The Carolina Panthers have become a popular pick to take a step back this season, but I'm not concerned with a lack of talent on their roster; rather, I'm concerned that they'll become victims of an NFC conference that's loaded with competitive teams.
Let's take a look at how the Panthers roster changes and schedule will affect their hopes of reaching the postseason in 2014.
With the future in mind, Carolina cleaned house in the receiver corps this offseason.
I am convinced that Steve Smith Sr. went because he was the last player preventing Cam Newton from becoming the unquestioned leader of the locker room; that Ted Ginn Jr. went because he was coming off his best performance in five seasons, and it's rarely smart to buy high on a player. Brandon LaFell? I believe he went because Newton and the Panthers were justifiably tired of his persistent drops and lack of overall progression.
To replace them, the Panthers brought in a supreme talent (Kelvin Benjamin) and veteran leadership (Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant).
Benjamin might have the largest catch radius of any receiver Newton has thrown to since joining the Panthers in 2011, and Cotchery and Avant each have willingly taken on the role of mentor to younger members of the receiver cast.
The biggest loss on the offense came at left tackle, where the retirement of Jordan Gross will force either the inconsistent Byron Bell or inexperienced Nate Chandler into the role of protecting Newton's blind side.
Newton is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at evading pressure, but he's likely to have more trouble this season without his Pro Bowl left tackle. There are also bound to be some ups and downs that are associated with throwing to a new group of receivers.
The passing game should begin to click towards midseason, and it's possible that it could be just as explosive as it was in 2011, especially if tight end Brandon Williams develops into the weapon the team has been expecting him to.
The run game should be even more efficient with the return from injury of running back Jonathan Stewart and left guard Amini Silatolu. The Panthers already had one of the best running games in the league, so don't expect that to change in 2014.
Newton should be even more productive with his legs this season once he fully recovers from surgery on his ankle to tighten ligaments that had been hampering him since his college days at Auburn.
The Panthers will be stout on defense once again, but I'm not certain that they will be elite. Safety Mike Mitchell brought a punishing style of play to their secondary last season, and he will be missed the most of all the departed defensive backs.
Nickelback Captain Munnerlyn will also be missed because he matched up well against most opposing slot receivers.
Safety Roman Harper and cornerback Antoine Cason are adequate replacements, but it's difficult to project how they'll perform in this specific scheme because their skill sets are dissimilar from the players they're replacing.
If the defense is to avoid a slight decline in play, they'll have to do it with even more pass-rushing dominance. They led the league in sacks (60) last season, and there's a chance they'll be even better in 2014.
Rookie defensive end Kony Ealy allows the Panthers even more flexibility on the defensive line, as he and incumbent starters Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have the ability to bump down to the interior of the line.
Second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short also appears primed to make an even bigger impact this season after an impressive rookie campaign. He has the potential to be one of the premier pass-rushing 3-technique defensive tackles in the league.
The thought of facing a defensive line of Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, Kawann Short and Kony Ealy is sure to strike fear into even the most adept pass blocking teams.
And I can't talk about the Panthers defense without mentioning Thomas Davis and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly, the glue of this unit and two of the best linebackers in the game right now.
The Panthers have a relatively easy start to their schedule and should open up the season with a 4-1 or even a 5-0 record. However, they then head to Cincinnati and begin the toughest stretch of games they will face all season.
After playing the Bengals on the road, they head to Green Bay and then host the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints at home. All of these teams are among the strongest in the NFL, and one could argue that Green Bay, Seattle and New Orleans are among the five best teams in the league.
Following those four games, they'll face the Eagles in Philadelphia. Carolina will need to come out of this five-game stretch with at least two wins if it's to remain in the thick of the playoff hunt. Beating the Saints and winning three of five would likely put them in the driver's seat to win the NFC South.
The good news it that if they do find themselves in a hole at this point, the Panthers can look to their schedule easing up, which will allow them the opportunity to fight back into playoff contention; in their final six games, they'll face the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons twice.
Also in the midst of those games will be a road battle with New Orleans. If they can pull off that upset, it could be crucial to their chances of another division crown.
If Carolina doesn't win the division, they'll be vying for a Wild Card spot with the likes of the Eagles, Giants and potentially every member of the NFC West. If it comes down to a tiebreaker, Carolina could be at a disadvantage because their intraconference schedule includes more difficult matchups than the other teams in the hunt.
The Panthers should definitely remain in the playoff picture for the duration of the season but, if I were a betting man, I would take the field over them.
A lot of factors combined to form a perfect storm in Carolina last season, and that set expectations high, perhaps unfairly high.
This team is loaded with young talent, but it's not easy to consistently make the playoffs in the NFC, especially at a time when the conference is so top loaded.
If Cam Newton's play makes a huge leap from last season, it's possible that the Panthers make a playoff push, and they could have an easier road to the Super Bowl this time around, with San Francisco banged up and Seattle recovering from a number of free-agent departures.
But I think Newton is still a season or two away from dominance and that could mean one season without the Panthers in the playoffs, but plenty of exciting and tantalizing moments along the way.
Playoff Chances: 40 percent
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