2014 CAROLINA PANTHERS FOOTBALL PREVIEW
July 1, 2014INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
2014 Carolina Panthers football preview
HEAD COACH: RON RIVERA
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: MIKE SHULA
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: SEAN McDERMOTT
TOTAL OFFENSE: 316.8
DEFENSE PPG: 15.1
TOTAL OFFENSE: 301.2
TURNOVER MARGIN: +11
The Carolina Panthers and showed steady improvement over the last four years winning only two games in 2010, six in 2011 seven and 2012 and then surprising a lot of people by winning 12 games and reaching the playoffs for the first time in five years in 2013. If Carolina is to duplicate what they did last season everything will have to fall in place as it did a year ago. The Panthers were able to hide their secondary weaknesses with a dominating strong front seven. Winning 12 games with this secondary was a miracle. But when you have a quarterback like Cam Newton all things can be possible. Two players that will be missed will be receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross.
When you talk about the Carolina Panthers it all starts with Cam Newton after coming off a career-high in touchdown passes (24), completion percentage (61.7) and passer rating (88.8). Newton matured a lot in 2013 leading the Panthers to four come-from-behind victories. He should be ready for training camp despite having off-season ankle surgery in March. Newton is also very effective running the football and the Panthers will still allow him to run up to eight times per game but they would rather have him throw the ball downfield instead of taking off. One really big concern will be who Newton will throw to after losing his top four receivers in the off-season. Right now, the Panthers don’t have what would be considered a number one receiver despite drafting Kelvin Benjamin out of Florida State with her number one selection in the draft. Benjamin has good size at 6-5 and will definitely be a threat at the goal line. Joining Benjamin will be Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood and Jason Avant. Newton’s favorite target will be as tight end Greg Olson who is one of the better pass catchers in the NFL. Still losing receiver Steve Smith who holds virtually every team receiving record will be difficult to overcome.
There are many question marks in the offensive line as well with the loss of Jordan Gross who retired. Byron Bell will move from right tackle to left tackle but he may not be quick enough to handle that position. Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will have to be a head coach on the line helping many of the younger players adjust to the NFL game. Rookie Trai Turner should get the starting right guard and right tackle Nate Chandler is a former defensive lineman, who may struggle, but is a good athlete.
Carolina loves to run the football and will do so behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The question is with Williams and Stuart aging how many carries can they get per game and still stay healthy. Mike Tolbert will also see some carries in 2014. Carolina drafted Stanford fullback Tyler Gaffney in the sixth round and is considered an insurance policy in case they see injuries to Williams, Stuart or Gaffney.
Carolina’s defense ranked second in the NFL in total defense, rushing defense and scoring. They were also number one in the NFL in sacks and sixth in turnover differential. The NFL’s defensive player of the year linebacker Luke Kuechly returns to anchor the Panthers defense along with defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Carolina used to their franchise tag on Hardy to make sure he didn’t sign elsewhere. Hardy had 15 sacks last year Johnson finished with 11 sacks. Making the defense even stronger, Carolina drafted Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy who is another effective pass rusher. Also upfront will be former Purdue defensive tackle's Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei. Making the front deeper will be Colin Cole, Dwan Edwards and Mario Addison.
Joining Kuechly will be strong side linebacker Thomas Davis, weak side linebacker Chase Blackburn and upcoming linebacker AJ Klein. Blackburn is more of a run stopper and Davis came back strong from three ACL surgeries to play some of his best football.
The secondary found a way to get 20 interceptions in 2013 which was fifth best in the NFL. This year the secondary has been revamped and will count on veterans Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud to have a couple of good years left in them. Cornerback Melvyn White was signed last year and corner Antoine Cason was signed as a free agent this season. Charles Godfrey will be making the switch from safety to cornerback.
With Carolina’s defense they should be in every game this season. The Panthers still have two major issues including the O-Line and loss of so many good receivers. The secondary will have to be at its best when they take on quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. On paper it appears the Panthers have taken a step back since last year’s playoff loss to the 49ers.
CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers are ready for primetime.
Round 1, 28th overall
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
After three years, the Panthers finally invested a top draft pick in a weapon for quarterback Cam Newton. Kelvin Benjamin is a massive gamble, but at the end of the first round, he’s well worth the risk because he has the highest ceiling of any wide receiver in this year’s draft.
Many have called Benjamin a "raw" wide receiver, but I’m not sure that’s the best word to describe him. Although Benjamin occasionally struggled with bad drops, poor route running and lazy run blocking, it’s important to keep in mind that this was not due to a lack of proper technique or skill -- rather, it was lack of consistency.
Now it’ll be up to receivers coach Ricky Proehl to help Benjamin work on his consistency by giving him the coaching and development he needs, and Benjamin himself to work hard so he can make the most of his rare physical talents.
Round 2, 60th overall
Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri
The Panthers might have gotten the steal of the draft in Kony Ealy after they selected him at 60 overall. Despite offensive tackle being a much bigger need than defensive end, the Panthers stuck to their BPA philosophy and took Ealy, a player they had a first round grade on, according to Panthers GM Dave Gettleman.
Ealy will be able to make an immediate impact because of his ability to play both defensive end and defensive tackle. This pick also makes a lot of sense for the future because it’s important to remember that Greg Hardy is playing on a one year franchise tag, and it’s uncertain if the Panthers can agree to a long-term contract with him after the 2014 season. Charles Johnson also carries a steadily increasing high cap figure, so it’s not too unlikely that he becomes a cap casualty in the upcoming future.
You can never have too many pass rushers, and the Panthers got the second best 4-3 defensive end in the entire draft at the end of the second round. This is as close as it gets to a home-run selection.
Round 3, 92nd overall
Trai Turner, OG, LSU
The Panthers got another potential "steal" when they selected LSU guard Trai Turner in the third round of the draft. Several draft analysts actually think that if Turner stayed at LSU for another year, he could have been a first round selection in 2015. Instead, Turner declared early and his raw skill-set caused him to fall to the third round in the Draft.
Despite not having the most polished technique, Turner has elite athleticism, as he posted the best 40-yard dash, 10-yard split and 20-yard shuttle times of all the guards at the combine. Turner will immediately compete at right guard on the Panthers offensive line, and is currently the favorite to win the job. Once again, this is an excellent value pick at the end of the third round.
Round 4, 128th overall
Tre Boston, SAF, North Carolina
The third day of the draft is for filling out the depth chart, and Gettleman did just that by taking Tre Boston of North Carolina. Boston doesn’t have elite athleticism or the most polished technique, but he’s good enough in several areas to be a valuable depth player in the Panthers secondary as a rookie.
Boston is a low risk, medium reward player. Not the worst selection in the fourth round, but probably not the best either.
Round 5, 148th overall (from Minnesota via trade up)
Bene Benwikere, CB, San Jose State
The Panthers made a surprising decision to trade up and get "their guy", in this case a completely under-the-radar small school cornerback. Coach Ron Rivera and defensive backs coach Steve Wilks secretly worked out Benwikere before the draft, and it’s clear that they liked Benwikere enough to justify using a fifth and seventh round pick on him. Benwikere isn’t the biggest or fastest cornerback, but in many ways he’s similar to Melvin White as a read and react zone cornerback who can play the ball in the air.
Benwikere will compete for the slot cornerback role in the Panthers defense. Even if he doesn’t win the job as a rookie, he’ll still be solid depth at one of the weakest positions on the Panthers roster.
Round 6, 204th overall
Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
That’s right, the Panthers added another running back to their roster. It almost wouldn’t be a Panthers draft without one. Gaffney has gotten some comparisons to Boston College running back Andre Williams, a player many fans wanted in the fourth round.
However, the Panthers already have three running backs and Mike Tolbert, which means Gaffney will likely not see the field at all as a rookie. It’s not even guaranteed he’ll make the roster, which is why I felt like this pick could have been better used on a late round offensive tackle, a position the Panthers have very little depth at.
It’s hard to really love this draft, but it’s also hard to hate it. The Panthers got two potential steals in Ealy and Turner, and took a well-calculated gamble on Kelvin Benjamin, and added depth in the secondary and at running back on the third day. However, I question the the Panthers decision to pass on an offensive tackle, their greatest position of need.
Overall Draft Grade: B