Are the Carolina Panthers Headed for a Free Fall in 2014?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 15, 2014

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) passes the ball against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of a divisional playoff NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

For some NFL teams, like the San Francisco 49ers, the offseason seems very much like a stop at a gas station on their annual journey toward the playoffs.

Grab some unleaded, a five-gallon bucket of Mountain Dew and some beef jerky, and it's back on the road.

For the Carolina Panthers, who made a surprise run to a 12-4 record and NFC South title in 2013, it's been more like barreling into that parking lot and slamming into the pumps at about 50 miles per hour.

And given that, plus what the teams around them in the division have done this offseason, a second straight division title is looking less and less likely by the day.

The problems began not too long after the 2013 season concluded.

First, left tackle Jordan Gross decided to call it quits, telling Joseph Person of The Charlotte Observer he'd accomplished just about everything he wanted to over his 14 seasons in the National Football League:

I’ve been to a Super Bowl. I’ve been in the Pro Bowl. I’ve won the division. I’ve been 2-14. I’ve been carted off the field. I’ve been celebrated off the field. I’ve had almost everything happen to me that can happen, short of winning the Super Bowl. I feel like I’m a very content person.

The loss of a Pro Bowl blindside protector is bad enough, but it only got worse from there.

The Carolina receiving corps was absolutely shredded by free agency. Veteran Steve Smith, who has been the Panthers' top wideout for years, departed for the Baltimore Ravens after being released in March. Ted Ginn Jr. (Arizona Cardinals), Domenik Hixon (Chicago Bears) and Brandon LaFell (New England Patriots) followed Smith out the door.

It wasn't just on offense, either. The Panthers also lost their top-ranked cornerback at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) from last year, when Captain Munnerlyn joined the Minnesota Vikings.

Of course, attrition is nothing new in the NFL. Teams lose players all the time.

However, the Panthers also weren't in a position to do much about those losses, at least in free agency.

The same precarious salary-cap situation that prevented the Panthers from retaining many of these players also left them little wiggle room with which to replace them.

Not only did the Panthers miss out on "top tier" free-agent receivers like Eric Decker and Hakeem Nicks, but even the middling options slipped through Carolina's fingers.

The Panthers did add a pair of receivers in free agency, but Tiquan Underwood and Jerricho Cotchery aren't exactly the type of pass-catcher that inspires dread in opposing secondaries.

Still, all was hardly lost. After all, there's still the draft, right?

Yeah, about that.

Carolina Panthers 2014 NFL Draft
128Kelvin BenjaminWRFSUC
260Kony EalyDEMizzouD
392Trai TurnerOGLSUC
4128Tre BostonSSUNCC
5148Bene BenwikereCBSJSUC
6204Tyler GaffneyRBStanfordB+
* Per CBS Sports

The Panthers' draft haul was not especially well-received by most in the draftnik community. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports gave the draft a "D," writing that, "I didn't like their first two picks in Benjamin and pass rusher Kony Ealy. They had other needs. They needed to pick an offensive tackle and they didn't."

Bucky Brooks of was a bit kinder, giving the Panthers a "C+," but both scribes were among the majority that view it as the worst in the NFC South.

Benjamin is a talented youngster, but he may not have been the best wideout available at that spot. He certainly wasn't the most pro-ready. The same goes for cornerback Bene Benwikere, who is a ways off from contributing on defense.

And the hole at left tackle? Crickets. Nothing.

But wait, there's more!

Quarterback Cam Newton went under the knife for ankle surgery in March. Newton told Person last month that he's recovering at a “rapid pace," but according to Bleacher Report Injury Expert Dr. Dave Siebert, Newton is a good bet to miss "a significant portion of preseason workouts."

That also means missing a huge chunk of time that could be used to develop chemistry with all those new wide receivers.

Even the Panthers' vaunted front seven hasn't been immune. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who the Panthers franchise-tagged after a 15-sack 2013 campaign, was arrested this week on charges of assaulting a female acquaintance.

Yes, Hardy hasn't been convicted of anything. He's never run afoul of the NFL before, so a suspension as the result of these misdemeanor charges (as things stand today) would appear unlikely.

However, as Michael Gordon of The Charlotte Observer reports, 911 calls placed from Hardy's home paint conflicting pictures involving alcohol, domestic violence and possibly dozens of loaded guns.

Never mind the Nelly connection:

Wait, what?

Regardless of the outcome, it's just one more issue that must be addressed. One more distraction the team doesn't need.

Does this mean all hope is lost? No. After all, no one gave the Panthers a shot at winning the South last year with what Brooks called a "patchwork" roster.

With that said, while the rest of the NFC South appears to have gotten better, that patchwork roster has even more holes than last year. And the star quarterback is rehabbing from surgery. And the team's best pass-rusher is in trouble with the law.

One of those issues, by themselves? Maybe not the end of the world.

Add them all up, though, and it doesn't bode well for Carolina's chances of repeating as division champs.


Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.

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