Although training camp hasn’t started yet, that hasn’t stopped analysts and fans from making their season predictions already. They have their eyes set on certain teams that will succeed this year. Whether it’s off-season improvements or favorable scheduling, the Atlanta Falcons have garnered buzz about being the favorite to win the NFC South. Due to being more conservative in free agency and a more difficult schedule, the Carolina Panthers have become somewhat forgotten about in the NFC South.
It was only seven months ago that Carolina embarrassed Atlanta to win the division. They pummeled Matt Ryan and made Atlanta’s offensive line look amateurish. Charles Johnson felt that their front seven would be unstoppable, which came to fruition with six sacks and 12 quarterback hits. The ability to make Julio Jones into mostly a non-factor is an incredible achievement. Josh Norman’s ability to cover man-to-man and the assistance of a daunting pass rush deserve credit for keeping the stud wide receiver quiet.
Everyone knows that the NFL has become a passing league. Besides Seattle and possibly Cincinnati, it’s rare to see teams flourish without leaning towards a pass-first mentality. An above average quarterback and multiple productive players at the skill positions have proven to be vital for playoff-caliber teams. The second biggest attribute for most successful teams is usually having an outstanding front seven.
After losing Greg Hardy, Carolina’s front seven was starting to get written off to an extent. That didn't remotely make sense to me. Luke Kuechly was the only player that received any credence for his exceptional play. Thomas Davis is a top five 4-3 outside linebacker, who has made a miraculous comeback from tearing his ACL on three occasions.. His ability to handle almost any coverage responsibility and be so effective on blitzes makes him a coach’s dream. In a pass-first league, Davis is the ideal three-down versatile linebacker that every defense needs. Charles Johnson continues to be one of the better pass rushers in the league. Star Lotulelei has already ascended into becoming one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in a matter of two seasons. Kawann Short could be on the verge of becoming one of the best interior pass rushers as well.
As a unit, they combined for 40 sacks and forced 24 fumbles last season. That was considered a "down season" for this defense. With young players like Kony Ealy and Shaq Thompson developing as starters, Carolina has all the makings of an elite defensive unit. They are certainly a top ten defense, especially with Norman breaking out last season and Bene Benwikere emerging through the latter part of the season. Besides some question marks at safety, this defense is fully equipped to give opposing offenses nightmares.
Besides their stout defense, Carolina commands respect for having an array of offensive weapons. When it comes to excelling at both blocking and receiving as a tight end, it doesn't get much better than Greg Olsen. The reliable veteran constantly makes catches in traffic, along with being an asset in the running game. Olsen is a matchup nightmare based on his size being too overwhelming for safeties. His route running has left opposing linebackers overmatched as well. With Cam Newton being erratic with his accuracy at times, a safety blanket like Olsen has proven to be highly beneficial.
After Steve Smith’s departure last season, many analysts were concerned about Newton’s future and his development as a passer. The former number one pick did see a decline in his completion percentage last season. Blitzes tend to force him into making poor decisions far too often. While Carolina didn’t make any major splashes, they are finally implementing the pieces to help Newton develop as a pocket passer.
Newton was far too reliant on Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin last year. Carolina made it a priority to draft Devin Funchess, who can certainly help resolve Newton’s tendency to overthrow his receivers. That was clearly the gaudy move to take the pressure off Olsen and Benjamin. The big upgrade for Carolina’s aerial attack will be the variety of quality options at wide receiver. Ted Ginn was an under-the-radar signing that could pay dividends once again.
Despite his shaky hands and inability to be consistent, Ginn’s best season was with Carolina in 2013. Newton had a strong rapport with him throughout Carolina's tremendous season. Corey "Philly" Brown is an intriguing prospect, due to his breakaway speed and knack for getting open at opportune times. Falcon fans should remember him vividly from seeing him beat Robert McClain deep for a touchdown. Jarrett Boykin and Jerricho Cotchery will provide solid depth as well.
Similar to the Falcons, the Panthers have set themselves up with quality veteran depth and an intriguing rookie at wide receiver. For the first time in his career, Newton has the proper support towards becoming a more consistent passer. As we’ve seen in the past with scrambling quarterbacks, longevity comes from relying on your arm rather than depending on your feet to move the ball downfield.
Carolina will be a difficult team to unseat in the NFC South. Besides their difficult schedule, only a shaky offensive line and uncertain running game can be classified as major flaws. Ryan Kalil is the only true asset amongst their offensive line. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers will need to step up in order for Mike Shula's offense to become more potent. Newton was hit far too many times last season.
Jonathan Stewart’s durability is the other major question. Carolina is confident that his constant injuries (only played 15 out of 32 games between 2012-2013) are behind him. Besides the defense tormenting opposing quarterbacks, Stewart’s late-season emergence is what propelled their emphatic four-game winning streak into the playoffs. Mike Tolbert is still reliable, but all eyes will be on how rookie Cameron Artis-Payne develops throughout pre-season.
The concerns about their difficult schedule and fragile offensive line are well documented. Other than that, it baffles me on how Carolina has already been discounted by several analysts and fans. You can’t find many well-rounded defenses that feature multiple studs at linebacker and an array of pass rushers with upside. Carolina’s defense alone will keep them in games on a weekly basis, regardless if Newton is struggling with his accuracy or the offensive line is getting annihilated.
When looking at the NFC, it’s pretty evident on how wide open it has become following Seattle and Green Bay. An excellent defense, capable quarterback, and several reliable players on both sides of the ball will make any team dangerous. Carolina fulfills all of those components through their last two seasons as division champions. Don’t be fooled by their lack of ambition in free agency and label them as a declining team. This team is more than capable of retaining first place and possibly pushing Seattle (again) or Green Bay in the divisional round. Great defenses with several key players entering their prime don’t fade away.