
NOW it's time for Cam to be listed. He's "only" second not so much because he's not a rising star (he most certainly is), but Luke on the other side just outpaced Cam in growth at the NFL level. I think part of the reason is Kuechly was already coming in as a rookie at a higher level of play and was helped by that elite speed and those elite instincts I mentioned above. Cam's still climbing his own learning curve at his own pace and frankly he could use more than rookie Kelvin Benjamin as a long-term shiny "new toy."
Remember, Cam came in the NFL as a raw prospect while Kuechly was as polished as any college MLB I can think of since Patrick Willis was drafted - perhaps even before that - so it's not a knock on Cam but more of a revelation as to how highly I thought about Luke K coming out of Boston College. In only 3 seasons, he was within a couple of dozen tackles of breaking the all-time NCAA career mark and likely would have done so in his second or third game during his (aborted) senior year.
With the offense being literally a bit rough around the edges (WR, OT) and with as talented a corps of RBs as pretty much any NFL squad, the QB position isn't SO dire a spot that needs massive production that the scheme is as much a reason the team might be able to make the playoffs if Cam goes down for say....those same 7 games as AR-12 last year but it would certainly make things a lot more difficult. While Cam isn't yet a truly accomplished "pure" passer, once again, the team and scheme doesn't work that way in Charlotte.
Add to it the fact we actually probably DO have the best backup QB in the division in Derek Anderson. He has that one Pro-Bowl season in Cleveland under his belt and although that was largely attributed to his "help" around him at the time, the fact is he made one and has been around long enough to be able to run the offensive scheme intact save for designed QB runs that will go out the window if Cam isn't in the game. He'd run a more conventional offense, but Cam nor the offense in general is a "pinball machine" like that in New Orleans for example, so if Anderson can come in to be a "game manager," with the defense intact, I'd still like our chances to win in any given game. Putting up 17 will win us most games again and I think Derek is probably able to get that much if he takes care of the ball...and as a veteran, he'll darn well know it.
My description sorta makes it sound like Cam might even be farther DOWN the list, but I think he's solid here. He just has SO much upside - SO many plays and athletic moves that not only Anderson but NO other QBs can replicate - that even on "off days" passing, Cam's ability to run, scramble, and/or escape out of the pocket under duress and extend plays is that X-factor you just can't replace.
I wish I had a pic of Cam doing his "first down" pointing to put up about here!
#3 - DT Star Lotulelei
Wow - a rising second-year player being the 3rd toughest to replace so soon? You betcha. Here's why:
First and foremost, he lived up to his billing as a rookie, period. For quite some time before last year's NFL draft, he was consistently in the top-three overall in most mock drafts. While that doesn't matter in and of itself since drafting any given player is a 50/50 proposition at best, he fell all the way to us at 14th due to a transitory health issue which caused a lot of teams to mark him off their draft boards.
Their loss is our gain, and we simply do NOT have the talent on the bench to replace him. His counterpart, Kawann Short, is more of an "under-tackle" in a 4-man line and not someone whom you can simply slide over and ask to absorb double and triple-team blocks on a down-by-down basis. He'd be playing out of position and I'd rather see under-performance at only 1 DT position rather than at two if he were asked to slide over.
We've quickly become a bit spoiled with our defense but I think most of us recall how we just couldn't stop the run only two years ago....eliciting the two DT choices as our top two picks last year. The pair vastly improved our interior defense as Luke Kuechly vaulted to prominence but Star plays one of the least "sexy" positions there is in the NFL.
Remember, the "run-clogging" DT rarely makes many tackles, sacks, or stats of any kind. His job is that of the unsung hero, taking up blocks and allowing his teammates to make plays so you aren't going to hear many DT's names called in any given game from ANY team.
The combination of Star's quiet talent coupled with the lack of depth at the position puts him firmly at #3 on my list here.
#4 - OLB Thomas Davis
After TD busted his same knee the third time, most everyone wrote his career off as promising but unfortunate because of the injuries. A talent not realized or unfairly cut short due to reasons beyond his control. Davis came back and not only survived so far but has actually thrived.
In fact, it doesn't take a lot of watching this guy to tell that he really is something special...even after those knee issues and 10 years in the NFL under his belt. I love the guy's grit and determination to go through ALL those rehabs. It says a lot about his character...and all of it good.
I cannot think of a MLB/OLB duo that's better than Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The Niners have Bowman and Willis, but those are two inside guys in their 3-4 scheme. In fact, Davis' re-re-resurgence has been somewhat overshadowed by the attention his teammate gets, but the fact is that Davis is physically as imposing as Kuechly. The NFL is a team sport and Luke really can't do it all alone. With two of the three LBs having the speed and power combination that these two do, the Carolina Panthers' front-seven led the NFL in sacks - yes, even over Seattle - and is probably a bit better than anyone's overall. Seattle's secondary is WAY better than Carolina's, however, making theirs the overall better and more well-rounded defensive unit but Carolina's front-seven makes up some of that difference for them.
#5 - C Ryan Kalil
We've already seen what an injury to Rockin' Ryan can do to this offensive line....he was replaced by journeyman Geoff Hangartner in 2012 but things were simply not the same. Without a LT like Jordan Gross, Kalil is the unquestioned leader of the line (if he wasn't already) and the center position is unique among the o-line in helping the QB set, slide or change his protection scheme depending on what the defense shows.
Don't forget - the only other likely starter on the offensive line with much experience is going to be Byron "The Turnstile" Bell and he's hardly an all-Pro talent. Sure, he's an above-average run-blocker, which is vital in this offensive scheme, not to mention being a class act. I personally root for the guy, but let's face it - his pass-blocking leaves much to be desired....thus, my favorite nickname for him is all too descriptive.
If Bell is indeed moved to the left side, it will be 100% proof that Rivera and Gettleman are completely blowing smoke up our collective rear-ends about the "talent" at the tackle position on offense. Ryan Kalil has the most NFL experience by far, IS an all-Pro, and will be leaned upon more than most by the coaching staff to help their talented-but-young guards learn (Trai Turner) and continue to grow (Amini Silatolu).
As long as Kalil (and the guards) remain healthy, we should have better success with the inside running game than last season....all else being equal. Play-calling is an issue but not something the players can do anything about other than execute what they're given.
What about some of the other guys like TE Greg Olson or the starting DEs, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, you might ask?
Valid issues to raise with those guys. Olson has been Cam's "blankie" and the team's most called-upon chains-mover in the past, but here's where Kelvin Benjamin's talents will come into play. In fact, one of the first types of passes Cam started throwing was a deep corner/fade route with the coach holding a pad about 10 feet off the ground in the corner of the end zone.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out who the intended receiver will be for that type of a throw.
While I might be in the minority in saying that I don't see our first-round pick breaking out and becoming a star rookie WR a la Keenan Allen of the San Diego Super Chargers last year, I can certainly see his size helping in the short passing game and in the red zone....all taking some of the heat off of Greg Olson.
Smitty was let go, as we all know, but Benjamin could reasonably duplicate his numbers his rookie season....with probably not as many yards receiving but with more TDs.
Actually, our TE spots seem to be about the deepest three of any position on the team and losing Olson for a while wouldn't be the end of the short passing game. My biggest concern if we'd lose Olson is that he and Cam have played together and have that chemistry that Cam hasn't yet had the time or repetitions to embed with his WR corps.
At least he could turn to either Mike "Fireplug" Tolbert or Jonathan Stewart, who is a very good receiver out of the backfield (when healthy).
Of course, there's always Greg Hardy. Why wouldn't losing HIM be ranked as a bigger loss than say 6th or 7th?
Again, it's not so much that Hardy isn't a force but more of the fact that he is actually "more" replaceable this year than he was last year with the drafting of a first-round talent late in the second round with DE Kony Ealy from Missouri. Michael Sam may have gotten a lot more press, but it's Ealy who is the DE from that school that projects to be a bigger force in the NFL on the field.
There's also the up-and-down play of Hardy to consider. Some games he looks unstoppable but in others, he can vanish...like he did in our playoff loss to the Niners.
As for Charles "Big Money" Johnson, we won both games he was out last year, even though I saw the defense slip a tad. It certainly wasn't nearly as bad a loss as if we had lost Luke Kuechly.
Of course, ANY loss of a starting player is going to hurt, but some more so than others. We don't have any star-power in the secondary after losing Captain Munnerlyn, who had a very nice season for us last year but couldn't be retained mainly due to the salary cap issues. I personally am going to miss Mike Mitchell the most, mainly for his upside, but we couldn't keep the Steelers from signing him away for the same reasons. Good for Mike, but bad for us.
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye