If you would’ve told me in 2013 that the Panthers would go 12-4 AND that would include an 8 game winning streak I would’ve questioned your sanity. It looks like I was the crazy one after my 10-6 prediction. But even Panther fans had to admit last year surpassed their expectations.
Last year’s success was driven by a dynamic offense and a suffocating defense. This offense once again starts with the 6’5”, 245lb QB from Auburn-Cam Newton. They improved this year’s receiving core by…letting their best receivers leave and taking on a Jets and Steelers reject, an NFL AARP possession receiver and Tiquan Underwood whose haircut alone should keep him on the bench. (Insert confused Scooby Doo sound effect here) In order for this offense to stay on pace Cam will really have to be Superman and 1st round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin will have to play just as big as his 6’3” frame. They do possess one of the most overlooked TE in the league in Greg Olson. While Cam recovers from ankle surgery the Panthers 2 headed running game will also have to step up.
The Panthers defense lost a couple of good vets in CB Captain Munnerlyn and S Mike Mitchell but brought in great replacements in ball hawk CB Antoine Cason and heady veteran S Roman Harper. Up front they have a relentless pass rusher in Greg Hardy who’s coming off an incredible 15 sack season. Bookend DE Charles Johnson was no slouch with an 11 sack season and that line is really beefy in the middle at DT. The heart and soul of this team is in their linebacker core. When speaking about that core you have to start with the man in the middle Luke Kuechly. He has everything you could want in a linebacker-great technique, great at run/pass keys, 4.58 speed and a sure tackler. Standing next to him is Thomas Davis who’s shown resiliency by coming back from 3 ACL surgeries and playing probably the best football of his career. Flashing the same speed-if not faster than Kuechly he’s a definitive playmaker on this squad. There’s no wonder why this defense ranked 2nd last year. So what’s in store for 2014?
Offense: First and foremost Cam has to get healthy. A healthy Cam brings a dual threat that is second to none but he has to get healthy. The X factor is this receiving core. If Benjamin benefits from the tutelage of veterans Cotchery and Avant he can be Cam’s main threat. Cotchery and Avant can round out this crew and make them formidable…but let’s be honest-we’re all not sure how much either receiver has left in the tank and you can’t lose a true #1 receiver like Steve Smith and not take a step backwards. And they will. Olsen will continue to be reliable and the running game will be solid.
Defense: The linebacker core will be just as solid and with the additions of Cason and Mitchell the defense shouldn’t miss a step…at least while the WHOLE defense is on the field. That brings me to Hardy. Goodell has yet to hand down the suspension for him and after the NFL completely flubbed the Ray Rice suspension I think Goodell will be heavy handed with Hardy. In reading the gory details of this case-I think it could be a long (and well deserved) suspension. I do expect his lawyer to appeal the suspension so he may be on the field initially but when that suspension kicks in expect to see second round pick Kony Ealy on the field. That front 7 and back end is so good that they should still rank top 5.
With the offense still in question and a defense that should still be dominant, the Panthers should still be in contention for second in the division.
Season Record Prediction: 9-7
Make sure you let Jesse know how you feel about the prediction. You can let him know on twitter @jpsportsruckus
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