STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Heading into the 2013 season, a strong finish to the team's previous campaign was largely overshadowed by questions surrounding coach Ron Rivera's ability to win close games. Speculation regarding Rivera's job security heightened after the Panthers limped to a third consecutive 1-3 start to begin the season. Following their sluggish start, the Panthers responded with a franchise-record eight straight wins. The team's defense dominated the stretch, holding opponents to just 12.4 points per game during that span. The Panthers then took three of their remaining four games to finish 12-4.
Although Carolina lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the season proved wildly successful overall. Rivera led the team to a 5-0 record in November and December in games decided by a touchdown or less and was ultimately named the NFL's Coach of the Year. Anchoring the team's stout defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly was awarded the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Elsewhere, defensive end Greg Hardy tied the Panthers' single-season record with 15 sacks.
On offense, new coordinator Mike Shula installed a power running scheme that enabled the Panthers to rank fifth in time of possession. An elite dual-threat, Cam Newton passed for a career-high 24 touchdowns and led all quarterbacks in rushing yards (585). Along with Newton, running back DeAngelo Williams helped move the chains, while bulldozer fullback Mike Tolbert embodied the role of a red-zone weapon with seven touchdowns. Moreover, the presumed return to health of Jonathan Stewart should bolster the team's ground game this season.
During the offseason, the Panthers lost numerous key contributors to their turnaround effort. Pro-Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross retired and management opted to save money by releasing wideout Steve Smith, the franchise's most accomplished wideout. Additionally, fellow pass-catchers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn left as free agents and defensive backs Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn followed suit.
To fill the depleted receiving corps, Carolina signed veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, along with burner Tiquan Underwood. The Panthers also landed Kelvin Benjamin with their first-round selection. At press time, Newton was still recovering from a March 19 procedure to repair a nagging ankle issue, but he's expected to be ready for training camp.
On defense, safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud were added, and cornerback Antoine Cason joined the team's secondary as well. Finally, Carolina drafted former Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy in the second round to provide insurance behind Hardy, whose long-term future with the team is uncertain.
Jerricho Cotchery - WR, Steelers
The veteran is projected as a starter for Carolina after notching a career-high 10 touchdowns last season.
Tiquan Underwood - WR, Buccaneers
The speedster is coming off personal bests in yards (440) and touchdowns (four).
Thomas DeCoud - S, Falcons
The former Pro Bowler is two years removed from a six-interception season.
Kelvin Benjamin - WR, Florida State (Round 1, 28th Overall)
A huge wideout, who is expected to be a legitimate red-zone threat from Day 1.
Steve Smith - WR, Ravens
Released as Panthers' franchise leader in virtually all receiving categories.
Brandon LaFell - WR, Patriots
A possession receiver, who was formerly utilized as the team's third option in the passing game.
Ted Ginn - WR, Cardinals
Revived his career with 556 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season.
Captain Munnerlyn - CB, Vikings
The versatile cornerback tallied 74 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in 2013.
The above motto reflects the Panthers' philosophy of maintaining an offense heavily reliant on a backfield comprised of interchangeable runners. Leading the new age of mobile quarterbacks, Cam Newton has amassed 28 rushing touchdowns and over 2,000 yards on the ground through three seasons. More conventionally, Carolina rotates running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart as primary ball-carriers. While injuries that limited Stewart to just six games last season boosted Williams' fantasy stock, a healthy tandem figures to result in split touches this year. Fullback Mike Tolbert clears the path for whoever totes the rock and has also proven to be a lethal short-yardage option, evidenced by his combined total of 35 touchdowns over his past four seasons, including seven last year. Given the Panthers' lack of familiar receiving options, they could rely on pounding the ball even more this year, although the time-share caps each runner's potential.
While Carolina placed added emphasis on running the ball last season, a lack of playmaking receivers forced their hand to some degree. The once-explosive Steve Smith never topped 70 receiving yards in a single game, while Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn served as complementary receivers. Considering that dynamic, the Panthers retooled their stable of pass-catchers this offseason, albeit to underwhelming results. Jerricho Cotchery (who turned 32 on June 16) was signed from Pittsburgh after his 602 yards and 10 touchdowns last year marked his best campaign since 2008. Former Eagle Jason Avant and ex-Buccaneer Tiquan Underwood were added as well, but neither player topped 450 yards last season. Most notably, the Panthers selected promising 6-5, 241-pound wideout Kelvin Benjamin in the first round. As a redshirt sophomore at Florida State last season, Benjamin led the national champion Seminoles with 15 touchdown catches and averaged 18.7 yards per reception. Meanwhile, the team's tight end depth chart continues to be topped by Greg Olsen, who led the team with 73 catches in 2013.
A STRONG FRONT SEVEN
Finishing the season ranked first in rushing touchdowns allowed, second in rushing yards per game, second in total yards, second in scoring, and fourth in takeaways, the Panthers' defense was undoubtedly a team strength in 2013. Along with linebacker Luke Kuechly winning the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, Carolina's dominance begins with disruptive play from the team's defensive line. Opposite Pro-Bowler Greg Hardy at defensive end is Charles Johnson, who has averaged 11 sacks per game the past four seasons. Inside, the duo of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short made immediate impacts as rookie defensive tackles last season. Factor in a healthy Thomas Davis at linebacker and the Panthers boast arguably the league's best front seven.
Rising: Greg Olsen should remain Cam Newton's favorite target as Carolina weaves newcomers into the team's passing attack.
Declining: Jerricho Cotchery will be hard-pressed to match the red-zone output he provided Pittsburgh last year, en route to a career-high 10 touchdowns.
Sleeper: Kelvin Benjamin's size and athleticism give him considerable upside, although his skills need refining to increase his stock outside of the red zone.
Supersleeper: Tiquan Underwood's speed separates him from most of the Panthers' power-based offense, which could allow him to carve out enough of a role to improve on his numbers with the Bucs.
Luke Kuechly - LB
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year is one of fantasy football's top IDP options.
Greg Hardy - DE
A feared pass-rusher with potential for multiple sacks any given Sunday.
Thomas Davis - LB
Registered a career-high 123 tackles and four sacks alongside Kuechly last season.
RotoWire Rank: 2