Panthers draft speed, Newton-Turner offense top concern

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers carries the ball against the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07: Quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers carries the ball against the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s reputation means Cam Newton is expected to lead the offense with a return to 2015 MVP form…

Incoming Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s reputation for quarterback coaching means Cam Newton‘s offense is expected to return to 2015 MVP form—saying ‘or better’ is going to be a truth for many fans.

Two weeks after the 2018 NFL Draft, a month and change from training camp and four months to their season opener at home on September 9 against the Dallas Cowboys, Panther fans have time to dream about the catch-run statistics that first-round pick D.J. Moore (Maryland) should put together this year. How many passes a fast (4.32 40 yd.) defensive back Donte Jackson (LSU) catches up to and tips away could be ‘a bunch’.

Over seven rounds and some recent free agent signings, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney did pretty well in selecting personnel to fix trouble spots from last year — defensive secondary, elite receivers, team speed at skill positions. Offensive line and running back got ignored to some degree in the draft and while there aren’t guaranteed replacements for running back Jonathan Stewart or All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell, coach Ron Rivera expressed confidence that Carolina already had pieces (Taylor Moton, Tyler Larsen, Greg Van Roten, Amini Silatolu, Blaine Clausell) ready to be developed through competition. Center Ryan Kalil will anchor the line in his swan song year.

A stud running back would certainly be a welcome addition and the Panthers now have C.J. Anderson, who gained 1,007 yards for Denver in 2017. Carolina hasn’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since both Stewart and DeAngelo Williams did it in 2009 and it’s hard to imagine a ball control type like Rivera going totally aerial with Turner’s offensive system. The versatile Christian McCaffrey (117/435 yards/2 TDs) is still not regarded as an every down back and Cameron Artis-Payne had a mere 95 yards on 18 carries. Newton’s 754 yards on 139 attempts led the team, but it’s doubtful he’ll do that in the 2018 offensive scheme.

In their most recent Super Bowl year the Panthers averaged 31.3 points per game, then slid to 23.1 and 22.7 last year. Newton (291/492/3302 yards, 22 TD/16 INT/80.7 rating) is central to an offense that ranked No. 19 last year, so it should come as no surprise Hurney emphasized jazzing the offense while upgrading the Panthers receiver corps through the draft and acquisition. First round pick D.J. Moore (Maryland) is going to be a bell weather part of that group and his toughness in running after the catch should thrill fans and help keep the sticks moving.

Related Story: D.J. Moore is better than Calvin Ridley

Devin Funchess (63/840/8 TD) blossomed as ‘the big receiver’ after Kelvin Benjamin was traded mid-season and Jarius Wright, who played in Turner’s system in Minnesota, should be the slot receiver Carolina needed. McCaffrey (80/651/5 TD) will be even more of a threat in year two and if Torrey Smith (from Philadelphia via trade) had a sub-par 2017, he should rebound and help stretch defenses for the Panthers. Damiere Byrd and Corn Elder are players that haven’t had opportunities to produce due to injury and the receiving corps seems legitimately in good stead, even if available roster spots mean trimming from 11 current options.

New tight end Ian Thomas (Indiana) is regarded as a project and he gains the mentoring of the estimable Greg Olsen, who thankfully decided against leaving for a Monday Night Football gig. The 33-year old Olsen is happy with incentives in his contract extension and playing in Charlotte, that benefits everyone, especially Thomas whose body and athleticism has brought comparisons to Antonio Gates but collegiate production only amounted to about one catch per game. Turner’s system often uses two tight ends and Newton benefited greatly from that as a rookie, with Jeremy Shockey and Olsen catching short passes.

Related Story: Two tight end sets benefit Panthers

Despite going 11-5, the defense barely turned anyone over—only 10 interceptions for the year, three by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Star Lotulelei left the defense for a five year-big bucks contract with Buffalo, a fact management knew was coming when they spread around defensive cash after the Super Bowl year that didn’t leave cap space for another big (i.e.-DT Kawaan Short, $12.5M contract). Dontari Poe (3 yrs./$27M) from Atlanta via free agency is a productive replacement.

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Marquis Haynes (Mississippi) is a speed rusher very similar to Mario Addison (11 sacks in 2017) and Rivera sees him in the JOKER role, meaning a wild card that offenses will have to account for because he’ll line up in multiple formations and drop into coverage versus strictly being a hand on the ground defensive end. Donte Jackson’s speed can’t help but make a huge difference in coverage and his confidence about having played every game for three years against max-tough SEC competition trumps any notion he’s ‘small’ at 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds.

Graham Gano (29/30 FG/121 pts/91.9%) would have been franchise tagged if he hadn’t signed a 4-year, $17M deal. While that’s a fair amount of production, the Panthers offense settling for three after not being able to get into the end zone was a liability – bringing Turner in should change things.

The Panthers schedule features the NFC East and AFC North this year, including reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who they’ve never beaten on the road during the regular season.

Next: Running Back Gets More Crowded

Another 11-5 year would be a solid start to what should be a playoff run for the 2018 Panthers.