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2018 Team Report: Carolina Panthers

Offensive Philosophy

The 2018 season will introduce longtime offensive NFL disciple, Norv Turner as offensive coordinator for the Panthers. Turner's offensive philosophy with past teams has been to employ a strong running game with a down field passing attack that heavily involves an athletic tight end and running backs who are above average receivers. Carolina's offensive personnel which includes Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, C.J. Anderson, Christian McCaffrey and newly handpicked receiver D.J. Moore, fits Turner's game plan to a tee. Anderson will step in and replace the departed Jonathan Stewart. Like Stewart, Anderson will move the pile and find success in goal line and short-yardage situations. The addition of Anderson moves Cameron Artis-Payne to more of a complementary role as well as depth at the position. The offensive line will need to keep Newton upright, especially for deep passing routes that require an extra second or two of protection. Carolina lost veteran All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell to Jacksonville in free agency and did not specifically address his replacement in the offseason or draft. This deficiency could potentially be a concern to a team that finished fourth in rushing yards (131.4 yards per game) in 2017.

Quarterbacks

Starter: Cam Newton
Backup(s): Taylor Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert, Kyle Allen [R]

Starting QB: Last season, Cam Newton entered 2017 after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. It took him a few weeks to iron out the rust and get his shoulder in game day shape, and he finished as the number three fantasy quarterback behind Russell Wilson and Tom Brady. His finish in the Top 3 was largely due to a career-high 139 rushes and 754 yards, but also an improvement from 52.9% completion rate to 59.1%. The addition of sure-handed weapon Christian McCaffrey and his 80 receptions, most of which were within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, was a key factor in Newton's improved completion percentage. Newton started all 16 games including a playoff road game at New Orleans. Despite being the most hit quarterback in the league, his size, strength, and elusiveness make him one of the most durable as well. Newton enters 2018 healthy with the responsibility of learning Norv Turner's offense. In addition to having veteran tight end, Greg Olsen back from a foot injury that allowed him to play in only seven games last season, Newton will have a new weapon in rookie receiver and first round pick, D.J. Moore. Moore is the athletic receiver Turner needed to complete Carolina's offensive attack. Moore's impressive run after the catch ability gives Carolina multiple receiving options for different types of routes and pass plays. Turner's offense should be an improvement over long time coordinator Mike Shula's conservative approach. Look for more down field passes from Newton in 2018 with higher percentage throws underneath to his teammates Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel. In seven seasons, Newton has finished in the fantasy Top 5 four times with five Top 6 finishes. He is expected to be among the Top 8 quarterbacks drafted in upcoming fantasy drafts.

Backup QB: The Panthers long-time backup quarterback, Derek Anderson is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, however he has not received much interest from other teams. It is possible that he will re-sign with Carolina to fill the same role again in 2018. If Anderson is not re-signed, Carolina has a few options at their disposal starting with Taylor Heinicke who is Old Dominion's all-time leading passer. He landed in Minnesota as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2015. He spent two seasons with the Vikings and was waived/injured before the start of the 2017 regular season. Heinicke has a connection with Norv Turner and already is familiar with his offense. Garrett Gilbert and undrafted rookie free agent, Kyle Allen round out the quarterbacks on the roster. Gilbert (26) was drafted by the St.Louis Rams in 2014 and then appeared with New England before landing on Carolina. He has no regular season experience to date. Outside of Anderson, the current Panthers backup quarterback position behind Cam Newton, is inexperienced and unknown.

Running Backs

Starter: Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson
Backup(s): Cameron Artis-Payne, Elijah Hood, Kenyon Barner
Fullback(s): Alex Armah

Starting RB: The Panthers rushing lineup consists of 27-year old veteran C.J. Anderson, second-year pro, Christian McCaffrey with Cameron Artis-Payne and Fozzy Whittaker filling out the depth. The Panthers elected not to pursue a replacement for Jonathan Stewart in the draft and instead waited for C.J. Anderson to come available. Anderson signed a one-year deal with Carolina in May and is expected to play the Jonathan Stewart role sharing duties with the multi-talented McCaffrey. The Stanford standout excelled in the passing game with 80 catches in his rookie season, however he had just 117 carries averaging 3.7 yards per carry, yielding only 435 yards rushing. McCaffrey has bulked up over the offseason and could see an increase in carries compared to last year, but like Stewart, the majority of the team's rushes should belong to Anderson.

Backup RBs: Cameron Artis-Payne and Elijah Hood make up the Panthers backup running backs behind C.J. Anderson and Christian McCaffrey. Fozzy Whittaker suffered a torn ACL in a non-contact drill in May and was placed on Injured Reserve. Hood, who grew up in Charlotte, is expected to rise up the depth charts in his absence. Artis-Payne has shown flashes of solid play in the past, but ball security has been a concern. Head Coach Ron Rivera indicated in the offseason that he would like to get Artis-Payne more involved in the ground game in 2018. The 27-year-old back is entering his fourth season and has only 99 career rushes for 422 yards (4.3 yards per carry) with 4 touchdowns. Artis-Payne has limited fantasy promise unless an injury opens up an opportunity.

Fullback: Alex Armah is entering his second year in the league. He played in nine games last season but did not record a rush, target or reception. His involvement could change in Norv Turner's offense, but his presence has primarily been as a blocking back.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Devin Funchess, D.J. Moore [R]
Backups: Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright, Curtis Samuel, Damiere Byrd, Fred Ross, Austin Duke, Mose Frazier

Starting WRs: Devin Funchess evolved into the Panthers main down field receiving threat in 2017 thanks to the trade of Kelvin Benjamin after Week 8 last season. The loss of Greg Olsen (foot injury) also led to more involvement in the Carolina passing game. Funchess finished with 63 receptions for 840 yards and 8 touchdowns, which ultimately resulted in a Top 20 fantasy finish. His experience and success in 2017 will help him become a better all-around player, but the additions of Torrey Smith via trade, and the first round selection of D.J. Moore could spell a decrease in production in 2018. Moore could project to be a Week 1 starter and could supplant Funchess as the team's primary wide receiver option. Moore is best known for his tenacious run after the catch ability and unwillingness to go down on the first contact. He has also shown the ability to make plays in traffic and be a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. Such a receiver has not been on the Panthers roster since Steve Smith. There may be a grace period where Moore learns the ropes of being a reliable, effective receiver at the next level, but there is definitely potential for him to excel and be a key piece the Panthers offense.

Backup WRs: Torrey Smith was brought in to be a consistent receiving option with the hope that his speed will allow him to perform in the former "Ted Ginn" role as a down field receiver who can get behind defenses for long gains. Curtis Samuel is coming off an ankle injury that ended his rookie season. He brings a wealth of speed and quickness as a joker receiving and rushing threat. If he develops more in his second year, his presence could cause trouble and confusion to defenses who will need to defend against a potentially lethal combination of speed and mobility that includes him, McCaffrey and Moore. The remainder of the receiving corps includes Jarius Wright, who knows Norv Turner's offense from his days in Minnesota. Wright projects as a reliable slot receiver, especially on third downs. He may be down the list of total team targets, but he has the potential to be used in a similar capacity to Jericho Cotchery in the Panthers 15-1 season from 2015. Damiere Byrd has shown the ability to be more than a reserve role, but he has to stay healthy to earn more opportunities. If he is given a chance to see an increase in involvement, he has the talent and ability to produce in a niche role.

Tight Ends

Starters: Greg Olsen
Backups: Ian Thomas [R], Chris Manhertz

Greg Olsen suffered a foot injury in Week 2 last season and although he returned to the field in Week 12, he was still not fully recovered. His bid for a record fourth season of 1,000 yards receiving for a tight end was not meant to be. This season he'll have the opportunity to bounce back as one of the league's premier tight ends. The introduction of Norv Turner's offense, which heavily utilizes an athletic tight end, makes Olsen a player to target in 2018. Prior to last season, Olsen had five consecutive years of 100+ targets averaging 76 receptions and 5 touchdowns. Before his injury, Olsen finished in the Top 4 for three consecutive years and had nine consecutive seasons where he didn't miss a game. The Panthers drafted Ian Thomas as the first pick in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Thomas has the ability to play a role as early as this year, but his involvement and growth could come along slowly as he learns the position at the next level. His size, speed, hands, and ability to make plays in a crowd has some people comparing him to a young Antonio Gates. While that is high praise, it may take some time for him to develop. A good scenario would be for him to serve a similar role and path to what Jonnu Smith has been for the Tennessee Titans behind Delanie Walker.

Place Kicker

Graham Gano: The Panthers had one of the closest kicker battles in the league last summer, and their attempts to trade one kicker at the end of camp and then keeping Harrison Butker on the practice squad were proven to be founded when Butker was poached by the Chiefs. The kicker the Panthers kept - Graham Gano - made them look smart by making 29 of 30 field goal attempts, good for the best conversion rate in the league. His only miss was on his only attempt from 50+ yards. Gano was only 12th in the league in kicker scoring despite his gaudy conversion rate because the team was 19th in field goal attempts. They were top seven in field goals in 2015 and 2016, so Gano should be a solid bet to finish in the top 10 kickers, making him a target for teams taking their kicker in the last round of the draft.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Curtis Samuel, Damiere Byrd

The Panthers had several men take their turn returning kickoffs in 2017. Byrd was the most successful and accomplished of the bunch, scoring the team's first kickoff return touchdown since 2011. Byrd is also on the very short list of players to be placed on Injured Reserve twice in a single season, which complicates his efforts to earn the job in 2018.

Punt Returners: Christian McCaffrey

After releasing Jonathan Stewart in February, many wondered if the Panthers intended to make Christian McCaffrey a featured back, possibly curtailing his special teams responsibilities in the process. With the signing of C.J. Anderson in free agency, it seems likely that McCaffrey's role remains intact.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Matt Kalil, LG Jeremiah Sirles, C Ryan Kalil, RG Trai Turner, RT Daryl Williams
Key Backups: Taylor Moton, Amini Silatolu, Tyler Larsen, Greg Van Roten

In his first year on the job, right tackle Daryl Williams made the AP All-Pro second team. Williams and right guard Trai Turner combine to be a mauling run-blocking duo. Center Ryan Kalil is approaching the end of his career but is still effective when healthy. The same can be said of his brother Matt Kalil, who starts at left tackle. Left guard Andrew Norwell left via free agency and Jeremiah Sirles arrived from the Minnesota Vikings to replace him. The team has decent depth with Amini Silatolu and Taylor Moton. The Panthers line starts the season graded out as a top-tier unit.

Team Defense

The Panthers lost their defensive coordinator to a head-coaching job and promoted from within to fill the spot for the second straight offseason. Defensive line coach Eric Washington is taking over, and the team helped keep his former position group a strength by replacing Star Lotulelei with Dontari Poe in free agency and re-signing late career wonder Julius Peppers. The Panthers finished third in the league with 50 sacks last year, and 40 of those came from the defensive line. Thomas Davis will be facing a four-game suspension to begin the season, but 2015 first-rounder Shaq Thompson has been a bigger part of the defense as of late, so the impact of that development will be lessened. A bigger issue is the secondary with Kevon Seymour and Ross Cockrell in top three roles unless second-round speedster Donte Jackson (LSU) can have a strong enough summer to earn significant playing time. The safeties are the weakest in the league after Kurt Coleman was released (and snapped up by New Orleans) with the ancient Mike Adams and better suited for special teams Colin Jones as the starters. They overcame a somewhat weak secondary to produce and make the playoffs last year, but there might be an even bigger hill to climb in the secondary, which might leave the Panthers undrafted in many leagues and relegated to matchup plays.

Defensive Line

Starters: NT Dontari Poe, DT Kawann Short, DE Mario Addison, DE Wes Horton
Backups: DT Vernon Butler, DT Kyle Love, DE Julius Peppers, DE Daeshon Hall, DE Bryan Cox Jr., DE Marquis Haynes [R], DT Kendrick Norton [R]

Starting DL: The Panthers have traditionally leaned heavily on a stout, athletic defensive front to spearhead their success in recent seasons under head coach Ron Rivera. After the departure of stalwart man in the middle Star Lotulelei to Buffalo, the front office acted fast and scooped up Dontari Poe to play 1-technique. Poe has been a stout presence his entire career and, even as he enters his seventh season, he has the ability to make everyone around him better. Alongside him is Kawann Short, who has deservedly earned a reputation as a premiere disruptor. The box scores do not always scream 'dominant', but Short's down-to-down impact is indisputable. The team keeps him fresh by rotating him often, boosting his efficiency and, the team hopes, prolonging his career. The return of Julius Peppers will have been a boon to the coaching staff, but the starting edge defenders entering camp are Mario Addison and Wes Horton. Addison is the star name of the two; the 30-year-old pass rusher has risen through the ranks of the defense and proved the contract extension the Panthers gave him last offseason a good move with an 11-sack season. Horton is a hard worker who may see heavy rotation with last year's rookie Daeshon Hall and the aforementioned Peppers.

Backup DL: Big things will be expected from former first round pick Vernon Butler in year three. The behemoth lineman hasn't completed a 16-game season yet, with injury costing him priceless repetitions. With Lotulelei out of the picture, however, Butler should have the inside track on the backup defensive tackle position, an important role in the rotation-heavy Panthers front line. Daeshon Hall, who the Panthers picked in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, suffered a knee injury in his first game and missed the entire season. This year, Hall is likely to assume a rotational role as he learns under the wing of Julius Peppers. Kyle Love has been a solid contributor for the team, but could face a battle for his roster spot in camp if the team opts to go younger. Marquis Haynes will operate as a designated pass rusher according to head coach Ron Rivera, while Kendrick Norton profiles as a nasty interior disruptor on a defense already chock full of them.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Luke Kuechly, SLB Thomas Davis (susp), WLB Shaq Thompson
Backups: LB David Mayo, LB Jared Norris, LB Brian Blechen, LB Ben Jacobs, LB Jermaine Carter [R], LB Andre Smith [R]

Starting LBs: Anchored by perennial superstar Luke Kuechly, the Panthers linebacker corps has been a strength of the team for the past several years. Kuechly will need to sit out the offseason programme after surgery on a torn labrum in his shoulder, but head coach Ron Rivera expects his defensive signal caller and team leader back by camp. The concern with Kuechly continues to be head injuries; if he sustains another concussion, it may be curtains for his career. Unless that time comes, however, Kuechly will firmly remain as one of the top players in the game at his position. A four-game suspension for running mate Thomas Davis has thrown a spanner in the works for this unit. The veteran linebacker violated the league's policy for performance-enhancing drugs and it is expected that Shaq Thompson will step in to Davis' shoes. Davis is entering his final season as a pro, so Thompson's time is now. The young linebacker played only 684 snaps in 2017 and was used more as a situational player. He has been inconsistent in pass coverage despite the rare athletic tools he possesses.

Backup LBs: The Panthers are not exactly flush with quality options among the backup linebackers. David Mayo has been called upon in the past when Luke Kuechly has been out of action. The golden-locked linebacker hasn't disgraced himself per se, but there is an obvious drop-off - especially in coverage ability - from Kuechly to him. Jared Norris is more a two-down thumper than an every-down difference maker, while the team likes Ben Jacobs and Brian Blechen as special teams aces. The late round draft selections Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith will inject some youth and energy into this unit and could put some pressure on Mayo and others.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Ross Cockrell, CB James Bradberry, SS Mike Adams, FS Da'Norris Searcy
Backups: CB Donte Jackson [R], CB Captain Munnerlyn, CB Zach Sanchez, CB Corn Elder, CB Ladarius Gunter, S Colin Jones, S Demetrious Cox, S Dezmen Southward, CB Cole Luke, S Rashaan Gaulden [R]

Starting DBs: The secondary has traditionally been a troublesome area for the Panthers in the past few years. A stout front seven with a fearsome pass rush has mitigated any snafus on the back end, but this unit was exposed last year. James Bradberry, expected to take the next step after a promising rookie season, disappointed. He was often picked on relentlessly by savvy quarterbacks and gave up several big plays. The trade of Daryl Worley to the Eagles (who cut him soon after) looks good for the Panthers now, but there is still a massive hole to fill opposite Bradberry. The team signed former Steeler and Giant Ross Cockrell to a team-friendly deal in the hope that he can step in immediately, although the selection of Donte Jackson may change things. At safety, the team plucked Da'Norris Searcy off the free agent scrap heap after they released veteran Kurt Coleman. The former Tar Heel endured a torrid 2017 season in Tennessee and will be hungry to get back into a full-time role after playing just 383 snaps last year. Searcy may be asked to play more free safety with elder statesman Mike Adams, who has been a solid back end presence for Carolina, getting up in years. The team needs more speed in the secondary, but Adams and Searcy could provide stability, if not much else.

Backup DBs: Captain Munnerlyn will remain at nickel cornerback for the team, but he may face competition from the returning Corn Elder. The former Miami Hurricanes cornerback basically sat out his rookie year after an injury, and he has been highly touted by the coaching staff. Ladarius Gunter was signed for depth, while Colin Jones has played some excellent snaps for the team in subpackages over the past years. The team drafted LSU product Donte Jackson in the second round. A quick-twitch player with playmaking ability to spare, Jackson could earn the starting job opposite James Bradberry by Week 1. Rashaan Gaulden will act as a jack-of-all-trades at safety, according to the head coach.

Last modified: 2018-05-18 23:26:31