As the NFL enters its dead period between the end of mandatory mini camps and the start of training camp, the Panthers and their fans hope the team can rebound from a disappointing 6-10 season. Let’s look at the best and worst-case scenarios for this season. Here are three reasons why the Panthers will make the playoffs, and three reasons why they won’t.
Why the Carolina Panthers Will Make the Playoffs This Year:
- Cam Newton returns to MVP form.
Just about every aspect of the 2016 Carolina Panthers was extremely disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments was the play of franchise quarterback Cam Newton, who was coming off a magical 2015 MVP winning season in which he led the 15-1 Panthers to their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Newton does not deserve all of the blame for his 2016 struggles. The offensive line provided little protection for the quarterback all season long, allowing Newton little time in the pocket and leading to him taking far too many hits. Newton does deserve some of the blame, however. Every statistical category for Newton regressed from 2015 to 2016, but none more than the difference in touchdowns. In 2015, Newton threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10 more. In 2016, he only had 19 passing and 5 rushing touchdowns.
If Cam Newton can return to his 2015 form, or anything close to it, the team’s offense should flourish. With new rookie weapons Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, as well as additions to the offensive line, Newton has all he needs to improve on his underwhelming 2016 season and lead the Panthers to the playoffs.
- James Bradberry takes the next step in his development.
No position was more of a disaster for the 2016 Carolina Panthers than cornerback, which sorely missed former All-Pro Josh Norman. Three rookies, James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, and Zack Sanchez all dealt with injuries and the typical rookie struggles last year. The most impressive of the three, and graded as the top rookie cornerback last year by Pro Football Focus, was James Bradberry. Bradberry looks like he has a floor of being a solid starting cornerback, but his potential can take him even further. If Bradberry takes the next step in his development and becomes the lockdown cornerback this team desperately needs, the Panthers will improve their pass defense enough to make the playoffs.
- Christian McCaffrey is the real deal.
Run CMC landed in Carolina’s lap with the eighth pick in the draft. While some felt this was a reach, labeling the explosive running back as a mere “scat back,” others felt the versatility McCaffrey brings makes him more valuable than any ordinary running back. One thing is for sure… there will be lofty expectations on the Stanford alum.
If Christian McCaffrey can live up to his billing, and give the Panthers offense the spark they lacked last season, then this team could certainly make the playoffs. Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula is creative and innovative enough to get the most out of McCaffrey, drawing up plays that use him in the backfield, in the slot, or even out wide. Don’t forget that McCaffrey was also one of the most electric returners in college football the past few years too. The versatility he brings gives him the potential to transform the Panthers offense. If McCaffrey can make a big enough impact this year to be in the running for offensive rookie of the year, then you can count on the Panthers making the playoffs.
Why the Carolina Panthers Will Miss the Playoffs Again:
- The offensive rookies disappoint.
The expectations for Carolina’s first two picks in April’s Draft are lofty. Both running backs Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver/running back Curtis Samuel are expected to help take some of the load off of Cam Newton’s shoulders for this offense. They are expected to inject this offense with the explosiveness and big plays that it lacked in 2016. Can they deliver on these expectations?
Neither player comes with any great size, so durability when it comes to taking hits from NFL defenders all season long is a valid concern. Don’t expect McCaffrey to be running between the tackles on 3rd and 1 or Samuel to be going for a jump ball in the back corner of the end zone…they have Jonathan Stewart and Kelvin Benjamin for that. The idea will be to get the ball to both McCaffrey and Samuel in open space. If these two offensive rookies cannot live up to their billing as electric big play threats or if they are not durable enough to last a whole 16 game season without getting injured, then Cam Newton will once again have to do it all to make anything happen on offense. If that is the case, as we saw in 2016, don’t get your hopes up for a playoff run.
- The offensive line continues to struggle.
Last year, quarterback Cam Newton was forced to extend plays and take far too many big hits due to the poor play of the offensive line. Michael Oher suffered a concussion against the Vikings in the third game of the season, and it left the offensive line in disarray. Mike Remmers struggled to replace Oher at left tackle, while right tackle was just as much of a disaster. The season-long inconsistent play of Daryl Williams on the right side forced starting right guard Trai Turner to kick out to tackle, where he also struggled.
Michael Oher is still suffering from post-concussion syndrome with headaches, and he does not appear to be in the team’s plans going forward. The Panthers signed former Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, to a hefty five-year $55.5 million deal that includes $25 million guaranteed. Kalil is expected to replace Oher at left tackle, two spots over from his older brother, veteran center Ryan Kalil. This was one of the riskiest signings in the league this offseason. The Panthers gave a massive contract to a player who has struggled with knee injuries and inconsistent play after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie. There is a reason Minnesota let their former fourth overall pick walk in free agency.
If the Matt Kalil signing turns out to be a bust, and the offensive line continues their struggles from 2016, then don’t count on this team making the playoffs in 2017.
- Lack of depth at linebacker.
The Carolina Panthers have one of the best trios of starting linebackers in the league with Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, and Shaq Thompson. These three are by far the strength of this defense, but the problem lies behind them on the depth chart. Ben Jacobs, David Mayo, Jeremy Cash, Jared Norris and undrafted rookie Ben Boulware (yes, the Clemson player that grabbed other players’ butts) are all inexperienced. None of them have a single career start on their resume. Concussions have been an issue for Luke Kuechly over the past two seasons and this team cannot afford any injuries to their three star linebackers. The lack of depth at this position is worrisome. If Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, or Shaq Thompson miss any significant time to injury this season, you can likely kiss the playoffs goodbye.