Carolina Panthers: 20th season comes with big expectations

The Carolina Panthers announced their 53-man roster Saturday, the last step before the Panthers officially start the 2014 season Panthers, their 20th in the National Football League. The final roster is outlined here.

The Panthers open the season on Sunday, September 7th against the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, and the team has high hopes for the 2014 season after tying a franchise record for wins in 2013 before losing to the San Francisco 49ers 23-10 in the divisional round in January. The 2014 schedule could test the Panthers at times, but Carolina’s tough running game and elite defense should help the dynamic Cam Newton build upon last season.

The major questions throughout training camp and the preseason focused on the wide receiving corps and the offensive line, after the Carolina Panthers lost two stalwart lineman and three of their top four pass catchers from 2013. Also on the minds of Panther’s front office, coaching staff, and fans alike was the secondary, which lost Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Mitchell, Drayton Florence and Quintin Mikell to free agency.

The Panthers addressed those issues through the draft and through free agent acquisitions. Safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, cornerback Antoine Cason, and wide receivers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery were brought in to fill positional needs as well as provide veteran leadership, which has worked relatively well throughout camps and the preseason, despite Harper’s limited preseason action. The Panthers also got safety-turned-cornerback Charles Godfrey back after missing most of 2013 with an Achilles injury.

As with free agency, the draft provided much needed relief for Newton and the Panther’s stable of running backs with the selection of two blue chip players, a wide receiver and a guard. Carolina selected a top-level Red Zone threat receiver in Kelvin Benjamin (first round) and an immediate starter at right guard in Trai Turner (third round). Both players excelled throughout camps and the preseason, although both have battled injuries.

The Carolina Panthers also selected another blue chipper in defensive end Kony Ealy, who was selected because he was still on the draft board, clearly not because of a team need. Some criticized the second round selection because the Panthers didn’t need a defensive end, however, the pick was somewhat serendipitous due to the fact defensive end Greg Hardy faced legal action within weeks of the draft. I did say ‘somewhat’ serendipitous. Besides, a team can never have too many pass rushers in today’s NFL. Like Benjamin and Turner on offense, Ealy also impressed from the minute he entered camp and plans to factor into this already great defense.

Carolina Panthers

Rookie right guard Trai Turner will start for the Panthers this season.

The offensive line will not be one of the league’s best entering the 2014 season, but it will be solid, and has potential to be very good as the year goes on. As with any team, the Panther’s offensive line needs to stay healthy, but it’s crucial for Carolina, which doesn’t have a very deep line in terms of experience, and will be starting a rookie (Turner) and two reserves from last season, including at left tackle, where Byron Bell will get the nod.

Talk of the left tackle immediately reminds one of Newton’s health, which includes full recovery from off-season ankle surgery, but also from a fractured rib suffered in the third preseason game against the New England Patriots. Newton is expected to be ready for the season opener, but Newton’s protection will be paramount for this untested line immediately. If the offensive line can stay healthy and build chemistry as the year progresses, and Newton’s new receivers turn into weapons, Newton could have an MVP-type season.

Speaking of those receivers, a major question entering the 2014 season, Benjamin is looking like a true weapon. Although still very unpolished and lacking some chemistry with Newton, something out of his control, Benjamin seems ready to take on the Panther’s No. 1 wide-out receiving role. Benjamin may lack deep threat speed, but his size and athleticism will make him dangerous in any area of the field, especially the Red Zone. Free agent veterans Cotchery and Avant will look to keep Benjamin mentally grounded as he tries to help the Panthers soar.

The receiving corps might not be as questionable as it was a few months ago, but the real focus should be on the tight ends. After coming off a great season in 2013, one in which he led the Panthers in receiving, Greg Olsen could be the focus of the passing game, or at least the tight ends in general could be. Olsen was joined this season by free agent tight end Ed Dickson, in addition to second year tight end Brandon Williams and fourth year tight end Richie Brockel, who’ll help the Panthers in these double-tight end sets regaining popularity.

The Carolina Panthers defense, the staple of this team, never skipped a beat; in fact, they only got better. It was at this time last year Panther’s fans were worried about the untested secondary spoiling the front seven’s efforts, but the secondary proved to be solid, built around young players or veterans brought in on short deals – sound familiar? The defense will again be near the top of the NFL, with their off-season additions only making them stronger.

The 2014 schedule isn’t tough on paper necessarily, but it will be on the field. The teams scheduled to play the Panthers with losing or .500 records in 2013 have all improved dramatically, and records from season’s past don’t necessarily mean much. Case in point: The Panthers entered 2013 with the toughest schedule on paper, but officially finished with the 9th ranked schedule. Considering there are 32 teams in the NFL, a drop of nine spots is a 28% decrease; if we were to extrapolate that scenario to this season, but in reverse, the Panthers could end up with a middle-of-the-road schedule instead of their projected cakewalk (Carolina’s 2014 opponents had a collective winning % of .477 in 2013).

Baltimore Ravens

The Panthers face Steve Smith and the Baltimore Ravens Week 4. (Image credit: blacksportsonline.com)

After opening against the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay, the Panthers will face the über-talented Detroit Lions, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football before traveling to Baltimore to face Steve Smith and the Ravens. After playing the Chicago Bears the following week, the Carolina Panthers face a five-game stretch versus the likes of the Cincinnati Bengals (away), the Green Bay Packers (away), the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks, the division rival Saints on Thursday Night Football, and then must travel to Philadelphia on ten-days rest to play the Eagles on Monday Night Football.

The Panthers are rewarded with a home game versus the Atlanta Falcons after that tough five-game stretch, followed by their bye Week 12. The Week 12 bye comes at a crucial time, as many players will presumably be nursing nagging injuries by then. The final five game stretch should be far easier, with the exception of the Week 14 match up at the Saints, and includes games at the Minnesota Vikings, the Saints game, the Buccaneers, and the Cleveland Browns before wrapping up the 2014 regular season at the Falcons.

Based on analysis through camps and preseason, and the teams on the upcoming schedule, I project the Carolina Panthers to win 13 games and compette for the NFC South division title with the New Orleans Saints. The three losses I project for the Panthers will come at the Bengals, at the Eagles, and at the Saints. Based on the strength of the NFC, and the individual divisions, 13 wins and the NFC South title should produce a first or second seed and bye for the first week of the playoffs.

The Panthers will face a tough three-games during the Green Bay (away)-Seattle-New Orleans stretch, after facing the Bengals – one of my projected losses – so it’s entirely possible the Panthers also lose one of those games. If they were to, and that loss occurred versus the Seahawks, the playoff scenario might not change much; however, if that loss came versus the Saints, it could change the whole playoff situation. The Ravens (away) game will be interesting; after playing the Lions and Steelers, an emotional Steve Smith might be tough to handle.

I expect the 2014 Carolina Panthers to win 13 games, win the NFC South title, and earn a playoff bye. Low projections should have the Panthers winning 10 games and making the playoffs. With the talent Carolina has the Panthers could send as many as eleven players to the Pro-Bowl; seven could earn All-Pro honors – I won’t jinx them here. I doubt, however, the Kraken records 50 sacks.

Enjoy the season Panthers fans, and #KeepPounding!

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