This article is part of our Team Previews series.
In Cam Newton, Christian McCaffrey and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers boast three superstar talents. However, with Newton injured and Kuechly's defensive unit slipping last season, McCaffrey was the real standout. In order to return to the playoffs, Carolina will need better balance in 2019.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
CAN CAM SHOULDER ANOTHER OFFSEASON OF REHAB?
In his first season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Cam Newton tossed 15 touchdowns versus only four interceptions through the Panthers' opening eight games. The performance coincided with a 6-2 record, but as soreness in Newton's right throwing shoulder persisted, he was picked off at least once in each of the next six outings – all of them losses – eliminating the Panthers from playoff contention. At that point, he was shut down, ending the campaign with 3,395 yards and a 24:13 TD:INT. Despite the late-season struggles, he had his usual success on the ground (101 rushes for 488 yards and four scores) and posted the best completion percentage (67.9) of his career by a long shot, benefiting from Turner's tutelage. As they prepare for Year 2 together, Newton's offseason work will be restricted following arthroscopic surgery in January, which came less than two years after a rotator cuff procedure on the same shoulder. While Newton again should be ready for the regular-season opener, like in 2017, the Panthers added an insurance policy at quarterback, using a third-round selection on Will Grier. The team also may seek to limit Newton's carry count, making it difficult to get as excited about his stock as in seasons past, despite the seemingly strong fit in Turner's scheme.
RUN CMC: CAROLINA'S NEW HEADLINING ACT
Christian McCaffrey finished third in the NFL in touches and yards from scrimmage and in the top 10 in touchdowns in his first opportunity as the Panthers' clear-cut No. 1 running back. A dual-threat playmaker, he rushed 219 times for 1,098 yards (5.0 per carry) and seven touchdowns and caught 107 passes for 867 yards and six more scores. For good measure, he also tossed a 50-yard TD and played all 16 games, proving plenty durable in the feature role. By blossoming into one of the league's top-tier weapons, McCaffrey eased the burden on Cam Newton in Carolina's offense. McCaffrey will aim to do the same this year, when Newton will be returning from a second shoulder surgery and again have a somewhat spotty supporting cast. In light of a promising rookie season, D.J. Moore will try to emerge as a leading receiver ahead of shifty utility target Curtis Samuel and free-agent pickup Chris Hogan. Combined, though, the trio boasts one season of 45-plus catches. At tight end, three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen returns for what could be his swan song, and Ian Thomas holds potential after a 36-333-2 first-year line. With no other premier options at the skill positions, it's a good bet that Norv Turner leans heavily on McCaffrey for another marquee campaign. Hopefully for the Panthers, McCaffrey isn't the only show in town.
KUECHLY THE KEY AMID MORE CHANGES ON D
Upon entering the league in 2012, Luke Kuechly immediately was considered an elite linebacker and, in the process, transformed the Panthers defense into an upper-echelon unit. Between that year and 2017, Carolina was in the top 10 in yards per game every season except 2016, when he missed six games with a concussion. Last season, though, the group finished just 15th. While it hurt that Thomas Davis was suspended for the first four games, his departure and Julius Peppers' retirement leave Kuechly in charge of an altered cast. Shaq Thompson will fill Davis' role after recording a career-high 80 tackles in 2018, and rookie first-rounder Brian Burns offers athleticism off the edge to help ease the loss of Peppers. That said, the Panthers need to improve what traditionally has been a staunch run defense. Fortuitously, the solution may have been prompted by an NFC South foe. In a cost-cutting measure, the Buccaneers released tackle Gerald McCoy this offseason, and after exploring his options he inked a deal with the Panthers. McCoy and holdover Kawann Short present an intimidating pair in the trenches, allowing Mario Addison and offseason signing Bruce Irvin to focus mostly on pass rushing. With that hole plugged in the defense, Kuechly will look to maintain his career average of 9.3 tackles per game.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Christian McCaffrey
After yielding snaps to Jonathan Stewart during his rookie season, McCaffrey hardly left the field in 2018. McCaffrey placed 10th in carries and eighth in catches, comfortably leading all NFL running backs in the latter. By averaging 6.0 yards per touch, he matched quantity with quality, breaking out as an every-down threat.
RISING: D.J. Moore
A first-round pick of the 2018 draft, Moore trailed just Christian McCaffrey among teammates in catches, targets and yards. Moore enters his second season as the team's leading wideout, boosting his already-evident upside.
FALLING: Greg Olsen
Olsen made just 16 appearances over the past two seasons amid reoccurring foot problems. Even when healthy, though, the accomplished tight end averaged under three catches and only 30 yards per game in that span.
SLEEPER: Curtis Samuel
After being plagued by injuries as a rookie, Samuel's role grew last season, when he notched 578 yards from scrimmage and scored seven TDs. With more targets likely in 2019, he could display his speed even more.
KEY JOB BATTLE – WIDE RECEIVER DEPTH CHART
Although the Panthers boasted the best pass-catching tailback in the league last season, their stable of receivers is far less proven than Christian McCaffrey. The projected No. 1, D.J. Moore, enjoyed a solid rookie season, and likely second option Curtis Samuel also showed some sizzle. Behind them, however, Carolina's depth chart appears fluid. Veteran Jarius Wright does a decent job from the slot, and offseason signing Chris Hogan offers a bigger body on the outside, but there are also wideouts like Torrey Smith, Aldrick Robinson and Rashad Ross competing for pegging. Admittedly, McCaffrey, tight end Greg Olsen and the team's penchant for running could restrict complementary looks, but outside of Moore and Samuel, there could be some movement up and down the depth chart by the aforementioned options.
CHRIS HOGAN – WR (from Patriots)
Signed a one-year deal after consistent run as a complementary option.
GERALD McCOY – DT (from Buccaneers)
Comes over from a division rival to bouy the interior of the D-line.
BRIAN BURNS – DE (Rd. 1, No. 16 – Florida State)
Freak athlete to develop in the wake of Julius Peppers calling it quits.
WILL GRIER – QB (Rd. 3, No. 100 – West Virginia)
Rookie signal-caller is coming off a highly productive collegiate career.
DEVIN FUNCHESS – WR (to Colts)
Once-promising wideout didn't cut it as the team's top option.
THOMAS DAVIS – LB (to Chargers)
The franchise's all-time leader in tackles moved on after 14 seasons.
JULIUS PEPPERS – DE (retired)
Future Hall of Famer ended career with fourth-most sacks in NFL history.
RYAN KALIL – C (retired)
Five-time Pro Bowler played his entire 12-year career with the Panthers.
THE INJURY FRONT
Cam Newton, QB – After struggling through pain in his throwing shoulder, Newton was shut down for the final two weeks of last season. He subsequently had a January procedure to repair scar tissue stemming from his 2017 surgery on a torn rotator cuff. Despite two operations in such a short span, Newton resumed throwing in May and advanced to tosses of 20-25 yards in June minicamp. Although he'll likely have his usage monitored ahead of the regular season, Newton is still expected to be fully ready for training camp, offering a welcome relief to the Panthers.
Greg Olsen, TE – Having lasted just two games prior to fracturing his foot in the 2017 campaign, Olsen was eager to get back to his Pro Bowl-best last season. However, the veteran unfortunately went down with the same injury Week 1. Although he'd again return for several contests during the season's second half, Olsen underwhelmed with his overall production once more. The 34-year-old contemplated retirement this offseason but opted to return for a 13th term, ideally giving him another shot to resurface as a key contributor.
Shaq Thompson, LB – With the Panthers eliminated from the playoffs, Thompson was afforded the final two weeks of the season off to rest a shoulder injury. Despite those absences, he still finished with career highs in tackles (79) and sacks (3.5). That partially came thanks to fellow linebacker Thomas Davis being suspended for the first four games, but with Davis gone now, a fully healthy Thompson will move to the starting inside position next to Luke Kuechly for potentially even more improvement on the tackle front.