2014 Carolina Panthers Season Preview: Fantasy Sleepers & Predictions, Can the Panthers Survive Without Cam Newton?
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With the NFL season fast approaching, Latino Post looks at the offseason moves that will make or break each team.
Last Season: 12-4 (1ST in NFC South, lost in divisional round)
Key Additions: WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, S Thomas DeCoud, WR Kelvin Benjamin (1st round), DE Kony Ealy (2nd round), OG Trai Turner (3rd round), SS Tre Boston (4th round), CB Bene Benwikere (5th round)
Key Losses: WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR Ted Ginn Jr., OT Jordan Gross, OT Bruce Campbell, G Geoff Hangartner, G Travelle Wharton, G Jeff Byers, OLB Jordan Senn, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Mike Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell
Games to Watch: Sept. 21 vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 28 at Baltimore, Oct. 26 vs. Seattle, Dec. 7 at New Orleans
Three Questions Heading into the 2014-15 Season:
1. How bad are Cam Newton's injuries?
When asked if he would be ready for Carolina's season opener, Cam Newton simply said "there's no doubt in my mind."
How long he plays- if he plays-Sept. 7 is a moot point. The Panthers rely on Newton to jumpstart an otherwise stagnant offense that lost Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell and returns just two starting linemen. The only dependable man up front is Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil.
It's hard to tell which is a bigger concern, Newton's fractured rib or his surgically repaired ankle. The latter forced him from a majority of offseason workouts before seeing limited action against Kansas City Aug. 17. One week later, New England linebacker Jamie Collins stepped on Newton's back as he dove forward.
Five years ago, Ben Roethlisberger played through a similar injury in leading Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl victory. The difference between his and Newton's rib injuries is that Roethlisberger's remained a secret until after the season. He didn't play through 16-plus games as Newton intends.
Newton ranked seventh in both touchdown passes and total passing yards among NFC quarterbacks. He also cracked the top 15 rush yards leaders with 585 running yards, trailing teammate DeAngelo Williams by four slots.
There was cause for concern even before Netwon's injury. He's decline from 4,051 passing yards in 2011 to 3,869 in 2012 to 3,379 last years. Passing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns have seen a similar decline. And this was with a relatively healthy starter.
Newton's ankle won't be at 100 percent when the season starts. Neither will his ribs. Carolina's best be may be to rest him sporadically, or risk losing their Pro Bowl quarterback once December rolls around.
2. Who are the new faces at wide receiver?
Sure-fire Hall of Famer Steve Smith is gone. So are Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr., 1,183 yards and 10 touchdowns. In their place, a group of unproven receivers led by rookie Kelvin Benjamin and NFL journeyman Jerricho Cotchery.
Cotchery is coming off his first 600-plus receiving yards season since 2009. The number as somewhat inflated, given Pittsburgh's weak receiving corps. The 10-year veteran signed for $5 million in anticipation of being Newton's primary option. Benjamin could evolve into a No. 1 starter, but that'll take time.
Newcomer Jason Avant expects to be used as a No. 3 option after playing a similar role in Philadelphia the last few years.
At the least, Newton still has tight end Greg Olson. The duo connected for a team-leading 73 receptions and 816 yards, further emphasizing Newton's ability to find short-yardage targets.
The Panthers' free agent acquisitions were underwhelming. Criticism reached the team's locker room prompting Newton to say "It's kind of like a slap in - only the face- by my face, as well. The things that have been said, the reports, who cares?"
Newton might care once if a revamped receiving core can't step up.
3. Is Greg Hardy worth the franchise tag?
Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy faces a six-game suspension if his guilty verdict for assaulting and threating his ex-girlfriend isn't overturned.
Hardy would be the first player reprimanded under the new rule, a result of backlash NFL commission Roger Goodell received for Ray Rice's lenient sentence following a similar incident. If the league waits for an official verdict, Hardy would play a full season.
That doesn't mean the Panthers should prepare for the worst. Hardy is coming off a monstrous 15-sack season that led Carolina to put the franchise tag on him. They knew of his various legal issues, mainly speeding tickets and multiple traffic violations. The charges are elementary compared to one that potentially keeps Hardy off the field nearly half a season.
Carolina's front line is exceptional nonetheless. Charles Johnson notched 11 sacks and interior lineman Star Lotulelei added three. Second-year tackle Kawaan Short may step in Hardy's spot if worse comes to worst.
Kelvin Benjamin- WR
That Benjamin is Carolina's No. 1 receiver is reason enough to draft him. The 6-fot-5, 240-pound rookie is the biggest and fastest deep threat Newton has.
The knock on Benjamin is that he's a mistake-prone player. The Panthers took him in the first round when others projected him in the second or third. Still, Benjamin is going to get a lot of touches early. This preseason he has 12 catches for 173 yards and one touchdown. Benjamin will be a late-round steal if he could play anywhere near that level during the regular season.
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