Panthers' Disastrous Offseason Blowing the NFC South Wide Open

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Panthers' Disastrous Offseason Blowing the NFC South Wide Open
Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Defense wins championships.

Seattle’s 43-8 beatdown of Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII provided some very recent evidence in support of the power of a great defense. The Carolina Panthers had better hope the old adage continues to ring true. Because the way this offseason has developed, Carolina’s offense may be a zero-punch unit that needs to be bailed out by the defense on a weekly basis.

How many games can the Panthers win in 2014 by a score of 2-0?

Carolina announced Tuesday that quarterback Cam Newton will undergo a surgical procedure Wednesday to repair his injured left ankle. The procedure will require approximately four months of recovery time.

"The ankle was sore after the San Francisco (playoff) game and we wanted to see if rest would calm it down," Panthers head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion said in a press release. "But it is still bothering him and the decision was made to address it."

Newton first tweaked his ankle on Dec. 22, during a Week 16 win over the New Orleans Saints, according to The Charlotte Observer. He then played a Week 17 game against the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina’s playoff game two weeks after that on the sore ankle.

The procedure, according to Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer, will address stretched ligaments in the Pro Bowl quarterback’s ankle.

Newton will miss minicamp and OTAs but should be ready to go for training camp. But more questions linger. Who will Newton throw to once training camp begins? Who will protect the Panthers’ franchise quarterback?

In most situations, a surgical procedure to the face of the franchise so close to offseason workouts would be the worst news imaginable. For the Panthers, Newton going under the knife barely squeaks into the top three bad situations for Carolina this offseason.

The Panthers have been repeatedly battered with bad news about their offense since season’s end. As the bad news piles up, Carolina’s stranglehold on the NFC South crown could be slipping away.

In addition to Newton’s scheduled surgery, Carolina’s offensive line has been decimated.

Three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross announced his retirement in February after 11 seasons with the Panthers.  According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Gross was the third-ranked offensive tackle in the NFL last season and was Carolina’s best offensive lineman.

Gross only allowed six sacks, one quarterback hit and 22 hurries last season, and his absence will be sorely missed. The Panthers will desperately search for a replacement for Gross, but the answer might not be on Carolina’s roster currently. Byron Bell, who played right tackle for the Panthers last season, could slide over. Nate Chandler, who started at right guard the final 10 games of the season (including the playoff game), is also an option.

But there’s a huge drop off in talent from Gross to any of those guys. Bell was ranked as the No. 52 tackle by Pro Football Focus. Chandler was the 61st-ranked guard.

Travelle Wharton was Carolina’s second-best offensive lineman last season. Wharton started all but one game at left guard in 2013 and was ranked fifth in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. But Wharton is an unrestricted free agent who pondered retirement and then was linked to the Minnesota Vikings before they re-signed Charlie Johnson. He still remains unsigned.

The Panthers also lost Geoff Hangartner and Jeff Byers to retirement.

The only certainties for the Panthers’ offensive line is that Ryan Kalil will play center, Bell and Chandler will play somewhere along the line and Carolina has much work to do to fill the other two spots. Even with the talents of Gross and Wharton, Newton’s been one of the most knocked-around quarterbacks in the league since 2011.

As it stands in mid-March, Newton is hurt and his offensive line has been gutted. But there’s still more bad news for this offense.

Four different wide receivers caught passes from Newton last season: Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. None of these receivers is currently on Carolina’s roster.

Let that sink in for a moment.

There isn’t a receiver left in Carolina that Newton connected with in 2013. Sure, tight end Greg Olsen is still around, and he was Carolina’s leading pass-catcher last season. Newton also has his pass-catching running backs still on the roster.

But when it comes to spreading someone out wide, Newton had better be ready for change.

Where is the Carolina Panthers' 2013 WR Corps?
Player Receptions Targets TD's New Team
Steve Smith 64 109 4 Baltimore
Brandon LaFell 49 88 5 New England
Ted Ginn Jr. 36 68 5 Arizona
Domenik Hixon 7 9 1 Chicago

ESPN

Smith was unceremoniously released by the Panthers on March 13 and found a new home with the Baltimore Ravens the next day. LaFell is now with the New England Patriots, Ginn with the Arizona Cardinals and Hixon signed with the Chicago Bears.

Carolina still has six wide receivers on its roster, but none caught a pass for the Panthers last season. Only two—Toney Clemons (three receptions for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012) and Kealoha Pilares (two receptions for the Panthers in 2012)—have ever caught a pass in the NFL.

The Panthers have huge holes to fill on the offensive line and at wide receiver, and according to Over The Cap, only have $7.8 million in cap space to play with. Carolina might be able to address some of this with a second- or third-tier free agent, but more than likely the Panthers are going to have to draft well.

How many games will the Panthers win in 2014?

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Carolina finished 12-4 last season and won the NFC South. The Panthers edged the New Orleans Saints by one game and had plenty of space between them and the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bucs have been very busy in free agency, and their roster was too talented for that 4-12 record to truly be indicative of how good that team was. New head coach Lovie Smith is pushing to transform the Tampa Bay franchise, and the Bucs will make a push in the division sooner rather than later.

Atlanta had depth issues last season after injuries decimated its roster. Like Tampa Bay, there’s too much talent on the Falcons’ roster to think this team will remain a 4-12 afterthought. When injured stars return and Atlanta’s draft class joins an already potent collection of free agents, Atlanta could return to its winning ways.

There has never been a repeat champion in the NFC South.  Each team has won the division exactly three times, but never in back-to-back seasons. With Carolina a potential fall-off candidate, and Atlanta and Tampa Bay on the rise, the NFC South in 2014 may be wide open for a new champion.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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