This article is part of our Team Previews series.
After a down year in the ultra-competitive NFC South, coach Ron Rivera got the Panthers back on track last season. Behind Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, Carolina should be a playoff candidate again, with Rivera aiming for consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins for the first time since taking over in 2011.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
CAN TURNER AND CO. GET NEWTON BACK TO HIS BEST?
Cam Newton's last offseason was spoiled by surgery to his throwing shoulder. His rehab resulted in him playing one preseason drive and spending the next few weeks shaking off rust. Newton's breakout didn't come until Week 4, when the once-hesitant Panthers called his number more in the running game. Despite recurring durability concerns, Newton ended 2017 with career highs in rushing attempts (139) and yards (754), but his 3,302 passing yards and 16 picks both were second-worst totals. Although his two favorite targets, Greg Olsen (injury) and Kelvin Benjamin (trade), were lost early on, it's worth wondering if Newton can again reach the heights of his rookie and MVP seasons. In response, the Panthers hired accomplished offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who will focus on improving Newton's decision-making in the pocket. While veteran signing Torrey Smith should help vertically, forceful rookie D.J. Moore joins banged-up 2017 second-rounder Curtis Samuel as a significant run-after-the-catch threat. Furthermore, the Panthers still roster Olsen and the towering Devin Funchess, not to mention Christian McCaffrey, the third-ranked tailback in terms of catches as a rookie. Protection could be an issue without guard Andrew Norwell around anymore, but a healthy, ever-mobile Newton should enjoy his new targets.
McCAFFREY IN SPOTLIGHT OF NEW-LOOK BACKFIELD
Drafted eighth overall by the Panthers last year, Christian McCaffrey was asked to provide an immediate spark to the backfield. Carolina had long relied on Jonathan Stewart to pound out yards but lacked a playmaker at running back. While McCaffrey led the team in catches (80) and targets (113), becoming a PPR standout, Stewart out-carried him in 12 of 15 games they both played, with the rookie hitting double digits just three times and averaging only 3.7 yards per rush. To his credit, McCaffrey improved during the second half, posting 4.7 YPC over the last eight games to finish with 1,086 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns on 197 touches. Such promise caused the team to cut Stewart, its franchise rushing leader, and only sign veteran C.J. Anderson after the draft. A 1,000-yard rusher himself, Anderson's power is reminiscent of Stewart's, and he offers solid insurance against the 5-11, 205-pound dynamo getting punished on a weekly basis. Still, McCaffrey is at the forefront of new coordinator Norv Turner's faster offense. Having worked with Darren Sproles, Turner should be salivating at McCaffrey's upside. However, after ranking 39th in carries last season, it's questionable how McCaffrey will handle more volume. Can he do the heavy lifting, or will he need Anderson to spot him the way Stewart did?
DAVIS DISAPPOINTMENT, BUT KUECHLY REMAINS KEY
Since pairing linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in 2012, the Panthers have boasted one of the NFL's best defenses. Davis went from oft-injured talent to five straight 100-tackle seasons. Kuechly quickly emerged as an All-Pro, sending the defense into the top 10 every year but 2016, when he missed six games due to concussions. In those outings, Carolina allowed 26 points per game, sinking to 21st in defense. With him back last season, albeit under a new coordinator, it placed seventh. While Kuechly's presence ensures excellence, the defense will have to deal with another coordinator change as well as Davis' four-game ban to start this season. Davis has missed just three tilts in six years, but last term brought his lowest tackle total (76) over that span. Meanwhile, 2015 first-rounder Shaq Thompson posted his best tally (61) and is 11 years younger. Besides Thompson, the front seven features former Pro Bowlers Julius Peppers, Kawann Short and Dontari Poe, as well as 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler and double-digit sack master Mario Addison. The Panthers hope that bevy of bullies can bide time while an unfamiliar secondary comes together and Davis watches from the sideline. Historically, though, Carolina and fantasy owners should know a healthy Kuechly is the key determinant of the defense's success.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Christian McCaffrey
Despite the signing of C.J. Anderson, McCaffrey headlines the Panthers backfield. McCaffrey stood out more as a receiver than a runner as a rookie but figures to assume a larger workload this season. After just one rush of 20-plus yards last year, more carries could unlock his big-play potential, which he's already shown through the air.
RISING: Devin Funchess
Funchess is coming off a career-high 63 catches for 840 yards and eight touchdowns, including five in eight games after Kelvin Benjamin was traded. Now, Funchess is the team's top wideout ahead of a contract year.
FALLING: Greg Olsen
Prior to playing just seven games last season due to a foot injury, Olsen posted three straight 1,000-yard campaigns. The issue resulted in career lows and raised questions about a return to form for the 11-year vet.
SLEEPER: D.J. Moore
The first wide receiver selected in this year's draft, Moore should be exciting once the ball is in his hands. Despite a horrid QB situation in college last year, he caught 80 passes for 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns.
KEY JOB BATTLE – FOURTH RECEIVER
The Panthers' passing attack seems to boast a clear top three targets in tight end Greg Olsen, wideout Devin Funchess and tailback Christian McCaffrey. Behind them, it's anticipated that there will be plenty of competition for looks. Rookie first-rounder D.J. Moore arrives with the pedigree and skill set to offer an excellent receiving alternative to Funchess, but veterans Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright and the oft-injured yet exciting Curtis Samuel also will be utilized by Cam Newton. That goes without mentioning late-season standout Damiere Byrd, evidencing the Panthers' improved pass-catching depth. New coordinator Norv Turner wants to improve Newton's efficiency, so giving him a deep and diverse set of weapons is certainly a strong start. Outside of Carolina's top three options, however, there are a bunch of relatively new faces seeking to secure spots.
C.J. Anderson – RB (from Broncos)
Late signing fresh off career-best 1,007 rushing yards.
Torrey Smith – WR (from Eagles)
Experienced starter with declining yet valuable field-stretching ability.
Jarius Wright – WR (from Vikings)
Veteran depth receiver coming off back-to-back quiet seasons.
D.J. Moore – WR (Rd. 1, No. 24 – Maryland)
Fast and physical target who can make plays in the open field.
Ian Thomas – TE (Rd. 4, No. 101 – Indiana)
Tough, big-bodied athlete with nice upside to develop.
Jonathan Stewart – RB (to Giants)
Top rusher in franchise history leaves as declining cap casualty.
Kurt Coleman – S (to Saints)
Released following three straight seasons with at least 75 tackles.
THE INJURY FRONT
Cam Newton, QB – After undergoing shoulder surgery last offseason, Newton was able to avoid an operation this time around. The area of concern was Newton's right knee, which sustained ligament and cartilage damage during the Panthers' playoff loss to the Saints. Newton was able to complete that game and throw as usual this spring, so it'd be surprising if his status is impacted once training camp kicks off.
Devin Funchess, WR – Despite experiencing his best campaign as a pro, Funchess carried a shoulder injury through the latter portion of the regular season and into the playoffs. He also rolled his ankle during the Panthers' first-round defeat, but the time off since then has allowed him to recover. That comes as great news, as he projects as Carolina's top wideout in 2018.
Curtis Samuel, WR – Samuel has battled ailments ever since being selected in the second round last year. He was slowed by a hamstring problem early on, then he landed on IR after just nine games played due to torn ligaments in his left ankle. Following surgery, Samuel hopes to return to health ahead of this season but remained limited during OTAs. He's thus someone to monitor once training camp kicks off, particularly as he competes for pegging on the depth chart.