It’s that time of the year again; the part of the offseason where you are so football depraved, you can not help but ponder how your favorite team will play come opening day. To satiate my hunger for Panther’s football and hopefully some of your hankerings for opinion based knowledge, I will forecast several possible scenarios for the 2015-16 season. Even though these are bold predictions, I do expect all of them to come to fruition, but I wouldn't be surprised if they don't pan out.
Prediction #1: Shaq Thompson has one or more defensive touchdowns.
This may be the most likely prediction to actually happen this season. After all, he did score four touchdowns on defense last season alone (1 interception return, 3 fumble returns). Shaq Thompson has a knack for making big plays, and seems to be anywhere a loose ball is. But once he gets his hands on the ball, the real magic occurs. Much like Tre Boston, Shaq can take the ball to the house from anywhere on the field. One must remember, Thompson averaged 7.5 rushing yards per carry on 61 attempts last season; that would have been good for 6th place in yards per carry among the college ranks last season (.4 ypc behind Tevin Coleman and Melvin Gordon). Shaq will easily become a fan favorite, and his splashy style of play will definitely catch the eye of Pro Bowl voters across the nation.
Prediction #2: Panthers hit the 50+ sack mark.
After posting 60 sacks in 2013, the Panthers thoroughly regressed last year by sacking the quarterback a measly 40 times. I blame this drop not only on the loss of Greg Hardy, but also the lack of our defensive backs not reaching the quarterback. In 2013, defensive backs accounted for 11 sacks, only 2 sacks last year were at the hands of the secondary. This huge drop off can be attributed to the loss of Mike Mitchell, Captain Munnerlyn, and Quintin Mikell who combine for 10 sacks. Though I don’t see our DBs reaching 11 sacks this year, or the defense hitting 60; I do expect a vast improvement over last season. The growth of Kony Ealy, the return of Frank Alexander, and a fully healthy Star Lotulelei will help solidify the defensive line and make Charles Johnson’s job of getting to the QB a whole lot easier. With this, I also predict 6 or more sacks for the ascending talent Kawann Short, who may be on the verge of a serious breakthrough. The aforementioned Shaq Thompson, could also post a couple sacks while Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis combine for 6.5 on the year.
Prediction #3: Panthers average 135 rushing yards per game.
This doesn't seem like a huge statistical increase over last year’s 127.3 yards per game, but it will be part of a far more efficient ground attack than last season. If the Panther’s devoted as much time to the run this year as last, I would expect this number to hover around 140 a game. The addition of Funchess and a healthy Cam Newton will garner more pass attempts than last season. On the other hand, a limber Cam and a healthy Jonathan Stewart will provide a great 1-2 punch, and the addition of fifth round running back Cameron Artis-Payne will keep everyone fresh. The less glamorous side of this prediction is the road graders on the offensive line. Ryan Kalil was awesome in run blocking last year, and Andrew Norwell wasn't far behind him. Throw in Trai Turner who is a bulldozer, plus the gigantic rookie Daryl Williams, and you suddenly have a fierce group of run blockers who will open holes the size of Charlotte.
Prediction #4: Cam Newton tosses 30 touchdowns.
League wide, this wouldn't seem like that monumental of an achievement, but considering Cam’s most passing touchdowns in a season is 24, it would be quite an accomplishment. After signing his gigantic extension, Cam will hopefully show the front office they made the right decision by providing career high numbers. Now that Cam is fully healthy and boasts a bevy of tall pass catchers, the Panther’s redzone woes should finally come to a timely end. In Funchess, Benjamin, Dickson, and Olsen Cam now has four receiving options over 6’4’’. Added to these four is second year deep threat Corey Brown, who I am predicting to have a big year. There are also the curious cases of Damiere Byrd and Stephen Hill, who both post measurables off the charts. For the first time ever, Cam has a surplus of receiving options and should make good use of them the upcoming season.
Predictions #5: Cam Newton gets sacked 35 times.
I saved the boldest for last. Cam Newton getting sacked 35 times would be such an amazing accomplishment. The fewest amount of sacks the Panthers allowed since Cam entered the league was 35 his rookie season, this number would be a drop of seven sacks from last year’s 42 sacks allowed. I’m not basing this on some kind of epiphany and vast improvement for Michael Oher, not at all. I actually am predicting him to play somewhat poorly, but not as bad as Byron Bell last season. Barring injury, I think from right tackle to left guard, the line will hold up very well and keep Cam pretty clean over the course of the season. The added weapons in our passing game will keep teams from stacking the box, and in turn will give Cam more time to get the ball out of his hands. Also, a fully healthy Mike Tolbert will be a huge improvement over Ed Dickson’s blocking skills and should keep the offense rolling. UDFA Lee Ward could also earn a roster spot, and use his tree trunk legs to pave holes in the running game, in addition to being another player who can keep Cam off the turf. Out of all the predictions above, this one is probably the most important to the team’s success. If we want to make a deep playoff run, the Panther’s must protect Cam Newton, and hopefully they do this upcoming season.
Funchess grabs 5+ touchdowns, J Stew runs for 1200+, Panthers finish top 10 in special teams, 2-3 UDFAs make the roster.
By Grant Hughes
Follow Grant on Twitter @KenjonVander