The impact of this injury cannot be overstated. It drives a stake into the heart of the Panthers -- the NFC South champions two years running -- and has a ripple effect on the entire division.
In the wake of this major development, here's my up-to-the-second projection for the underwhelming NFC South:
1) New Orleans Saints: 9-7
But the Saints still have Drew Brees at quarterback. And even without Jimmy Graham, shipped to Seattle in the offseason, Brees remains the top signal caller in this division. Some perceived 2014 as an "off year" for Brees. Hmmm. The guy completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 4,952 yards, tied for the most in the NFL. Rumors of Brees' demise have been greatly exaggerated. And this season, Brees should be supported by a potent run game.
The last time New Orleans boasted a top-10 rushing offense? 2011, when the Saints posted a 13-3 mark. Heading into this season, the ground attack appears primed for major production. In addition to re-signing Mark Ingram, who found his groove in a breakout 2014 campaign, the Saints brought in C.J. Spiller, who provides a home-run threat in the backfield. Additionally, in the Graham trade, New Orleans acquired Max Unger, a premier center with fantastic run-blocking ability. The offense should be more balanced than it's been in years, which is a good thing.
Finally, Sean Payton is a Super Bowl-winning coach and a superb play caller. When you have the best quarterback and the best coach in the division, that's a pretty nice core.
2) Atlanta Falcons: 7-9
"I think you have to think that way all the time. We have the guys in our building to get that done -- there's no doubt about that. I firmly believe that. And I think the only way we get that done is if we take it day by day.
"If we are worried what will happen in January, that won't serve us well. We have to do it the right way and prepare the right way. We have to get guys to buy in and do that as Dan Quinn talks about all the time; that will be our recipe for success."
He's right, of course. And Quinn's arrival is key.
Last year, in mid-October, I wrote that it was time for the Falcons to cut the cord on Mike Smith. Smith deserves much credit for rescuing the franchise from the depths of embarrassment, and he won a lot of regular season games, but it was just time for the franchise to go in a new direction. And I love the direction the Falcons chose. Quinn ups the tempo, energy and accountability. He's the new voice this team needed.
Quinn is a defensive mastermind, as evidenced by his work as Seattle's D-coordinator over the past two seasons. Eventually, I think he can turn Atlanta's defense around. But does he have enough able bodies in 2015? Hard to say he does. This unit, after all, finished dead last in total defense last year. In fact, Atlanta hasn't finished higher than 24th in this area since 2011. Simply put, it's going to take some time.
On the other side of the ball, the addition of coordinator Kyle Shanahan definitely helps. He's a fine play caller and does a nice job tailoring the offense to the talent at hand. Ryan is primed for a big year, with Julio Jones healthy and Roddy White still in the mix. I believe in this passing attack ... but the running game's another story. Atlanta ranked 24th on the ground in 2014. Spotty O-line play certainly didn't help the cause. Overall, I'm concerned about the balance on offense.
3) Carolina Panthers: 6-10
General manager Dave Gettleman just has not done a very good job surrounding Cam Newton with much talent on offense. I've had a hard time understanding his approach on many fronts -- including the head-scratching release of Steve Smith last offseason. And while we're talking receivers, that's the clear issue of the moment for this team.
Honestly, I didn't think Carolina had enough at receiver before the Benjamin injury. Now? Devin Funchess is the current No. 1, and that's not fair to the second-round pick. He just doesn't appear to be as physical or NFL-ready as Benjamin was entering last season. And the rest of the Panthers' receiver depth chart looks like a witness protection program. Jerricho Cotchery? Ted Ginn Jr.? Philly Brown? Brenton Bersin? Who??
The Panthers' defense is the best in the division. There's no disputing that. But this offense is going to hold them back. There's no disputing that, either.
4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4-12
"Fans, please don't panic about one half of football," Winston said Tuesday night on WDAE-AM, via JoeBucsFan.com. "Please, there's no reason to. We did some great things and we're going to build on the positives."
That, to me, felt like an overreaction to everyone panicking around the Bucs.
What was even more telling, though, was Lovie Smith saying the No. 1 overall pick's debut was a "typical Jameis Winston day."
Huh? Going 9-for-19 with a pick is "typical"?
If that was vintage Jameis, as Lovie indicated, it's going to be another long year in Tampa Bay.