I'm sure you're wondering why on Earth I'd make a statement like I did in the title, with the team coming off a 15-1 regular season that led the NFL in scoring offense and the team to a Super Bowl berth.
Not to mention CamVP. Am I insane?
As I often reply, my sanity or lack thereof is always a subject for debate, but another time and place. Here's why I'm thinking along these lines:
First -- Sure, Cam could have another MVP season. Odds are against it with the overall fickle nature of the NFL, but he has things aligned for him: He didn't lose really anybody from last year's offense, and the WR corps will go from the shallow end as it was at the start of 2015 to one of the deeper ends for 2016's kickoff.
The team returns #1 WR Kelvin Benjamin, but I'm not even sure he'll be the most dangerous target out there. Certainly, second-year pro Devin Funchess is more elusive in the open field than is Benjamin, but Kelvin has the strength to go along with his size for contested catches and red zone trips while Funchess is a more wiry guy.
I'm actually talking about subtraction (of stats) by addition (of players).
I could well see an offense that doesn't have a thousand-yard receiver OR a thousand-yard rusher due to the overall team's style of play, which is smash-mouth power running & ball control.
If Ron Rivera has his way, as he often did last season, Cam will run less, not more, especially if the other second-year offensive skill player can step up, and that would be RB Cameron Artis-Payne. I'm not quite certain, but Brandon Wegher could still be considered a rookie at least for all practical purposes, and he's probably the runner with the highest upside at this early juncture. All Ron needs is one of the two to give Stewie a series off here & there and/or a situational sub for Stewie in the right circumstance of down and distance. CAP for second and short; Wegher for third downs and four or more if Stewie isn't in the game.
I think if anyone should get to over 1,000 yards at the WR position, it likely will be Funchess, not Benjamin. Funch just has that bit of elusiveness and explosiveness that Kelvin just doesn't really have. Hey, not everyone is a Calvin Johnson. BTW, funny how future HOFers leave Detroit in droves, but that's yet another topic along with The Sanity Question. Benjamin often cannot get YAC because of his size and ability to actually grab some of those little-too-high passes from Cam, but that's baked into the cake in the thinking.
Anyway, before I go all Foghorn Leghorn on ya'll, my point is that Cam could still get insane numbers while his "help" all has a slightly less productive statistical season...and it's all due to Funchess' growth as a rookie through today as well as Benjamin's return.
It would not surprise me to see 4 WRs with 500-999 yards...and I see Funchess with the most catches and yards while Kelvin edges him out in TDs. Also, there won't be a double-digit TD scorer through the air. Funchess, Benjamin, Ginn, and either Byrd, Brown, or Stephen Hill should be those top 4 WRs. The 4th one is a mystery to all right now and likely will be for a while yet. One of those names may not even make the final roster. Thus, you see the muddied picture that I do. Oh, FWIW, I don't see Bersin on the team in 2016.
Just for fun, here are some lines to check in December for 2016:
Cam Newton 60.2% completion 4,600 yds 33 TDs 15 INT; QBR 96.5 (passing yards up a little due to Benjamin's return and Funchess' maturity, but TD:INT rate edges up a tad due to a few more batted balls and a few fewer dropped picks by the defenses)
Jonathan Stewart 230 car 850 yds 9 TDs (in 13 games)
Cam Newton 101 car 511 yds 8 TDs
Brandon Wegher 50 car 267 yds 2 TDs (18 rec 168 yds 1 TD)
Kelvin Benjamin: 72 rec 903 yds 8 TDs
Devin Funchess 78 rec 956 yds 6 TDs
Greg Olsen 86 rec 925 yds 5 TDs
Ted Ginn 28 rec 517 yds 6 TDs (14 dropped TDs)
Philly Brown 19 rec 315 yds 2 TDs and so on...
Just to round things out, here's how I'm seeing some defensive stats:
Luke Kuechly 158 TKL 20 TFL 10 PD 3 INT 6 FF 2 FR 2.5 SCK (Luke is the best. Maybe ever. Pretty similar in 16 games as he was in 13 last year because his front seven is a year older and wiser)
Kony Ealy 57 TKL 33 TFL 14 SCK (may vanish some games but will dominate a few too)
Kawann Short 46 TKL 18 TFL 12.5 SCK (Another year like 2015 and he'll be Mr. Priceline)
Vernon Butler 20 TKL 10 TFL 3.5 SCK (This rookie has enough natural talent to be disruptive even if he doesn't know what he's doing yet. His star will really rise in 2018.)
Star won't have many stats - nature of the position
Charles Johnson 45 TKL 8 SCK
Thomas Davis 88 TKL 11 TFL 4 SCK 4 INT 4 FF 18 PD
Shaq Thompson 66 TKL 10 TFL 3 SCK 2 INT 2 FF 3 FR 9 PD
I threw some extra "made-up" stats in there for a few guys on defense just to help illustrate where I think they'll be this year. The front seven will have a great blend of veterans (CJ, TD), young guys entering or who are in their prime (Shaq, Luke, Ealy, Short, Star), and youth with the addition of rookie Vernon Butler only helps give KK a blow while going the other way, for 34 y/o Paul Soliai, for help backing up Star. Butler and Soliai each project for 20-25 snaps/game.
It's the defensive backfield that is soooo green and raw that I could see teams throwing on us 50+ times while trying 15 or fewer rushing attempts. With Star, Kawann, Luke, and then Soliai and Butler backing up the line in rotation, there shouldn't be any easy-going up the middle of the Panthers defense in 2016...or the foreseeable future, for that matter.
Coming full circle to my main point, the point is that Ron Rivera's team is supposed to be the ultimate concept of "team." When Jared Allen retired, he said of the locker room in Charlotte: "That place is a walking cliche'...they're focused" and he is 100% right. The players bought-in to Rivera's scheme and they've seen Dave Gettleman supply a steady stream of talent for Riverboat Ron's brutal approach to the game.
So, the players will continue to put the team first. Despite the nonsense from the Cam haters last year, you never did hear a peep out of him or anyone else where they tried to point fingers or whine about not getting enough "touches" or whatever the case is in some other organizations (see: Roddy White on the Atlanta Falcons here). There's none of that in Charlotte because the team has won the last three consecutive NFC South titles, been through a lot of adversity (especially the 7-8-1 season), and has emerged that much stronger out the other end for it.
That's precisely why the NFL's best team could have gaping holes in the top-ten stat sheets of SportsCenter or NFL Network's exploding fantasy kings of the week. Aside from Mr. CamVP himself, there is no "must-have" for NFL fantasy teams this year, for example. TE Greg Olsen is about as steadily productive as they come, but has a low fantasy ceiling because he's not fast...he just gets open and makes catches. If you'll recall, last year one of those catches saved a 2-loss season as he grabbed it literally a couple of inches off the turf, clearly had the ball and control, and went to the ground for a first down on a 4th down.
However, "clutch plays" aren't a fantasy stat...nor are they an official one. Only what's measurable is put on the statistics. Sometimes these "measurables" can be quite creative, optimistic, or just plan odd if you look at what some of ProFootballFocus comes up with, but I mean just the very basics.
I wouldn't be surprised at all to see our top WR not in the top-ten in any categories. Same for the other positions on offense, other than at QB.
On defense, it's slightly different, due to the scheme and personnel. As I mentioned above, several on the D-line could have double-digit sack seasons while Luke should continue being the insane monster with the nose for the football that he always has been. Unless one of the rookie DBs is tested early, often, and unsuccessfully, the CB position likely won't have many guys with low stats simply because enemy QBs have nobody to avoid as they most certainly found out after the first month of 2015 with Josh Norman's maturity.
Consequently, one of the safeties (Kurt Coleman) could well be a turnover machine back there, especially while the rookies are learning. Both the outside corners Gettleman drafted (Bradberry and Worley) are big corners. The 5th-round nickelback, Sanchez, makes it three different kids Gettleman drafted that ALL were given kudos to in their scouting reports for being ball-hawks.
THAT is Rivera's idea...pressure up front, hurry the QB into errant throws, and have people on the back end that have the ability to make him pay for his mistake.
Overall, a lack of "stars" -- each team is going to have a couple -- on either side of the ball, Cam and Luke excluded of course, means good things going forward for this team...not bad things.
It'll mean each WR has the ability to get open for a catch on any given play. Nobody dominates, nobody gets completely shut down for more than a game against a good match-up in the personnel or something. It means the team isn't depending on one guy alone to help Cam keep up the over-30 PPG pace the team set last year. Stewie gets his job done, while the younger backs grow into their roles with NFL time under their belts. Kelvin makes the big first-down receptions over the middle or goes up high among two defenders to snag a purposefully-thrown high pass from Cam and has the strength to keep it. Funchess will make a number of circus catches and highlight reel-quality runs after the catch. Then when teams start defending us outside, Cam is happy to play pitch & catch with Thor the Mighty, AKA Greg Olsen, moving the chains along the middle of the field. Stewie gets the tough yards inside, Wegher breaks a 25-yard run off, and Cam runs QB Power and dunks on an enemy defensive lineman for six points.
That's the offense you're looking for, young Skywalker. Nobody for the defense to focus in on because everyone is big and strong and will wear you down in the second half.
Cam won't be running much QB Power five years down the road, but that thought doesn't help 31 of the NFL's defensive coordinators sleep better at night this year.
And if everyone can help contribute, the team has the talent to win everything this year just as they came very close last year. Denver won't be back, but the the Panthers will be plenty battle-tested when they roll into the playoffs with a chip on their shoulder after the 2016 season.
Rivera's spread-the-wealth philosophy gets everyone involved, contributing, happy, and helps make the locker room a good one for all the players involved, as Jared Allen noted.
I'd really like to hear what the fans think on this one in the comment section below. Will no thousand-yard runner OR receiver be doom or demonstrate how the offense is designed to function?
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