Panthers Look Set to Improve in All Three Phases for 2015

Despite all the draftniks saying that the Carolina Panthers had a questionable draft, pointing to our first-round selection in Shaq Thompson. Some question if the Panthers are getting what they think they are in Devin Funchess. Still others question taking two linebackers in a 4-3 defense when we have Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the best duo at those positions in the NFL.

The Method to the Madness

It's true that the average fan like myself can't completely get into the heads of Ron Rivera and David Gettleman, but I can see where they seem to want to take the team.

Ever since the draft, it really became pretty plain - at least to me, and I could well be wrong - but I think the idea is that, in the Great Age of Speed, the Panthers are going about things the old school way:

Brute Force.

Read on to find out why...

Why the Offense is Better

Despite the top pick going for the defense, the offense added two instant starters in WR Devin Funchess and a GUARD you draftniks not a left tackle, Daryl Williams. Daryl might be tried at right tackle, IMO, but will make the offensive line even more physical wherever he's inserted. Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin both have the ability to get the high pass at 6'4" (Funchess) and 6'5" Kelvinator. The addition of LT Michael Oher almost has to be an improvement over the fiasco of Byron Bell there last season. Bell ranked 56th of 57 qualifiers at left tackle. Oher's going to have to really stink the joint out for it to actually get worse there, and Oher's a better run-blocker than Bell.

If, however, Oher's nagging foot injury has finally healed, he has a very nice upside on the fact he was a first-round pick if you'll recall. The talent is there; it's his health that's in question. I might remind you such players undergo physicals first, and I'm sure the Panthers took great interest in 21st Century medical imaging technologies like the MRI to get a good, detailed look at the problem area. They wouldn't be paying him the 5 mil per or so if he wasn't looking if not in perfect health, but nearly so. His health is the biggest concern on the team outside Newton and Kuechly, because there's nothing as far as depth goes there that I'm aware of. No "journeyman" vet backup, so it's literally Oher or bust this year at left tackle.

Then there's Daryl Williams, of the prototypical over-used phrase "road-grader," but he's a real mauler of a lineman especially in the run game. His lateral range in pass protection limits him to an inside position as I see it, and especially fits in well as a right guard. Trai Turner is the incumbent, but it's not uncommon for interior offensive linemen to be able to play multiple positions, so Turner could wind up at left guard and let the rookie start out where he's most comfortable and grow from there. 

Finally, the team added a guy who could be a real gem of a pick in Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne in the fifth round. If you think it's a long shot to get a good talent in the fifth round, look at last year's Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston. 

Cam Newton's Mini-Me isn't particularly fast, shifty, or a good receiver. He's also likely not a great blocker, but is a 25 yr old man who reportedly has a work ethic second to none. He'll be Jonathan Stewart's back-up and, in line with the general philosophy of the Panther offense's apparent direction, a strong inside runner. He and the Williams pick are designed to keep punishing defenses with their physical natures.

With DeAngelo Williams being the only major free agency departure on offense, Newton's Mini-Me brings a younger set of legs and certainly a more physical nature than D-Will did. The cost is the explosiveness Williams brought to the table, but he's the past and Cameron Artis-Payne is the future.

The Panthers lose D-Will, but upgrade at guard with the rookie Daryl Williams and Devin Funchess at receiver. Funchess should start immediately while Daryl might take a little time to cook depending on how fast he picks up the blocking schemes, shifts, and the playbook in general. Physically, he's more than ready now.

Considering Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen provides a third big target and is often referred to as "Cam's Security Blanket," Cam can fire a bit high or even throw a ball up to give his big guys a chance to go up and get it over shorter defenders. Face it, Cam's passing game will probably never be known for regular pinpoint accuracy, but more his overall range of things he does quite well. 

As I said, Oher will have to be really horrible to actually be worse than Byron Bell was, so I see three legitimate areas of improvement, WR, OG, and LT, while the RB situation is probably a net-gain as well, since it does play to more of a "power" mentality while injecting the youth the team needs at the position.

Why the Defense is Better

Shaq Thompson, I believe, was drafted to be the ultimate heir to Thomas Davis. School responsibilities this summer make me question his ability to participate in camp or the preseason so I don't expect much from him until mid-season at the earliest, and that's just being realistic.

The good news is that Gettleman does seem to walk the walk after talking the talk of drafting the "best player available" and this looks like a reasonable pick to me near the end of the first round. He doesn't have a defined position - Thomas Davis was a college safety, for example - but it just shows me his versatility. Word is that Shaq can seemingly cover anyone and in college would even cover WRs on occasion. He also plays with surprising power for a 228 pound defender. I'm sure he could bulk up to the 235-240 range through an NFL strength program alone, and he is an elite athlete. At only 20 years old, he really still is "just" a kid and has a bit more natural development in front of him as well. 

David Mayo is a Luke Kuechly Mini-Me in that they have similar styles and college production, but Mayo doesn't have LK's size and speed combo. What he does have in common with Luke is his football instincts. That's a strong foundation to have for a fifth-round pick. 

Free agent Peanut Tillman is a stop-gap guy at corner, at age 34, but buys the team time to find someone to put opposite Josh Norman as Benwikere's best spot is as the nickel corner.

Tre' Boston should solidify his free safety spot but needs to watch himself on being burned deep. I noticed he still carries the college tendency he had that made me against drafting him in the first place, but I'm still hoping that can be coached out of him. Not sold on him quite yet, but have a lot higher hopes for him than I did at this time last season.

Why the Special Teams are Better

Signing Ted Ginn, Jr. after a year's hiatus, was a smart move that inexpensively and instantly vaults Carolina's kickoff return game into the top-ten league-wide. Since Ginn was a Panther two seasons ago, he's a known quantity that Gettleman thought would be a great pick-up, and I completely agree. He's a great pick-up for the team, especially at for the price. 

He can also contribute once in a while in the passing game, although he wasn't hired to be the team's deep-threat guy. We don't have one, but that's fine. Ginn's with the Panthers as a KR primarily while being probably number four or five on the receiving depth chart.

Another free agent that could solidify all four phases of the special teams is WR Jarrett Boykin. He's a guy who can be depended upon to help the coverage teams not give up big plays while helping the return teams with his stellar, NFL-level proven play. 

While he's not an actual "return man," the rising fourth-year pro was a standout on Green Bay's special teams. However, the Pack had issues with the salary cap of their own and had to let him and pricier WR Randall "Tex" Cobb walk. The Panthers couldn't afford Cobb, but snatched up Boykin to help solidify the special teams along with the aforementioned Ted Ginn.

Even if Ginn is the PR too, he'll certainly be an upgrade over Breston Bersin, who looked like he had issues just fielding punts during the second half of the season, let alone be a dangerous return man. The only danger he represented was in fumbling or muffing the punt and it will be nice for other teams to fear our returns...not just the Panthers!

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