The regular season is almost upon us and that means it is that time of year when the experts start to disrepect the Panthers. Almost any article about the outlook of the Panthers 2014 season has them regressing to third or fourth place in the NFC South. Grantland’s Bill Barnwell released an article a few days ago, basically regurgitating the same reasons every other analyst has given for the Panthers impending downfall. I am here to tell you that these experts are absolutely wrong and will be eating their words come playoff time.
Let’s start with the weakness everyone points to first, the wide receivers. The loss of Steve Smith hurts. After the dust of the draft and free agency settled, I still believed Gettleman made the wrong move in releasing Smith. Smith would have been the perfect mentor for Benjamin. The Panthers would then have a solid group of veterans to surround Kelvin Benjamin with. Word from camp is that Benjamin has not dropped a single pass in Spartanburg and our very own Cat Crave editor Bryan Palmese believes in KB’s talent.
Almost everyone believes the Panthers wide receivers were better last year than the current roster, but were they really? Last time I checked, Ted Ginn was an afterthought before Ricky Proehl “revitalized” his career in Carolina. Brandon Lafell had a few good games, but seemed to regress and disappear as the season went on. Lafell has shown little progress as a receiver in his 3 seasons as a Panther. Jericho Cotchery and Jason Avant are proven and reliable veterans. I consider both an upgrade over Ginn and Lafell. This unit is going to be better this season and that does not even factor in the tight ends.
It was another rough offseason in salary cap hell for Gettleman and the Panthers. They watched as the Falcons, Saints, and Bucs all signed big names in free agency; but Gettleman is shrewd. He knows how to fix areas of need with value signings. Perhaps his best signing this offseason was the former Ravens tight end Ed Dickson. Dickson had a rough season last year with injuries and inconsistency, but playing alongside Greg Olsen (The Panthers receiving leader in 2013) will take pressure off him. With Dickson, the Panthers can run more 2 TE sets, as they did during Cam’s rookie season when he passed for over 4,000 yards. Ed Dickson is big bodied (6’4″, 255 pounds) which will help in blocking and red zone situations. The Panthers have reportedly been lining Dickson out wide on several plays in camp. A trio of KB, Ed Dickson, and Olsen will be a matchup nightmare for many teams. Mark my words, the Panthers offense will be improved this season thanks to increased versatility and an influx of sure-handed vets.
Not only will the offense be improved, but so will the defense. The front seven will be even better. But just like last season, experts question the secondary. Mike Mitchell (another afterthought until his stint in Carolina) was a tough loss, but the Panthers replaced him with a former Pro Bowler in Thomas DeCoud (2012). DeCoud has never played behind a front seven like Carolina’s in his career. He had 83 tackles last season with the Falcons patchwork defense and still has some game left in the tank (although I do not anticipate any more Pro Bowls). Roman Harper is another vet, past his prime but his experience will pay dividends late in the season. Gettleman and Rivera are also likely using the former NFC South safeties to get an inside scoop on the game planning of their divisional rivals. Couple this group of vets with the young potential the Panthers have in Melvin White and Bene Benwikere, and this defense will be contending for best in the NFL this season.
Are you surprised I have been ranting for so long and still haven’t mentioned Cam Newton? Well here you go, 2014 will be Cam Newton’s best season as a pro. It will be the first season he will be playing without pain in his ankle, thanks to offseason surgery. Cam is still a little rusty in camp, but has quickly established a rapport with KB. He will have more versatility with the weapons around him and should continue to improve as a passer. Cam is the engine that drives the Panthers and they go as far as he takes them. Repeating as NFC South champions will be a tough task, but not impossible.
The Panthers will return to the playoffs this season. I am sick and tired of reading all the expert opinions predicting a decline in 2014. This Carolina Panthers team is still one of the best in the NFL. Their 2014 campaign may surprise many, but it won’t surprise anybody who actually follows the team. Keep pounding Panthers fans, the best is yet to come.