4 Bold (and Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are about to begin minicamp and eventually training camp later this summer. As the regular season approaches, storylines and predictions will become more commonplace, and the Panthers will undoubtedly have their share of predictions for the 2014 season.
How bold will these predictions be?
It depends on who you ask and what is the focal point of the prediction. Most of the time, predictions are limited to just the regular-season outcome, but there is more to a team than just its record. Carolina has a lot of questions this year, and with those questions, there are bold predictions aplenty.
The next few slides will discuss four bold and four slightly less bold predictions for the Carolina Panthers during the team's 2014 run.
Bold Prediction: The Panthers Will Win at Least 10 Games
Here are the facts: Ron Rivera has seen an increase in the team's win total in each year following his first season as Carolina's head coach. Last year's team broke out and won 12 games and clinched the NFC South crown before bowing out in the playoffs to the San Francisco 49ers.
This year's team may have a lot of uncertainty surrounding it, but essentially, it's no different than last year's club that shocked many by becoming division champs and locking up the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Defensively, the Panthers are in great shape and look to be stronger up front and at linebacker. Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy will support a solid rotation on the outside and could bolster the team's pass rush by teaming up with Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on some plays when all three are on the field together. Luke Kuechly is a tackling machine and has the hardware to prove it. Thomas Davis has continued to surprise and impress.
The secondary will feature a blend of veterans and talented younger players. This year's version may be better than 2013 because of the experience and familiarity both Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud bring to the safety positions. That should give the Panthers an added edge in matchups with division rivals like the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. Plus, Robert Lester and Melvin White should continue to build upon their pleasantly surprising rookie seasons and have solid sophomore years.
Offensively, the Panthers look very weak. However, one should not underestimate the potential based on who is filling in at key positions. Cam Newton is a very capable quarterback who enjoyed his best season to date last year. He could thrive in 2014 because he will have new receivers to throw to and opposing defenses will have to adjust to the new faces at wide receiver.
The offensive line worries a lot of people. Last year, the unit was rocked by injuries, but Carolina still put together a great season. Injuries aside, the current group that will make up the offensive line will be suitable enough to help the offense be competitive.
In the end, Carolina should be able to have a winning season and notch at least 10 victories.
Slightly Less Bold Prediction: Byron Bell Will Be the Left Tackle
Sorry to upset you with this prediction, but Byron Bell looks to be the choice to fill in at left tackle in 2014. He played the position in college and is naturally left-handed, so the move to the other side of the line should be comfortable for him.
Naturally, there is concern about his ability to keep defenders at bay and off Cam Newton, as he had a tendency to get beat at times on the right side—namely against the Buffalo Bills—last year. Bell is not concerned about the past and is looking to establish himself as a solid left tackle in the league.
Newton has been sacked a lot in his first three years (43 last season), and while pass protection is a job designated for every linemen, Bell's role will be especially important. There is nothing worse than a blindside hit that can take out a quarterback or end his career prematurely.
Bell may not be a fan favorite, but he has the support and confidence of his teammates and coaches. If he didn't, the Panthers would have drafted an offensive tackle early in last month's draft.
Bold Prediction: Kelvin Benjamin Will Be Legitimate Rookie of the Year Candidate
Either you believe I am brave for predicting that Kelvin Benjamin will contend for Rookie of the Year, or you believe I need my head examined. However, Benjamin was drafted in the first round to be the future of the Panthers receiving corps. Granted, his is a bit raw and needs to be molded into a true No. 1 receiver, but he has the talent to make plays when it counts. Does the BCS national title game ring any bells?
Carolina has enjoyed seeing its rookies take home Rookie of the Year hardware in two of the last three seasons (Cam Newton in 2011 and Luke Kuechly in 2012). Ron Rivera knows how to get the most out of his players, and the system in place is one where the veterans are familiar and can help bring along the rookies.
Benjamin may not be the go-to guy in his first year, but having veteran Jerricho Cotchery on the other side of the field should keep defenses honest. It's unlikely there will be too many double-teams taking place until a clear receiver stands out as Newton's guy.
Additionally, you have to like the height advantage Benjamin will have against the cornerbacks in the league this year. Couple that with the great impression the rookie has been making in camp, and it's not out of the question that Benjamin will be a top target inside the red zone.
Much like Kuechly, Benjamin was a player that was both surprising and one that many fans really felt was not a good fit at the time. With any luck, Benjamin will take home some hardware of his own after the 2014 season ends.
Slightly Less Bold Prediction: Greg Olsen Will Be a Top-3 Receiver for Carolina
With all of the focus shifting to the wide receivers and how they will contribute, Greg Olsen appears to be getting lost in the shuffle. He should be considered Cam Newton's safety blanket and continue to be a productive member of the offense.
Acquired in a trade with the Chicago Bears prior to the 2011 season, Olsen has changed the dynamic of what it means to be a tight end in Carolina. Instead of serving as a blocking tight end, he has continued to grow as a receiver and has been mentioned in the same vein as former pass-catching tight end Wesley Walls.
Olsen led the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns last year and could build upon that success in 2014. While it is not good for a tight end to be a team's leading receiver, considering that many defenses may be caught up with defending either Cotchery or Benjamin, another big season from Olsen is well within the realm of possibility.
If the Panthers decide to employ more two-tight end sets this season, Olsen could be the main target. He should see a lot of attention on short-yardage, red-zone and goal-line situations.
Bold Prediction: Kony Ealy Will Get Very Close to 10 Sacks
The selection of Kony Ealy was a bit surprising for many Carolina fans and one that most experts dismissed as a bad pick based on the Panthers' needs at offensive tackle and defensive back. However, the selection could be construed as brilliant for two reasons. First, Ealy makes the 2015 offseason much easier to navigate, and the team keeps two talented pass-rushing defensive ends on the roster. Second, he he become very valuable to the team, as it may be without Hardy to start the season.
Hardy's legal issues have made this prediction possible. Ealy should be thrown to the wolves early, and his trial by fire will get him some great experience. Additionally, he should be able to make plays in the backfield while opposing offenses are dedicating double-teams to Charles Johnson or trying to pick up one of the three linebackers on a blitz.
There are a lot of advantages working in Ealy's favor.
It should be noted that Ealy has never recorded more than eight sacks in a season while in college, so to suggest he will get close to 10 seems a bit far-fetched. However, with more games to play and the potential to get more reps with the defense, he should be able to prove to the Carolina front office that he can be a long-term fixture at the position.
Slightly Less Bold Prediction: Greg Hardy Will Have a Down Season
Thus far, the Greg Hardy situation (he was arrested on charges of assaulting his girlfriend last month) has yet to play out completely, and it's business as usual for both the veteran defensive end and the Panthers. While it may not be a distraction now, though, the chances are fairly good that Hardy will receive some kind of disciplinary action from the league and could miss some time.
If he is indeed suspended, Hardy's overall production will not only decline, but it will make letting him test free agency a much easier decision for general manager Dave Gettleman. Even if he does appear in all 16 games, it's unlikely he will duplicate last year's numbers.
Keep in mind that Hardy had a few games in which he recorded a lot of sacks—namely against the New York Giants (three sacks), the Saints (three sacks) and the Falcons (four sacks). Seven of those came in the final two weeks, and the latter can be attributed to a weak left tackle position.
Hardy needs a good showing in 2014 because of the off-field issues that have surrounded him. He's also in a contract year, and if he expects a big payday, he will have to show that last year was no fluke. He could reach 10 sacks this year, but it will be nowhere close to his 2013 campaign.
Bold Prediction: Cam Newton Will Throw for 4,000 Yards
Cam Newton has only thrown for over 4,000 yards once in his career—his rookie season. Much of his success in reaching the 4,000-yard mark came because he was new to the league and defenses were not sure how to defend him. It's understandable when a defense is pitted against a quarterback who can make plays with both his arm and legs.
The receiving corps will be brand new in Carolina. There is not a single receiver that will line up on offense this year that caught a pass from Newton in 2013. That will change the defensive strategy of defensive coordinators, who will have to decide which receiver needs to be the focal point of the pass defense.
Additionally, Newton has gradually become more of a pocket passer, and with the extra height offered by his receivers, he shouldn't overthrow them too much. The key for him to reach 4,000 yards will be the ability of his receivers to not only get open, but to stretch the field. The Panthers are not known for throwing too many home run balls, but that does not mean they won't attempt it.
The rebuilt offense at receiver will be part of the reason why Newton becomes one of the league's top passers in 2014. The other part will be his growing maturity and better decision-making on the field.
Slightly Less Bold Prediction: The Panthers Will Play a December Night Game
The Panthers have three night games on the docket for the 2014 season. The team will appear on each prime-time stage (Monday Night Football, Thursday Night Football and Sunday Night Football) at some point during the season. However, the Panthers have three divisional games in December, and they're in contention with any of them for the division entering the final month of the regular season, they could be appearing in a fourth night game.
It will help if the Panthers are enjoying a winning season and are within a game or two of a rival. Even if they are leading the NFC South, a close gap could mean national attention on the divisional race.
The most likely culprit would be the Saints when the two square off December 7 at the Super Dome. Last year, these two saw their first meeting flexed to prime time, and while the Panthers were embarrassed, it set the stage for an epic showdown two weeks later.
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Falcons improve from last year and are contenders, they too could be involved in a nighttime meeting with Carolina. Division rivalries make for some entertaining games during the season, even more so when there are playoff implications at stake.
*Player stats provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com.