Originally written on Next Impulse Sports  |  Last updated 1/28/15
Editor’s note: Over the course of the summer, Next Impulse Sports will be releasing NFL team previews every Tuesday and Thursday. Check back on Tuesday for the Atlanta Falcons Edition and access all NFL team previews here. Today: The Carolina Panthers Last Year: 12-4 (1st place in NFC South, lost in Divisional Round of playoffs) After winning a combined 15 games from 2010-2012, the Panthers finally broke out in 2013 to snap their four-season streak of missing out on the postseason. Writing that sentence is a bit of shock, especially when remembering the kind of start to the season the Panthers suffered. Carolina charged out of the gate to a meager 1-3 record. While the team held its own against Seattle, a late fumble near the goal line doomed their opening day win aspirations. Despite leading with two seconds remaining in the fourth quarter against Buffalo, the Panthers surrendered a go-ahead touchdown with practically no time left. And, even though the Panthers smoked the Giants in week 3, they were abused by the Cardinals in week 5 — a game that came after the Panthers’ bye week. The very fact that we’re talking about the Panthers as one of the best teams from a year ago is remarkable. After week 5 of the regular season, Ron Rivera was close to being run out of town and Cam Newton wasn’t a leader. So what changed? Well, for starters, the results did. After their 1-3 start, the Panthers ripped off eight straight wins. The team would only lose one more game the rest of the season — in the Superdome to the Saints. Defense — never an issue during the first four games — was a dominant force all season long. The team finished the season owning the sixth-ranked defense against the pass and the second-ranked defense against the run. What changed for the Panthers was the offense. Cam Newton posted this statline during the first four games of the season: a 57.5 completion percentage and seven yards per attempt. Though he basically maintained his seven yards per attempt, his completion percentage increased to nearly 62 percent by the end of the season. And, after throwing five picks in the first four games, Newton only tossed eight more in the twelve games that followed. After looking largely incompetent on offense, the team started to post multiple 30-point games. The Panthers rode the strength of their defense, and the sudden competence of their offense all the way to the NFC South title. But, when the Niners came to town in the Divisonal Round of the playoffs, the Panthers’ offense was stymied, only scoring 10 points. The Panthers remarkable turnaround season was forced to shutdown a couple of weeks earlier than planned. Last Year’s Stud: Luke Kuechly Luke Kuechly, the key to the Panthers’ defense, can do it all. Take a look: In the play below, Kuechly identifies the run immediately, hits the gap so quickly that the runner can’t make it to the outside where his lead blocker is waiting for him, and he manages to knock the ball out of the ballcarrier’s hands. Boom. In this one, Kuechly watches Joe Flacco’s eyes, and, when he realizes where the ball is going, he quickly steps in front to intercept it. Ignore the weird fall/slide maybe kinda sorta caused by Joe Flacco. Whatever. This might be my favorite, though it’s the least impactful play and won’t show up on a statsheet. The Bucs run a counter to the left side of the field. Kuechly takes an initial step to the right, but, not only is he able to quickly reverse direction, he sheds a blocker in time to bring down the running back after a short gain. Seriously, look how much work he puts in to fill the hole. If he doesn’t, the Panthers are in trouble on this play. Runner-up: Greg Hardy Last Year’s Surprise: Riverboat Ron After the team’s third loss, we all thought Ron Rivera was going to get yanked. If not in October or November, then at least it was going to happen sometime in January. Nope. We were dead wrong. It appears that after a week 2 loss to the Bills — a loss that saw Rivera kick a field goal to extend a late lead to six points instead of going for a fourth and one conversion, and then saw the Bills win with a last-gasp touchdown — Rivera got a whole lot more aggressive. Now, I’m far too lazy to go through the game logs of every single game to verify this assertion, but, luckily for me, Bill Barnwell over at Grantland exists. During the Panthers’ unlikely run to the postseason, he compiled a list. Here is an excerpt from this article, which was written after week 9, so this list is obviously a little incomplete: Week 3: Carolina goes for it on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line against the Giants in a 0-0 game. Mike Tolbert punches it in for a touchdown. Week 5: The Panthers go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15-yard line late in the second quarter of a 3-3 game. A play-action pass finds a wide-open Brandon LaFell, who drops the pass. Week 6: In a scoreless game, Tolbert bursts through the line for a first down on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 32-yard line to extend a drive … Week 6: … that ends when the Panthers go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line and Newton finds a wide-open Steve Smith off play-action for an easy touchdown. Week 8: With a 14-6 lead in the third quarter, Tolbert busts through the line on fourth-and-1 from the 20-yard line for another conversion. The Panthers score a touchdown four plays later. Week 9: Perhaps exorcising his Falcons demons, Rivera goes for it on fourth-and-1 from the 14-yard line with a 7-3 lead in the second quarter. Again going play-action, Newton finds a wide-open Greg Olsen for a touchdown.” In short, Ron Rivera started to play football like Madden and it started to pay off. In the long run, Rivera guided the Panthers to playoffs and got to keep his job. Runner-up: Tedd Ginn Last Year’s Disappointment: Greg Hardy Greg Hardy absolutely killed it on the field in 2013 — 59 combined tackles and 15 sacks. Off the field, however, was a completely different story. Hardy was arrested in May for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. Just two days ago, on Tuesday, Hardy was convicted on charges of assault and communicating threats. Runner-up: Jonathan Stewart Draft Class In terms of wide receivers, the Panthers have a problem: they don’t really have any. Their leading receiver from a year ago was tight end Greg Olsen and they cut Steve Smith. The Panthers tried to address this problem with their first pick in the draft. Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ choice, played at Florida State. He’s a big dude — 6-foot-5, 240 pounds — and compiled over 1,000 yards last season. The catch above — the one that won the National Championship — is an example of why the Panthers took him. He’s huge and can go up high in traffic to bring down passes. Other notable pick: Kony Ealy This Year’s Stud: Cam Newton The numbers might not show it at the end of the season, but I think that’ll have more to do with Newton’s supporting cast on offense. Newton is going to be asked to do a lot every game for the Panthers — running and throwing to a bunch of unproven receivers. Again, I’m not saying the numbers are going to be any better than last season, but, if the Panthers have any hope on offense, Cam Newton is going to have to put the team on his shoulders. Runner-up: Greg Olson This Year’s Surprise: Kony Ealy Greg Hardy’s legal issues may end up forcing Ealy to contribute sooner than expected. Some were surprised the Panthers drafted a pass rusher in the second round instead of bolstering some areas that needed reinforcement (cough cough the offense cough cough), but, with Hardy’s status undetermined, this might end up being a phenomenal draft day decision. Runner-up: Tyler Gaffney This Year’s Disappointment: DeAngelo Williams DeAngelo Williams thinks he’s top fantasy option at running back. The only problem is, he’s 31, has averaged only 4.25 yards per carry the last two seasons, and will cross the 1,500 carries threshold this season. Runner-up: Kelvin Benjamin Fantasy Outlook  Draft early: Cam Newton Good value in the middle rounds: Greg Olson Don’t draft: DeAngelo Williams What Vegas Is Saying (LVH Sports Book): 8 wins What We’re Saying: 9-7 (2nd place in NFC South) Though I don’t have the Panthers reaching the playoffs, I’m a little surprised Vegas has them pegged at four fewer wins than last year. I don’t think the offense is good enough for a repeat of 12 wins, and I don’t think the team got better in the offseason. This is a bit of an issue considering the Saints got a lot better, the Bucs are going to be improved with an actual head coach, and the Falcons are going to be healthier. The defense is good enough to propel the team into the playoffs, but Hardy’s situation worries me. So does the offense. The wide receiver situation isn’t any good and relying on a 31-year-old running back isn’t the most ideal situation. The Panthers should be in the running for a Wild Card spot, their defense will give them that chance. But, the schedule doesn’t look kind. In consecutive weeks, the Panthers will have to play Chicago, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Seattle, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. I just don’t see the offense keeping pace with any of those teams. But who knows, maybe Riverboat Ron will surprise all of us again. Follow Sean Wagner-McGough on Twitter @seanjwagner     Article found on: Next Impulse Sports
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