As the 2014 season gets ready to begin at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, today, I thought I would take a few moments to preview the coming season.
Coming off a highly successful 2013 season that saw the Panthers go 12-4 and win the NFC South title and make it to the Divisional Round of the 2013 playoffs, the Panthers made perhaps the biggest surprise move of the offseason, and upset a lot of Panthers fans (including this one), by releasing the Panthers' all-time leading wide receiver and 13-year Panther player, Steve Smith. Shortly thereafter, free agency began and all of the other three receivers that the Panthers utilized regularly in 2013 all left, leaving the Panthers with exactly zero receivers with a regular season reception in a Panthers uniform on their active roster. This has obviously been the hottest topic among Panther fans since March. Couple that with retirement of 13-year starter at left tackle, Jordan Gross, and you have the biggest question marks on the team coming into 2014.
Panthers GM David Gettleman did a pretty decent job of recovering some talent at the wide receiver position by signing former Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery and former Eagles receiver Jason Avant as well as Tiquan Underwood from Tampa Bay. Cotchery lead the Steelers in touchdown receptions last season with 10. He has 437 career receptions (source: NFL.com). Avant has promise, but has yet to show his true ability. He spent his first 8 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, and in Chip Kelly's fast-paced, pass-oriented offense last season only managed 38 receptions and just 2 touchdowns. Underwood is somewhat of a project but came into his own last season with the Bucs, with 24 catches through 12 games with 4 TDs.
By far the biggest (literally) of the additions to the wide receiving corps was the Panthers first round draft choice in this year's draft. Gettleman selected Florida State standout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with the 28th pick in the draft. Benjamin stands 6 foot 5 and weighs 240 pounds. He is as big as the man who will be throwing him the ball, Cam Newton! His size and strength make him a great weapon for Newton, who has trouble with delivering the ball too high. Look for Newton to quickly make Benjamin his new favorite target.
The offensive line is still a bit of a question mark. Going into training camp, Byron Bell, who started all 16 games last season at right tackle, is slated to start at the left tackle spot that Gross' retirement left vacant. Ryan Kalil will once again anchor the offensive line at center, but other than that, the competition is pretty much open, with Garry Williams, Amili Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila all returning from season-ending injuries that occurred early in the year last season. Nate Chandler has been converted from a defensive lineman and is expected to compete with Bell for the starting left tackle position. Add Chris Scott, Brian Folkerts and Andrew Macdonald to the list of returning linemen from last season, plus rookie third round choice Trai Turner out of LSU and you have what is expected to be the heart of the competition at offensive line during training camp. The Panthers just today also added former Steeler Fernando Velasco and former Titan Kevin Matthews to their roster. Velasco started 11 games for Pittsburgh last season before injuries sidelined him. Matthews is the son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews and has appeared in 17 games in three seasons.
Defensively, the Panthers look great! With the core nucleus of the front seven returning in its entirety from last season, led by All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Keuchly, arguably the best linebacker in football right now, along with Thomas Davis, Chase Blackburn and sack masters Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, the defense is primed for another fantastic season. Even the secondary is much improved, with the additions of former Falcons Pro Bowler Thomas DeCoud and former Saints star Roman Harper, along with Charles Godfrey, who will return from a season ending achilles injury last year to switch to cornerback this season. Josh Thomas and Josh Norman will return from injury, James Dockery is still there as well, along with last season's surprise standout Melvin White. No need to go any further with the defense here, it's good.
The Panthers will be relying heavily on Cam Newton this season, and coming off surgery on his ankle this offseason, that could be a dicey situation. The running game will rely more heavily on running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (who is finally healthy after an injury-plagued 2013) along with fullback Mike Tolbert for more production, at least during the early part of the season, until Newton regains confidence in his surgically repaired ankle. This is going to be key because, due to his surgery, Newton has had little to no time to develop a chemistry with his brand new wide receiving corps. That is going to slow down the passing attack. However, this team is resilient, as we discovered last season. So, don't count the Panthers out in 2014!