Around The NFL's season preview goes to the NFC South.
Change we can believe in
The Panthers keep losing before the games start. They lost top receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in training camp. They lost projected starting defensive end Frank Alexander to a torn Achilles. Greg Hardy was mercifully let go in free agency. The guys brought in were either past their prime (Charles Tillman, Michael Oher) or never had one (Ted Ginn, Kurt Coleman.)
Yes, the front seven is nasty. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis could be the best linebacker duo in the league. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Shortt are an excellent defensive tackle tandem to build around. But the rest of the roster is talent poor outside of Cam Newton. While he can be streaky, Newton remains the only reason to fear this offense. The team is asking more of him than ever.
Cam Newton is at once unfairly maligned and not good enough. People don't give him credit for being an above average starter that improves the mediocre talent around him. But Newton is also not a transcendent, top-five, MVP-candidate type of quarterback yet. And that's what will be required to put up points with this group. His No. 1 receiver is the artist formerly known as Philly Brown. His No. 2 receiver is a rookie (Devin Funchess) that many scouts should play tight end. The offensive line is just as shaky beyond center Ryan Kalil, with Oher a major concern for Newton on the blind side. You could argue Newton has less help around him than any quarterback in the NFL.
This would all be lessened if the Panthers could win with scheme, but offensive coordinator Mike Shula is another ankle weight for Newton. This Panthers offense is going to need Newton to run more, improvise more, and rely more on a resurgent Jonathan Stewart. That's not how to build a consistent offense.
Training camp surprise
Let's spin this one positive: Stewart is fully healthy. Peak J-Stew is like a unicorn in the wild, but he has rarely been so healthy heading into a season. Stewart has looked fresh in practices and in the preseason, and could finally have that breakout season everyone was expecting back in 2008 or so. We're not giving up hope!
What we'll be saying in February
We'll be saying that the Panthers couldn't win playing 1970's football. Everyone else will be blaming Newton.
Predicted finish: No. 3 in NFC South, No. 11 in the NFC, No. 22 overall in Around the NFL's Power Poll