The Carolina Panthers have had some time to think about the disaster that was the 2016 NFL season. Now the squad is looking to rebuild and prove to everyone that the dynamic and dominant 2015 team was more than a fluke.
As we all know, the 2016 campaign was a far cry from the dominant form of the year before when they made it all the way to the Super Bowl. After a franchise-best 15-1 record in 2015 the next year the Panthers went 6-10, finished last in the NFC South and missed the playoffs entirely for the first time since 2012. Some serious changes were in order, and it looks like the team has done its best to address most of them.
Carolina has been busy this off-season with the hopes of providing quarterback Cam Newton with new offensive weapons, and some added protection. The Panthers grabbed Christian McCaffrey with the eighth pick of the first round of the NFL draft, and there’s already a lot of pressure on the former Stanford player. His diverse skill-set is making McCaffrey an early candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, which might be a bit premature. Still, he is a versatile offensive weapon that primarily operates as a running back but is also talented as a receiver and route-runner.
This dual threat should take a lot of the weight off of the shoulders of veteran RB Jonathan Stewart and also keep Newton from having to do all the work himself. In addition to McCaffrey, the Panthers acquired a fresh wide receiver with second-round pick Curtis Samuel. He provides a fresh target for Newton beyond Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, and should make for a much more exciting offense. With more players to work with, the hope is that Newton will run the ball less and avoid potential injuries.
Perhaps most importantly, Carolina has finally decided to strengthen the offensive line and provide their star QB with the protection he so desperately needs. Offensive tackle Matt Kalil, brother of Carolina center Ryan Kalil, was brought in from Minnesota to boost the defense. The team also took offensive tackle Taylor Moton in the second round of the NFL Draft. Moton was a standout during his time Western Michigan, and while it’s unlikely he’ll be a day one starter, he adds much-needed depth to the Panthers’ O-line.
Even with these changes, big questions remain as to whether or not the Panthers can return to their former selves. The 2015 Panthers were the best in the history of the franchise after a 14-0 start to the season culminating in an NFC Championship. Carolina went into Super Bowl 50 as the favorites, but their offense struggled mightily against Denver’s ferocious defense. It was a sobering defeat that exposed glaring holes in the team’s composition, notably in the Panthers’ offensive line. After eating an entire humble pie with their poor showing in 2016, the franchise has made the right moves to get the team back on track. The big question is whether or not these decisions will pan out.
Expectations are high for Carolina and anything less than a return to the playoffs will be a failure. The NFC South is a much more competitive landscape now. The Atlanta Falcons are returning from a Super Bowl appearance of their own and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have become a tough team in their own right. The Panthers have the talent to make it to another NFC Championship, but we’ll have to wait and see if they can live up to their own potential.