The Comeback is previewing all 32 NFL teams from worst to first leading up to the start of the 2017 regular season on Sept. 7. Coming in at No. 12 on our rankings are the unpredictable Carolina Panthers.
2016 in a nutshell: Constantly under pressure due to a lack of support, quarterback Cam Newton followed up an MVP campaign with the worst season of his career, ranking dead last among qualifiers in terms of completion percentage and 28th in terms of passer rating. Throw in a defense that lacked bite with Josh Norman gone and Luke Kuechly missing extended time and it’s no surprise a Super Bowl hangover left the Panthers out of the playoffs with a 6-10 record.
What’s different: Carolina gave Newton some more support with rookie weapons Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, and added a new left tackle in former top-five pick Matt Kalil. But they also lost tackle Mike Remmers and fired general manager Dave Gettleman just days before the start of training camp.
Why they could be awesome: Newton was the MVP just a year ago, and a very similar team went to the freakin’ Super Bowl.
Why they could suck: Norman still hasn’t been replaced, Kuechly might never be the same, Newton has been hampered by a bad shoulder throughout training camp and the preseason, and the Gettleman firing could be a bad omen.
Major additions: Carolina brought back former Panthers Julius Peppers and Captain Munnerlyn and added Kalil at an exorbitant rate.
Major losses: Offensive tackle Mike Remmers and speedy receiver Ted Ginn Jr. departed as free agents.
Breakout watch: With so much turnover at wide receiver and cornerback in recent years, Carolina will be counting on two young receivers — fourth-year first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin and third-year second-rounder Devin Funchess — and two young corners — second-year second-rounder James Bradberry and second-year third-rounder Daryl Worley — to take steps forward.
Position to watch: A once-vaunted defensive line is weird right now. It’s old and rusty on the outside (Peppers is 37, Charles Johnson 31, Mario Addison 29) and deep and young on the inside (recent premier draft picks Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Vernon Butler). It’s still a strong position, though, and if they contend this year it’ll likely have to do with what they get from that group.
Prediction: Like I said, the Panthers are unpredictable. This is a team that made the playoffs despite winning just one game in an 11-week span in 2014, won 19 of their next 20 games between late-2014 and the end of 2015 and then lost five of its first six games in 2016. A lot of it is tied to Newton, his health and his supporting cast. That’s scary, which is why I think the Panthers are a wild-card team at best.
9-7, 3rd place in the NFC South