This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The most optimistic observers couldn't have foreseen the Panthers' eight-game improvement to 15-1 last season, but that doesn't mean Carolina isn't the class of the NFC South. After three straight division crowns, their sights are on a bigger prize – the Vince Lombardi Trophy the team nearly earned in February.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
MOST VALUABLE PANTHER
Following a turbulent 2014 season that saw him not only miss the first two regular season games of his career, but also account for a career-low 23 total touchdowns, a fully healthy Cam Newton proved to be well worth the five-year, $103.8 million extension he signed prior to the 2015 campaign. Even without his injured No. 1 wideout for the entire season, he still passed for 3,837 yards, a career-best 35 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Additionally, the signal-caller amassed 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Staggeringly, Newton finished just one touchdown shy of the league-lead in both passing and rushing touchdowns. In doing so, he improbably willed the Panthers to a league-high 500 points scored and league-best 15-1 regular season record. Now with an MVP award to behold as well, Newton clearly ranks among the top-tier fantasy quarterback options ahead of this season, when he should enjoy playing in coordinator Mike Shula's offense with a supporting cast that's virtually unchanged across the board for the first time in Newton's illustrious six-year career.
FAMILIAR FACES IN IMPORTANT PLACES
In both of the two years prior to this offseason, the Panthers' salary cap situation forced difficult and unpopular roster moves, as franchise-leading receiver Steve Smith's release in 2014 was followed by that of franchise-leading rusher DeAngelo Williams in 2015. However, no key subtractions mar Carolina's offense heading into this season. In fact, the Panthers will actually welcome back No. 1 WR Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns during a fantastic 2014 rookie campaign. With Benjamin out last year, fellow receiver Ted Ginn marked his return to Carolina with a career-best 10 touchdown grabs. Meanwhile, TE Greg Olsen posted his second straight 1,000-plus yard season, and RB Jonathan Stewart had his best season since 2009 behind a surprisingly impressive offensive line. Stewart's late-season foot injury has lingered into the offseason program, but with each key chess piece back on the board, the Panthers' offense is stocked with talent that's been groomed together to fulfill a ground-and-pound philosophy.
PRESSURE TO REPLACE NORMAN
While the Panthers' offense enters the upcoming season with heightened expectations, their defense has been one of the NFL's most feared units for some time. Indeed, since drafting All-Pro MLB Luke Kuechly in 2012, Carolina has finished in the top 10 in total defense every season. He's arguably the league's best all-around player at his position, but running mate Thomas Davis picked up the slack in Kuechly's three-game injury absence last season, compiling 105 tackles and career-highs in sacks (5.5) and interceptions (four). Along with Davis, fourth-year DT Kawann Short earned his first Pro Bowl nod last year thanks to 55 tackles and 11 sacks. While Short's breakout helped compensate for production lost elsewhere on Carolina's defensive line, coordinator Sean McDermott will be tasked with replacing All-Pro CB Josh Norman this fall. Instead of paying the five-year, $75 million contract Norman eventually signed with Washington, the Panthers spent three draft picks on cornerbacks, banking on their playmakers in the front seven to continue fueling a successful defense.
KEY JOB BATTLE
After seven NFL campaigns, Jonathan Stewart finally became the Panthers' clear-cut No. 1 running back last season and finished with his best numbers since 2009. However, for someone that's missed 23 games over the past four seasons, the aging Stewart's enduring foot soreness is somewhat concerning entering 2016. As a result, the eventual winner of the Panthers' second-string tailback job could prove fruitful to fantasy owners. Although Carolina's run-based offense includes a decent dosage of quarterback Cam Newton and fullback Mike Tolbert, particularly around the goal line, second-year runner Cameron Artis-Payne and veteran Fozzy Whittaker are next in line behind Stewart, and could be keen to capitalize should an opportunity for added touches present itself.
The Panthers came just short of winning the Super Bowl last season, but their undisputed leader, Newton, took home the NFL's highest individual honor by being named MVP. Arguably the most gifted athlete to ever play quarterback, his dual-threat ability has seen him average 32 total touchdowns per season since entering the league in 2011.
RISING: Kelvin Benjamin
After missing the entirety of last season, Benjamin will be eager to resume his career and build on a superb rookie campaign. A massive target, Benjamin projects as the Panthers' No. 1 wideout once fully healthy.
FALLING: Ted Ginn
Ginn caught 10 touchdowns in Benjamin's absence, and although his speed is unique among Panthers receivers, it's unlikely the 31-year-old will approach such production with Benjamin back this season.
SLEEPER: Kony Ealy
With three sacks, one forced fumble and one interception in the Super Bowl, Ealy flashed the skills to make up for declining teammate Charles Johnson in his quest to become the Panthers' next great edge rusher.
THE INJURY FRONT
Kelvin Benjamin, WR – After tearing his left ACL last preseason, Benjamin was limited through OTAs and minicamp this summer but is fully expected to be ready for Week 1. In order to keep the wideout on course for full health by Week 1, the Panthers could very well handle him with care in training camp and exhibition season.
Luke Kuechly, LB – Carolina's All-Pro linebacker underwent surgery to repair a torn left labrum in February, but only after he played three playoff games with the injury, recording 29 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery and two pick-sixes along the way. Despite the offseason procedure, the ultra-productive Kuechly is expected to be fine for training camp.
Jonathan Stewart, RB – The Panthers' starting running back missed the final three regular season games last year after spraining his left foot, which he aggravated during Carolina's Super Bowl loss. Discomfort in the foot has followed him throughout the offseason, capping the 29-year-old Stewart's reps during OTAs and making him a player to monitor ahead of this season.
Luke Kuechly, LB – Arguably the most renowned linebacker in the NFL, Kuechly missed the first three games of his career in 2015 but still averaged over nine tackles per contest and intercepted four passes in the regular season.
Thomas Davis, LB – Kuechly's partner in crime, Davis earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season, which was warranted as the only player to record at least 100 tackles, five sacks, four interceptions and four forced fumbles. At 33 years old, Davis seemingly has plenty left in the tank.
Kawann Short, DT – A second-round pick in 2013, Short burst onto the scene last year, finishing with 55 tackles, 11 sacks and three forced fumbles. While that output earned Short a Pro Bowl honor, he enters this season as the Panthers' best defensive lineman.
PAUL SOLIAI – DT (from Falcons)
Depth signing started 24 games for rival Falcons the past two seasons.
VERNON BUTLER – DT (Rd. 1, No. 31 – Louisiana Tech)
Small school product makes imposing defensive line even bigger.
JAMES BRADBERRY – CB (Rd. 2, No. 62 – Samford)
Faces leap in competition level but boasts enticing physical tools.
DARYL WORLEY – CB (Rd. 3, No. 77 – West Virginia)
Another big, rangy cornerback to fit preferred coverage scheme.
KEYARRIS GARRETT – WR (Undrafted – Tulsa)
Big-bodied target led college football in receiving yards last season.
Josh Norman – CB (to Redskins)
All-Pro ball hawk suddenly set free after long-term contract dispute.
JARED ALLEN – DE (retired)
Former Pro Bowler leaves league after clear drop-off in production.
CHARLES TILLMAN – CB (FA)
Injury-plagued recent campaigns signaling end of excellent career.