Carolina Panthers Season Prediction

Overview:

Schedule: LVR, @TB, @LAC, ARI, @ATL, CHI, @NO, ATL, @KC, TB, DET, @MIN, BYE, DEN, @GB, @WAS, NO

Additions: OL Russell Okung (Trade), QB Teddy Bridgewater (FA), WR Robby Anderson (FA), EDGE Stephen Weatherly (FA), S Juston Burris (FA), OL John Miller (FA), WR Seth Roberts (FA), DL Zach Kerr (FA), LB Tahir Whitehead (FA), KR/PR Pharoh Cooper (FA), CB Eli Apple (FA), WR Keith Kirkwood (FA), DL Derrick Brown (Draft), EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos (Draft), S Jeremy Chinn (Draft), CB Troy Pride (Draft), DL Bravvion Roy (Draft)

Losses: LB Luke Kuechly (Retired), DL Wes Horton (Retired), QB Cam Newton (FA), CB James Bradberry (FA), EDGE Mario Addison (FA), DL Gerald McCoy (FA), DL Vernon Butler (FA), OL Greg Van Roten (FA), TE Greg Olsen (FA), EDGE Bruce Irvin (FA), OL Daryl Williams (FA), DL Kyle Love (FA), K Graham Gano (FA), OL Trai Turner (Trade), QB Kyle Allen (Trade), LB Andre Smith (Trade), EDGE Christian Miller (Opt-out), CB Eli Apple (Injury), WR Keith Kirkwood (Injury)

Analysis:

Sometimes, youth isn’t a good thing. Carolina may have promising young players on defense, but they’re going to get killed this year. Seriously, this could end up being the worst defense in football. That’s what happens when an already porous defense loses virtually all its veteran talent in one offseason.

Among a long list of names, none stands out more than Luke Kuechly. I don’t think we’ll truly appreciate the future Hall of Famer’s value until we see the Panthers defense without him. Famous for his defensive IQ and rigorous film study, Kuechly routinely called out plays and literally pushed his teammates to get set in the right spots. The drop off from him to Tahir Whitehead is almost unfathomable. It’s also worth monitoring whether Shaq Thompson is ready to be the top linebacker after years as a sidekick.

James Bradberry’s play wasn’t up to Kuechly’s level, but his departure could be similarly devastating. Without him, this secondary looks awful. Donte Jackson is way too inconsistent to be a CB1. Not to mention, he’s simply too small for certain matchups. That will leave the other projected starter, Troy Pride Jr., with more responsibility than the typical number two corner. Needless to say, having a fourth-round rookie guard Michael Thomas or Julio Jones is not ideal. Even when Eli Apple returns from IR, cornerback will remain a weakness. While the safeties are better, they’re still not great. Tre Boston’s tackling issues offset his coverage value and Juston Burris is unproven as a full-time starter.

From a cast of uninspiring options, the front four shines as the defensive group with the most promise. Not just by default, either; they could actually be pretty good. Derrick Brown is too big and fast to endure rookie struggles. He’ll also benefit from the return of Kawann Short. After missing almost all of last season, the two-time Pro Bowler will provide a big boost to the line.

On the edge, Brian Burns gets a lot of hype after posting 7.5 sacks in limited reps. His pass rushing was never in doubt, though. The question coming out was always whether he could develop into a three-down player. Rookie Yetur Gross-Matos and free agent signing Stephen Weatherly will rotate at the other end spot. Considering the supporting cast, this line will have to dominate for the defense to be anything other than awful. Unfortunately, I think they’re more good than great.

Unlike the defense, the offense is in good shape despite heavy turnover. Cam Newton leaving was only a formality at this point. We haven’t seen the real Super Cam is almost two years because of injuries. I’m not a big Teddy Bridgewater guy, but he’s undoubtedly a step up from last year’s quarterbacks. He also gets the benefit of some spectacular weapons around him.

Christian McCaffrey is the best running back in football. That’s right. No one else can match his dual-threat ability or production. Receivers D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Robby Anderson are up there for the best in football, too. I am worried about Bridgewater maximizing their skills, though. Each of those guys can fly, and the former Vikings and Saints quarterback has a bad history of conservative decision-making. Hopefully, he’ll recognize the team’s strengths and take more chances this year. In year one without Greg Olsen, the tight ends will be unspectacular, yet solid. Chris Manhertz is a supreme blocker at the position and Ian Thomas has flashed as a receiver.

Like most teams, this unit’s success will come down to the play of the offensive line. After an awful 2019, they have nowhere to go but up, right? Probably. That doesn’t mean they’ll be good, though. Guards Greg Van Roten and Trai Turner weren’t the problem last year, but they’re both gone. In return for the latter, Carolina received a solid left tackle in Russell Okung. With Taylor Moton on the right side, tackle play won’t be the issue. That would be the interior, where none of the options are inspiring. Center Matt Paradis was a tremendous disappointment in year one of a big contract. John Miller comes over from a terrible Cincinnati line to start at one guard spot while 2019 sixth-rounder Dennis Daley will take the other after a tumultuous rookie year.

Besides the lack of talent, another worry with this team is the coaching staff. Matt Rhule could end up being a great hire, but the longtime college coach will likely need time to transition to the pro game. The same could be said of the coordinators, who are just as inexperienced. I really wish Rhule would’ve hired an experienced DC instead of bringing along Phil Snow. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady is more promising. After spending years with Sean Payton and overseeing Joe Burrow’s record-breaking season at LSU, the 30-year-old could be the latest genius fast-tracked to a head coaching position. Still, there’s going to be a learning curve for him, too.

Honestly, five wins might have been a little generous. Everytime I see people call Carolina a sleeper team, I cringe. If everything goes right, maybe they can compete for a wildcard spot. I just don’t see how the defense and coaching inexperience allow that to happen, though. Throw in a tough schedule, and we have one of the favorites in the Tank for Trevor race.

What’s your record prediction for the Panthers? What did I get right or wrong? Sound off in the comments.

Looking Back…Who Won the Panthers-Bills Kelvin Benjamin Trade?

The History

Part of the famous 2014 receiver class, Benjamin exploded onto the scene. His 1,008 yards tied Greg Olsen for the team lead. After such a successful rookie campaign, expectations were through the roof for his second year.

Then, an ACL injury brought the hype train to a screeching halt. Faced with the adversity of losing his top receiver, Cam Newton responded with an MVP season and 17-2 record (with one of those losses unfortunately coming in the Super Bowl). Still, the Panthers had just completed one of the best seasons in league history without their stud receiver, so morale remained high.

Benjamin nearly posted 1,000 yards again in 2016, but the team failed to recapture its magic and stumbled to a 6-10 record. Midway through a weight-watching 2017 season, Carolina made the choice to move on from its recent first-round pick.

Buffalo was the perfect trade partner. After poaching their head coach and general manager from the Panthers earlier that year, this was an opportunity to potentially snag a star from the same organization. Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane had experience with Benjamin from their Carolina days and valued him enough to pull the trigger

Buffalo Post Trade

Photo by Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

Expectations were almost non-existent in McDermott’s first year, but his team was a feisty 5-2 when they traded for Benjamin. Three days after the trade, the Bills lost to the Jets with Benjamin unavailable.

From there, Buffalo fell back to Earth. Including the Jets loss, they went just 4-5 the rest of the way. It’s tough to put too much blame on Benjamin, though, as the Bills were far worse than their record and fortunate to finish 9-7.

Still, Benjamin was a massive disappointment, even by the most generous standards. His best game for Buffalo that season was 5 catches for 70 yards in a blowout loss to the Patriots. Every other time out, he posted 42 yards or less. On top of that, a knee injury cost him two games.

Overall, it was a dud first season for Benjamin. He was acquired to bolster a lackluster receiving corps and catapult the Bills to their first playoff appearance in 18 years. And while the team accomplished the latter (before promptly losing to Jacksonville in one of the worst quarterback matchups in postseason history), Benjamin doesn’t deserve much credit for that. Not only was his production underwhelming, but it came with these receivers stealing targets from him.

Even so, Benjamin’s fifth-year option—accepted by Carolina before the trade—gave him an opportunity to redeem himself.

Unfortunately, year two in Buffalo wasn’t any better. In fact, it was pretty much a mirror image of the year before. His best game (4 catches for 71 yards) came in a blowout loss while his next-highest yardage output was 45.

With a 4-8 record and little return on their investment, Buffalo chose to cut their losses by releasing Benjamin. Kansas City quickly snapped him up, but even Patrick Mahomes couldn’t save Benjamin. His two catches with the Chiefs proved to be his last in the NFL, as he looks to be de facto retired.

Benjamin showed as a rookie that he had the tools to be a successful receiver, but his ACL injury brought effort and attitude concerns to the surface. Not long after, those concerns swallowed up his career.

To make matters worse, Benjamin trashed Newton instead of taking responsibility for his failures. This is a guy who had more memes made about his weight than catches outside of Carolina and yet he thought people would take his side over Cam’s.

While this move didn’t work out, the Panthers North experiment has been successful overall. Much of their roster has Carolina ties or was drafted with the same philosophy in mind. The prices of some of those signings have been questionable and Josh Allen has his doubters, but the Bills are the favorites to win their division and threats to make a deep playoff run.

Even though the team is in a good place now, this was still a terrible trade. It’s not an issue of overcompensation—third and seventh-round picks certainly don’t break the bank—Benjamin was just that bad in Buffalo. Between his poor production and locker room presence, he hurt the team more than helped it.

Carolina Post Trade

Photo by Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

Carolina was a good team both before this trade and after it. 5-3 with Benjamin, they finished 11-5 and playoff bound. The slightly improved record doesn’t conclusively show they improved after the trade, but there’s a case to be made.

For as productive as Benjamin was, his impact didn’t match the numbers. From 2014-17, Carolina’s regular season was 18-21-1 with him and 21-3 without him. Without his go-to target, Newton worked through his reads more and the offense was more dangerous as a result.

Benjamin’s departure opened the door for Devin Funchess to take over as WR1. The third-year man responded immediately with 17 catches for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns over the first 3 games post trade. But, as has become a theme of his career, the flashes didn’t sustain for Funch. After spotty production to end the season, he flopped as top dog in 2018.

As a team, Carolina imploded after a hot start. A 6-2 record was followed by 7 straight losses before a season-ending win over the Saints’ reserves. Funchess’ year was a similar story—minus the hot start. With just 549 yards on the season, his most memorable game was a dropfest in his Detroit homecoming.

Thankfully for the Panthers, they didn’t put all their eggs in Funchess’ basket. Amid the since-departed receiver’s struggles, first-round pick D.J. Moore showed the future was bright. Explosive with the ball in his hands, Moore doubled down on his promising rookie season with the ninth-most receiving yards in the league last year.

Moore may be an improvement over Benjamin, but it’s been a rough couple seasons in Carolina. The draft picks they received have done nothing to help right the ship, either.

Gaulden, the selection with Buffalo’s third-rounder, was a questionable decision on draft night and an unquestionably poor one now. He rarely saw the field before getting cut midway through last season. A little over two years after being drafted, he is not on a roster.

Carolina’s other pick could end up with a better career than Gaulden despite being taken 150 picks later. That doesn’t say much, though, and Smith too has struggled to find snaps on defense. But unlike Gaulden, he’s carved out a role as something of a special teams ace. Decade-long careers can be built upon that, so Smith could stick around for a while.

Even if Smith becomes the Panthers’ next Colin Jones, it’s tough to call this a good deal for the team. Realistically, the best thing they got was removing the temptation to re-sign Benjamin. His numbers warranted a continued stay, but he clearly would have been a ticking time bomb had that came true.

Knowing it could have ended even worse is the best way for Panthers fans to look back on the Benjamin era fondly.

Final Verdict: Panthers Win

If there was ever a lose-lose trade, this might be it. Benjamin might not have been a great receiver for the Panthers, but he was at least productive, and they got almost nothing in return for him. Calling them winners is more by default than anything, as Buffalo failed even harder.

Who do you think won the trade? What deal should I look at next? Sound off in the comments.

Sixthstringqb Podcast Episode 6

Sixthstringqb Episode 6

Amaël and Ben are back to break down all the crazy NFL news and rumors. Then, they once again bash the Madden and ESPN position rankings—this time with tight ends and wide receivers. As usual, they also get sidetracked and reminisce about or debate various topics.

Sixthstringqb Podcast Episode 5

Sixthstringqb Episode 5

A ton has happened since our last episode, and we’re here to break it all down for you. Amaël and Ben detail the good and bad about every new contract and hit on serious issues like Desean Jackson’s comments and Washington’s name change. Then, they tee off on Madden and ESPN for their terrible position rankings.

Sixthstringqb Podcast Episode 4

Sixthstringqb Episode 4

We have a huge episode 4 for you guys, with Amaël and Ben dissecting the biggest stories of the week and then putting on their thinking caps for this week’s main segment. After hours of research, we give you the division with the most talent and the division with the least talent at each position group.

Sixthstringqb Podcast Episode 3

Sixthstringqb Episode 3

Episode 3 is here, with the guys answering your AMA questions. Besides that, Amaël and Ben do their usual breakdowns of recent NFL news. They also debate whether the G.O.A.T. should be based on talent or accomplishments and whether you should wipe sitting or standing.