2013 Season Recap
- Record: 12-4 (1st NFC South, First-Round Bye)
- Head Coach: Ron Rivera (3rd season)
- Offensive Rankings: No. 18 Scoring, No. 26 Yards
- Defensive Rankings: No. 2 Scoring Allowed, No. 2 Yards Allowed
- Pro Bowlers: Jordan Gross (LT); Cam Newton (QB); Ryan Kalil (C); Mike Tolbert (FB); Greg Hardy (DE); Luke Kuechly (MLB); J. J. Jansen (LS).
- Key Injuries w/Games Missed: Jonathan Stewart, RB (10); Charles Godfrey, FS (14)
Panthers depth chart via panthers.com.
Calling the 2013 Carolina Offense “middling” may be stretch, as the team ranked only 26th in yards, and 18th overall in points scored. Though the latter figure skews towards mediocre (and away from “bad”), it was doubtlessly influenced by the fact that the Carolina offense enjoyed the 6th best average starting field position in the league, per Football Outsiders. Quarterback Cam Newton passed for just over 3,300 yards, not exactly lighting the world on fire by modern NFL standards, and was ranked 15th in that category. Running back Jonathan Stewart missed most of the season with injury, and his backfield mate DeAngelo Williams failed to reach 1,000 yards on the season. Thanks in no small part to Newton’s running ability, the Panthers did rank 11th in rushing in the league. Nevertheless, on the whole the offense was clearly less than stellar.
On the bright side, Cam Newton is back, and remains a dual threat. Williams and Stewart also return, and along with Fozzy Whittacker, the Panthers backfield is above-average if healthy. Likewise, the always-productive Greg Olsen returns for his 4th year with the team, meaning the Panthers have a strong receiving threat at tight end.
Those moves, however, are not improvements on a year ago; rather, the return of those players does nothing more than (hopefully) guaranty the team will not drop off at their respective positions. Meanwhile, Carolina lost its top four wide receivers from 2013, including team-legend and future hall of famer Steve Smith (who left for the Ravens), Brandon LaFell (Patriots), and Ted Ginn, Jr. (Cardinals). The Panthers are hopeful about the future of Kelvin Benjamin, a rookie wide receiver out of Florida State, and also obtained receivers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery. However, Avant and Cotchery have had less-than-stellar careers, and asking a rookie to operate as a team’s number one receiver has rarely been successful in the NFL.
Furthermore, the Panthers starting left tackle and left guard in 2013, Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton, both retired. Each had a very strong 2013. Byron Bell is set to take over as the left tackle, and has not inspired much confidence. Nether has his counterpart on the right, Nate Chandler, who played much of last season at right guard. While mass hysteria may not be in order, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Panthers offense will have a hard time producing in 2014.
The picture is much rosier on the other side of the ball. Carolina ranked second in both scoring and yards allowed on defense last season. In fact, the defense is largely to credit for the Panthers’ 12-4 record, and indeed was so good a year ago that had they not been overshadowed by the Seattle Seahawks would almost certainly be touted as one of the best defenses of the last 10 years.
Given that background, holding pat in 2014 would be just fine by most Panther fans. Things look good up front, where linebackers Luke Kuechly and (oft-overlooked) Thomas Davis return off of phenomenal individual seasons, as do defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Also back is defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who has shown early signs that he may just live up to his name. Unless Greg Hardy’s legal issues catch up with him this year, the Panthers’ front-seven on defense should be among – if not the – league’s best in 2014.
If one were to pick-nits on the 2013 defensive campaign, the Panthers’ secondary would be the place to do so. That secondary looks likely to take another step back, as it lost its three leading tacklers from a year ago. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (Vikings) and free safety Mike Mitchell (Steelers) left in free agency, and solid strong safety Quintin Mikell was not picked up by any team following offseason surgery on a foot.
Melvin White, who played well as a rookie as the team’s number one cornerback, will return, but like the Panthers’ wide receiver corps, he is joined by replacements. The Panthers nabbed Roman Harper to play free safety, but Harper is passed his prime and was not that good during the best years. Former Atlanta Falcon Thomas DeCoud takes over at free safety after a disappointing 2013. Playing opposite White at cornerback will be Antoine Cason, who was a backup with the Arizona Cardinals a year ago. As good as the front seven should be for the Panthers, the back-end of this defense does not inspire confidence.
Biggest Key for 2014
Offensively, Cam Newton has to become the quarterback many expect he can be, and Panthers fans already act as though he is. League-average will not cut it for this offense. He has to border on breaking into the stronghold that Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady have at the top. On defense, Melvin White needs to continue to grow and become a lock-down cornerback, given Ron Rivera the option of leaving him on an island and helping other defensive backs as needed.
On a year-after-year basis, offensive results tend to be more stable than those on defense. This makes it more likely that the Panthers offense stays near the bottom of the league than the Panthers defense stays in the top two. But I see the Panthers slipping on both sides of the ball, and their record along with it. Final prediction: 6-10, and third or fourth in the NFC South.