Even After Super Bowl Run, Carolina Panthers Can Be Even Better in 2016

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2016

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 24: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates after a score against the Arizona Cardinals during the NFC Championship Game at Bank Of America Stadium on January 24, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

There's no doubting that the two franchises involved in the Super Bowl 50 spectacle are experiencing vastly different emotions in the aftermath. 

But though the Carolina Panthers are surely disappointed after losing 24-10 to the Denver Broncos, there's no reason to allow that feeling to linger for long. While the team would have liked to win the big one, there's pride to be had for reaching it and hope to be had for the future. 

This is a team that went 15-1 in the regular season and then dominated in the divisional and championship rounds of the postseason. 

Unlike Denver, Carolina won't have to worry about losing its star quarterback to retirement in the offseason. Cam Newton is only 26 years old and will be entering the second year of a five-year deal. You're welcome to analyze or criticize Newton's reaction following his most recent loss, but there's no denying what he provides the Panthers on the field. 

In the regular season alone, Newton passed for 3,837 yards, rushed for 636 yards and scored 45 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns. The night before Super Bowl 50, the Associated Press made things official and named Newton the 2015 NFL MVP and its Offensive Player of the Year. 

Newton is the cornerstone of the Carolina franchise, and he isn't going anywhere any time soon.

In fact, it seems unlikely that the Panthers will lose many of their core players in the coming offseason. Of the 18 players under contract and scheduled to enter free agency, few are critical to the team.

The secondary is one area where pending free agents could cause concerns. Safety Roman Harper, cornerback Josh Norman, cornerback Charles Tillman and cornerback Cortland Finnegan are scheduled to hit the market. However, Norman, who is rated sixth overall among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus, is the only one of the group under 30 and playing in his prime.

Though re-signing Norman will be a top priority, he is likely the only player who can't be inked to a team-friendly short-term deal or outright replaced. 

According to OverTheCap.com, the Panthers are estimated to have nearly $20 million in salary-cap space next year. Unlike several past Super Bowl teams, the Panthers should financially be able to keep their talent level intact between this year and next.

If anything, the talent level will only rise. The Panthers should be getting back receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was lost to injury before the 2015 season even began. Benjamin caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014. His return should bolster Carolina's receiving corps.

One of the reasons Newton and the Panthers offense struggled in Super Bowl 50 was a lack of depth and talent in the receiver corps. The Broncos did a solid job of slowing tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (eight combined catches for 115 yards). Injury knocked out receiver Corey Brown.

Super Bowl 50 might well have been a different game if Benjamin were available.

If the Panthers want to further strengthen their receiving corps, add depth to the secondary or, say, add a powerful young running back or edge-rusher, they only need to look to the coming draft. Sure, the Panthers will be selecting near the bottom of each round, but that doesn't mean the team cannot excavate a starter or two.

The fact the Panthers should have a reasonable amount of cap space means the team can also look to free agency to add to its existing talent pool. How much more explosive might the Carolina offense be with a complementary receiver like Marvin Jones or Travis Benjamin added to the mix? How might a bruising back like Chris Ivory affect the ground attack?

How might that imposing defense look with a defensive back like Leon Hall or Eric Weddle wearing Carolina blue?

The reality is that Carolina's top-ranked offense (31.2 points per game) and sixth-ranked defense (19.2 points per game allowed) could each be even more dangerous by early summer.

Of course, there's another factor that could make the Panthers a better team that doesn't involve talent: experience.

The Panthers learned a lot about themselves this season. They learned how to win and how to handle the pressure of consistent winning all the way up to the Super Bowl. The team's experiences of the past year should only strengthen it as it tries to make the transformation from Super Bowl participant to Super Bowl winner.

Panthers head coach Ron Rivera highlighted that point shortly after his team's loss Sunday.

"I told our guys, this is the same [Broncos] team that a couple of years ago got beat," Rivera said, per Steve Reed of the Associated Press. "So we have an opportunity to grow and learn from this experience. So we need to learn from this experience and give ourselves an opportunity to get back here."

Defensive end Kony Ealy echoed his coach.

"At the end of the day, we established something, we built something here," he said, also per Reed. "We're not going to change it up, switch it up next year when the season starts over. We're going to keep the same. That's what got us here. And our character got us here. And that's what we're going to continue to do."

The Panthers are fortunate because there is no grand rebuild on the immediate horizon. There should be no struggling to keep the band together, either. This Panthers team can build upon and strengthen its foundation with knowledge and experience.

The other 31 teams taking the field next season should be afraid.


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