Why the Carolina Panthers will not Repeat as NFC South Champs

Okay folks, it's time to get "real" with a single day between the Carolina Panthers and their opening day game at Tampa Bay.

First of all, of course I'm psyched about the season starting and, as always, I'm very hopeful about the prospects for the Panthers this season. They've had a lot of change in the roster, especially at wide receiver, the offensive line, and in the defensive backfield.

However, I've never been a "homer" and always try to tell it the way I see it, and along that vein "hope and change" hasn't worked out as well as we had been led to believe in a more general sense. 

So, let's take a look at specifics...and stay within the parameters of the NFL from here.

What got better:

The short answer here, ironically, is the drafting of 6'5" Kelvin Benjamin. He appears to be all we fans had hoped he would be and even more. Panthers' WR coach Ricky Proehl has worked his magic again, it would appear, and this time he's been given a big ole lump of clay to shape the way he sees fit instead of trying to revive veterans' careers while working with lots of them on one-year deals. 

THAT, my friends, is one heck of a difficult task...and one that he just began anew once again but with former Jets WR Stephen Hill. However, Hill likely needs even more work than did Kelvin and probably won't be a factor at all this season as he works on the practice squad. If he does contribute, it won't be until late in the season and even then, I don't see him being anyone to scare defenses, despite his athleticism, until he is almost literally a new man. 

Proehl's good, but it takes more than him snapping his fingers to do that.

Another thing that should improve is our interior defensive line. No, we've not added anyone but we didn't really need to. Last year's first two picks, both defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, played up to their ability and perhaps even beyond expectations - especially in Star's case and Kawann looks more disruptive than last year - and now they come into the NFL with a year of knowledge under their rather large belts. This helps them come into camp allowing Sean McDermott the luxury of being able to start at a higher level and go from there than he was able to last season. Star and Kawann were kindergartners in 2013's preseason, in elementary school the first month of the NFL, and finished the season well into high school if you follow the metaphor. 

Instead of having to teach "ABCs," McDermott could start training camp with "college prep" courses and have those two key tackles learning college material now, while the second half of the season should see them graduating and working on their Masters degrees....as in "mastering" their positions and their assignments.

That's what experience does for you, and the front seven returns completely intact from last year. That means they'll be even better now from day one, and the best middle linebacker in the game leads them all. I see several completely dominant performances by this unit this year and if you don't have a solid offensive line across the board, our guys will certainly take advantage without having to bring extra people.

The third thing that should really improve is the interior offensive line. Injuries decimated the O-line actually the last two seasons running. If Ryan Kalil and Amini Silatolu can stay healthy and Trai Turner, projected to start at right guard pans out, the Panthers should have one of the better interior units in the NFL.

So much for the good news.

What got worse:

Oh boy, now the fun begins. 

First off, Cam Newton's health is obviously worse, although the ankle has been "bothering him since college." It is uncertain how much the ankle has healed since he had surgery on it 6 months ago now, not to mention the cracked ribs in his back from preseason. Ron Rivera says his play in week one will be a "game-time decision," but I'll be quite surprised if he doesn't play. Even if he doesn't, the offense is in capable hands with Derek Anderson, who is widely considered the best back-up QB in the NFC South and one of the better ones in the entire NFL, so that's a bit of help. 

However, Newton had no such issues at this time last season, so the situation is worse. This carries over into the second point....

...the yearly "rent-a-roster spot" guys collectively aren't as good as they were last year. At least, not on paper. Mike Mitchell leads the departed defensive group while Roman Harper rings in the new. Mitchell had speed, youth, and physicality on his side and used our front seven to play himself out of our price range for 2014. Good for him - it means he was a difference-maker in our secondary last year - but it leaves us with a hole. I'm rooting for Roman to do as well, but if the 31 year old safety is that good, why would he be available and for a cheaper price than Mitchell? 

Harper, despite chatter, IS durable, having played in all 15 games each season save his rookie year - not surprising in and of itself there - and 9 games last year. The same year the Saints' defense shot up the charts like a rocket. Hmm. Doesn't bode so well for us.

I think at best, Harper should provide a steadying influence on a still relatively young group of corners, including rookie Bene Benwikere. "The Fed Chief" is the wild card of the secondary this year, but hasn't shown much in the preseason and may take time to develop - all while the team is ringing up wins and losses. I like Melvin White's gritty play, but the team still lacks anyone in the secondary that I'd consider an above-average player.

The "rent-a-roster" approach didn't end in the defensive backfield. Just like last year, Dave Gettleman brought in a hapless group of wide receivers on one-year contracts, hoping one or more of them can surpass their previous ceilings they had established in the NFL. Ted Ginn, Jr. was the guy who did it last year but still had inconsistent hands in the passing game although he was a great help to the return game.

We don't have an established kick returner this year, and Rivera has already cut one of the one-year WRs in Tiquan Underwood as Kelvin Benjamin has risen to the top of the depth chart as a rookie.

We also haven't seen much of Jerricho Cotchery in the preseason. We know he's a very experienced guy who had a fine season last year. While teammate Antonio Brown got the lion's share of targets, Cotchery only had 600 yards or so, but with ten TD receptions. Those TD receptions are a statistical anomaly, however, as he hasn't had but 6 TD catches in any other season since entering the NFL in 2004.

Beyond Benjamin, the Panthers once again have a roster full of "threes and fours" - in terms of talent - which means defenses will be smothering the rookie on passing downs. 

Ah....passing. It's something that truly scares me this season, especially after Pro-Bowl LT Jordan Gross retired.

The Panthers have an offensive line that reminds me of one of those small-school basketball programs. They are starting a center and four guards. Please try not to giggle too much.

Yes, Byron Bell is now in his fourth NFL season so we know what he can and cannot do, but Rivera still moved him from playing out of position at right tackle to playing out of his league on the left side. 

Don't get me wrong. I like Byron as a person and he seems to make a wonderful teammate. I've never heard him complain about anything at all, he stays out of trouble, and is an all-around class act. I've said it before and I'll keep ON saying it - I really do root for the kid.

That said, he's NOT a tackle. He's most DEFINITELY NOT a LEFT tackle. He doesn't have the feet for the position and if I had my way as coach, he'd be a right guard all day long and twice on Sundays. Err....well, you know what I mean.

Speed-rushers make him look bad, period. Pittsburgh Steelers' LB Jarvis Jones fell in the draft last year in part due to a slower than expected 40-yard dash time - WAY slower at 4.92 seconds - and Byron Bell made him look like an All-Pro.

One particular play had Bell fooled into thinking Jones was heading outside on the pass rush when he used a crossover move to take the inside route - which is the most direct route to the quarterback - and Bell barely even touched him. 

Not much later on in the game, Bell had a false start penalty on a passing down as he tried to get a jump on the protection by timing the snap exactly right. He was wrong, early, and forced the 5-yard penalty as a result.

The same thing was happening against New England the game before. Chandler Jones abused him pretty regularly in that game as well.

Even so, it might have been possible to slide protection to that weak side to help him out, but the right tackle position isn't in any better hands. Nate Chandler is a converted defensive tackle who began learning the offensive tackle position early last year but is still very raw with his technique and doesn't have the shiftiest feet around, himself. It's probably part of why he was a defensive tackle to begin with, and also why he wasn't drafted. In fact, the entire Carolina Panthers' roster has zero offensive tackles that were drafted at any position!

That alone is hardly a ringing endorsement of the strength of the position. I know both tackles will try their best, but more and more I'm feeling it as a "square peg/round hole" type of situation. I have no doubt in my mind that they'll try their best every single snap on every single day, but they just aren't guys that God made to grow up to be offensive tackles in the NFL. They're both much, much more suited to be guards due to their sheer size (Bell is 340 pounds, for instance) and that they lack the lateral quickness and agility that tackles on BOTH sides need, frankly, in today's pass-happy NFL.

Some of this can be compensated for with using the 2TE set that has been whispered about so much by us fans. The TE can help by using a "chip" block, where they go out in their pass patterns but give the defensive end a not-so-friendly shove on the shoulder, arm, or ribcage to hopefully upset their balance before they can get started into their pass rush, but doing that would limit the depth of the route to maybe 10-15 yards at the most while allowing only 3 other eligible receivers on any given play (other than the other TE). With Chandler's rawness, Greg Olsen may be "chipping" away at the D-line too. 

It also means more "max-protect" blocking schemes, again, which limits the number of receivers in the pattern because not only do all TEs stay in to block, so does the RB. 

In any case, it also means more times where the "hot" receiver (the guy designated to run a very short pattern and/or break off his pattern to make a very quick target for the QB) in case of a blitz or heat on the QB, which looks to happen as often as not. 

All of these issues on offense add up to Mike Shula being Mike Shula - calling a vanilla game plan, taking few chances, and hoping the defense can create a turnover or outstanding punter Brad Nortman can pin the other team inside their 20 (which he's really good at doing) and flipping the field so the offense won't have to be conducting 70- or 80-yard drives to hit paydirt.

Yes, the team has issues but don't all NFL teams? 

That's true - all NFL teams have issues....some are just more glaring than others. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, have a pretty pedestrian offensive line but Russell Wilson is a brilliant young field general who makes the right reads and not only "manages" that offense, but makes plays with both his legs and with his right arm when he's asked to do so. He's also very accurate, which is something Newton has never been known for.

Specifically, the teams in the NFC South have improved overall since last season...other than the Panthers.

Carolina got a little better with the front-seven due to experience gained and added a nice, big target for Cam on the outside. That's really about all the "good news" the Panthers have this season over last. 

This year, they come into opening day with the WR corps having exactly ZERO receptions with the Carolina Panthers. In likely descending order of production this year, there's Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and another guy I'm really rooting for in Breston Bersin. Bersin's got a great, hard work pays off story, but it won't make him an All-Pro.

The receivers should settle into their duties as the season progresses but the offensive tackles will not. Bell's feet won't get any quicker and neither will Chandler's. 

The lowdown is that defenses will know all of these things, they'll watch as game tape piles up more and more as the season progresses and pass-rushers all around the NFL are circling Carolina on their schedule and placing "friendly wagers" with their teammates as to how many sacks they'll get. The defensive coordinators may even be thinking of playing the strong safety "in the box," knowing we want to establish the run and that Mike Shula is a magician that wears short sleeves so they won't be seeing a lot of things they haven't seen before, and with Cam's ankle still an issue, the "read/option" plays should be limited as coaches want Cam to take fewer hits and Cam likely won't be tallying the 111 rushing attempts he did last season.

It all adds up to a more predictable AND less capable offense overall than even last year's iteration. The defense will keep us in most ball games, but unless they start scoring more points themselves, it's going to be a long season in Charlotte vs. fan hopes and expectations.

What about other NFC South teams?

Atlanta's defense should be a bit better than it has been in the last couple of years due to an influx of drafted talent and a healthy offense. As long as Julio Jones and Roddy White are on the field, Atlanta has as good a duo there as anyone in the NFL. They had a breaking-down Steven Jackson last year with no good options past him, but added rookie Devonta Freeman in this year's draft. He's an improved version of Jacquizz Rogers (and if I misspelled his name I'm sorry but he's now 3rd-string at best so who cares) and looked good in the preseason. Still, I see the Falcons going 6-10 or 7-9, finishing last.

Next, we have the Tampa Bay Bucs, who actually might have the most talented 45-man roster in the division except at one critical position - quarterback. Mike Glennon showed growing pains and struggled as a rookie, but showed some flashes of ability. The Bucs improved their coach above all, trading in a college-style autocrat that players hated with Lovie Smith, a guy who got fired in Chicago because 10-6 wasn't good enough! He brought an experienced QB in Josh McCown along with him. The defense is stout but they struggled offensively last season....so they went 100% offense in this year's draft, including Mike Evans at WR and TE Jenkins (because I don't want to look up the spelling of HIS name either) and trading with New England for proven guard Logan Mankins. So the Bucs improved their situation quite a bit, too. Still, it'll take some time for them to put things together and I'm actually glad to be facing them early rather than late as an away game. I see the Bucs finishing 7-9 to 9-7 this year.

Then, we have the New Orleans Saints. They improved themselves last year when they brought in the defensive coordinator I refer to as "the rock star," Rob Ryan, who transformed a dead-last defense into a top-five unit in a single season. Yes, they let RB Darren Sproles go to Philly, but drafted Brandin Cooks so that's a wash. If Marques Colston can stay healthy, he provides a target the same size of Kelvin Benjamin, but with the pinpoint accuracy of future first-ballot Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Kenny Stills is a second-year deep threat type of WR who had a nice 650 yards and 5 TDs as a rookie and should only improve. LT Terron Armstead has a year under his belt now too. It also appears that RB Mark Ingram is poised to finally have his breakout season (and it doesn't hurt it's his contract year) and if he doesn't, they always have Pierre Thomas to fall back on, not to mention reserve WRs Robert Meachem and Nick Toon. Oh - I forgot one other guy....some fella named Jummy Graham. I think he only got the job because he's Billy Graham's long-lost cousin, but as a tight end had a mere 1,200+ yards and sixteen touchdowns. With all of THAT in mind, I can't see the Saints finishing worse than about 11-5 and I am kinda "feelin' it" this year as far as their chances go. 11-5 is a floor, but 14-2 is their ceiling. 

Even with all the issues the Panthers have internally going into tomorrow's opening day games (Thursday night not considered), I think the defense will keep them competitive and when games are close, anything can happen. I just think it's going to be difficult for the Panthers to mount the four 4th-quarter comebacks that Cam led last year to get to that 12-4 record when they would have been 8-8 without any. 

Gettleman better make acquiring a serviceable pair of offensive tackles his priority for next season...just as he did with tackles on the defensive side last year.

If he can get a pair of those that turn out at their positions as well as Star and Kawann have so far, 2015 could be the Year of the Panther. For 2014 to be that, everything will have to perfectly fall into place and if there's one thing in life I've learned, things rarely go exactly as planned...and the NFC South has yet to have the same team win the division in consecutive seasons. History is not on our side.

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