CHARLOTTE, NC – The 2014 NFL season is just about upon us. The season kicks off Thursday night right here on NBC Charlotte, when the Green Bay Packers take on the Seattle Seahawks. Both are teams the Carolina Panthers will play later this year. The Panthers are coming off a 12-4 campaign a year ago and an NFC South Division Title. That's the good news. The bad news, Carolina hasn't been to the playoffs in back-to-back years during their 20-year existence, not to mention all of the changes to the roster this past offseason. Let's take a look at some of those new faces.
Welcome: Kelvin Benjamin, (2014 Draft Pick) Jericho Cotchery (Free Agent), Jason Avant (Free Agent), Brenton Bersin, (Spent 2013 on the Practice Squad), Philly Brown, ( Undrafted Free Agent)
Good Bye: Mr. Panther: AKA: Steve Smith (Baltimore), Brandon LaFell (New England), Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona), Domenik Hixon (Retired)
Benjamin has the potential to be in the Rookie of the Year discussion and a mainstay in the Panthers offense for years to come. The biggest question mark is whether Cotchery, Avant and others are seen as big enough threats, that teams won't use double coverage against Benjamin. I truly believe Benjamin will make fans forget about "Smitty" over time.
Ray of Sunshine:
Cotchery is coming off a 2013 season in Pittsburgh that saw him catch 10 touchdown passes.
A Few of the New Guys: Antoine Cason (CB- Arizona), Thomas DeCoud (S – Atlanta), Roman Harper (S-New Orleans) Bene Benwikere (CB – Rookie Draft Pick)
Key Losses: Mike Mitchell (S – Pittsburgh), Captain Munnerlyn (CB – Minnesota)
Can the Legion of Whom, 2.0 match the productivity of their predecessors from a year ago and help the Panthers be even better than that number two overall defensive ranking in 2013?
On Second Thought:
How does Charles Godfrey recover from an achillies injury and how effective will he be at his new position that he hasn't played since his days in the Big 10? That position: Cornerback.
Ray of Sunshine:
The Panthers return their entire defensive line, including Defensive Ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Both have been plagued by injuries throughout training camp, but appear to be healthy as we approach Sunday. The Panthers used their second round pick on Kony Ealy too. Ealy adds depth to the unit and insurance in the event something happens to Hardy or Johnson. Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have a year of experience under their belts and will only get better with age. Linebacker Luke Kuechly went from NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year to NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his first two seasons, how does he top those honors in year 3?? Dare I say, Super Bowl MVP?
2014 Carolina Panthers Schedule:
Biggest question mark with this unit moving forward, can Byron Bell make the switch from the right side to the left successfully and keep Cam from getting clobbered? Bell struggled at times protecting his quarterback one year ago. Nate Chandler, a converted defensive tackle is being asked to take over on the right side of the offensive line. Chandler's shown some promise, but does he have enough experience??
Ray of Sunshine:
Ryan Kalil is back again at Center and Amini Silatolu is healthy, following a knee injury that forced him to miss the final couple months last year. The Panthers also drafted Trai Turner. Turner played his college ball in the SEC at LSU and his head coach, Ron Rivera likes Turner's maturity, considering he's just 21 years old.
So what keeps the Panthers out of the playoffs ??
Cam Newton is playing on a surgically repaired ankle and then suffered a rib injury in the Panthers third preseason game at New England. He's been knocked down or sacked 467 times in his first 3 seasons in the league. Running Back Jonathan Stewart has performed well during the preseason, but he too has had durability issues over the past few years. Stewart has missed more than half of the games Carolina's played during that time period, due to various leg and ankle injuries.
Because Cam had offseason ankle surgery, he missed OTAs and most of minicamp and is still building a rapport with his new receivers. Defensively, can a revamped secondary continue the level of play that was established by last year's group? Can the Panthers as a team, continue the momentum they built from that playoff appearance from a year ago with a new group of players?
The Panthers have it a little easier through the first four weeks, before that first place schedule gets more difficult, especially when the calendar turns to October. Carolina has to avoid a slow start and in my opinion, needs to win 3 of its first 4 to be in the playoff discussion come November.
So why will they make the playoffs?
Cam to Kelvin:
Even though their time on the field has been limited, Cam Newton has taken Kelvin Benjamin under his wing and the Bro-mance between the two seems to get stronger as the days and weeks go by. These two like each other and it shows on the field when they're both there at the same time. Benjamin's size, catch radius and hands give him the potential to be a true number one receiver in the league.
A nickname given to the Panthers defensive line, they are collectively one of the best units in the entire NFL. Greg Hardy is coming off a 15 sack season and a Pro Bowl appearance. He's also playing for a new contract in 2015 and playing to re-establish his reputation after offseason legal issues.
This group, combined with a linebacker core anchored by Kuechly and Thomas Davis, gives Carolina the potential to have one of the best overall defenses in the league for a second straight season.
Several things broke the Panthers way in 2013. With a more difficult schedule, an improved NFC South and several questions still left unanswered heading into week one, the Panthers will need a little luck to build off of last year's playoff run.
Carolina wins 8-9 games and barely misses the playoffs. When you look at the NFC, there are just too many good teams. Arizona was a prime example in a loaded NFC West last year. The Cardinals finished 10-6 in 2013 and didn't make it into the postseason. I could see a similar fate for the 2014 Panthers. If they win 9-10, they'll be looking at a wildcard and franchise history, back to back playoff appearances.