5 Carolina Panthers Players Poised for a Breakout Campaign in 2015
The 2015 Carolina Panthers do not have the world's largest collection of potential breakout talent.
This is not as negative a statement as it appears at first glance. The Panthers saw players like Josh Norman, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner make large steps forward last season, as they reshuffled their lineup. The emergence of players like those, as well as the return to form for Jonathan Stewart and the running game, sparked the four-game winning streak that ultimately gave the Panthers the NFC South crown last season.
It's disingenuous to call anyone who started half the season last year a true “breakout” candidate going forward—they've already broken out, as it were. Players like Norman started playing well too early last season to still really be considered hidden gems or anything of that nature.
Couple the emergence of those young players last season with the tiny 2015 draft class, and you have a relatively small pool of candidates to choose from when you're talking about players who could burst to national prominence in 2015.
A small pool, however, doesn't mean we can't find anyone. We'll have to stretch the definition a little more than we would for some other teams, but here are five players who you could well see with a larger profile in 2015.
CB Bene Benwikere
Thanks to an ankle sprain, as well as the presence of Antoine Cason and Melvin White, Bene Benwikere didn't fully break into the starting lineup until Week 14 against the New Orleans Saints. It wasn't like he was getting no play before that—he was the primary slot corner at the beginning of the season until he got hurt.
Still, when all was said and done, Benwikere only received the fourth-most snaps among Panthers cornerbacks.
That normally would be the status quo for a fifth-round pick, but Benwikere significantly outplayed his draft position in 2014. By Pro Football Focus grades, Benwikere was the best defensive back on the team in 2014, despite his relatively limited number of snaps. Opposing quarterbacks had a QB rating of just 72.9 when targeting Benwikere, which is Darrelle Revis-esque. Only 13 cornerbacks in the league put up better numbers than that, if you extend the leaderboards to include players with as few snaps as Benwikere. He didn't give up a single touchdown, either.
He played so well that, when Sports Illustrated redid the 2014 draft back in January, they bumped him all the way up to the 21st-overall pick. Not bad for someone who had to wait until Day 3 to get picked last year.
Benwikere isn't the Panthers' best cornerback—that honor still goes to Norman for now. Benwikere may not even be the listed starter, as the team added Charles Tillman in the offseason. However, he should play significantly more than he did last season, and if he can keep his performance at the levels he showed in limited time as a rookie, there's no reason to think he won't be a stud.
FS Tre Boston
Much like Benwikere, Tre Boston ended last season as a starter. Both Boston and Benwikere entered the starting lineup for good in Week 14 against New Orleans, which corresponds precisely with the four-game winning streak to finish the season. Coincidence? Well, yes, but the Panthers' cause was certainly aided by the vastly improved play of their secondary.
When Boston finally replaced Thomas DeCoud—who was released this offseason one year into a two-year deal—it was a long-time coming. DeCoud ranked 74th out of 87 qualifying safeties last season, according to PFF, and Boston represented an immediate and tangible improvement.
It wasn't so much his big-play ability—though Boston had a memorable pick-six against the Atlanta Falcons—so much as it was the consistency he brought to the defensive secondary. Boston missed just one tackle last season, compared to DeCoud's seven and Roman Harper's nine. He also allowed just five receptions on 222 coverage snaps, according to PFF, the fourth-best total among safeties, when you dip down to players with as small of a sample size as Boston.
Boston's instincts and range were questioned coming into the NFL, which is why he fell to the fourth round in the 2014 draft. In his month as a full-time starter, however, Boston showed off some very impressive skills.
He's always been an uneven performer, so perhaps it was just a hot streak, but I think there's every chance Boston could continue his success as a full-time starter in 2015.
DE Kony Ealy
Last year's second-round pick, Kony Ealy was somewhat outshined by his fellow rookie classmates. We've already talked about Benwikere and Boston, but both Kelvin Benjamin and Turner earned larger roles than Ealy in their rookie year, as well. So far, Ealy's only ahead of the released Tyler Gaffney when it comes to the Panthers' 2014 class.
That could change when it comes to the 2015 season. While he'll have to hold off both Wes Horton and the returning Frank Alexander to hold down the second defensive end position, Ealy did begin to trend up as last season went on. He had a sack in each of Carolina's last three regular season games, and his nine QB pressures in the Panthers' four-game winning streak to finish the season more than doubled his total over any other four-game chunk of the 2014 season, according to PFF.
We knew coming into last season that Ealy was a raw talent. He was inconsistent on tape in college but with flashes of greatness and great physical traits. It was going to take time for him to develop into a fully rounded player. That, coupled with being forced into the lineup earlier than expected with the Greg Hardy and Alexander suspensions, goes a long way to explaining his early season struggles.
It feels like the game slowed down for him as the season went on, however. He went from seeming way out of his depth and floundering to actually providing elements of a pass rush, moving around on the line and becoming a player the other team had to at least account for.
That level of improvement isn't enough yet. Unlike Benwikere and Boston, who simply will have to continue to do what they did at the end of last season, Ealy still needs to continue to make strides in his game. The late-season improvement is definitely a promising sign and could be the harbinger of a great sophomore season for Ealy.
OT Daryl Williams
If you're a regular reader of Bleacher Report's draft coverage of the Panthers, you'll know I'm very high on Daryl Williams. Like Benwikere and Boston last year, Williams has every chance to become a third-day pick who provides significant value for the Panthers as a rookie.
The penciled-in right tackle right now is Mike Remmers, who finished the season at the position in 2014. The career practice-squadder played very well, especially when compared to the play of Nate Chandler, whom he replaced. He didn't allow a single sack in the seven games he started, according to PFF, and had only 14 total pressures—that qualifies as a stunning success, by the standards of the Carolina 2014 offensive line.
He was exposed against the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs, however, putting in a horrible performance. It was just one game, but it should serve as a reminder that Remmers has been bouncing around from practice squad to practice squad over the course of his NFL career, being unable to crack the main roster of the Denver Broncos, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the St. Louis Rams and being released by the San Diego Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings.
He's talented enough to serve as comfortable depth, but the massive upgrade he represented last season is more of a condemnation of the play before he arrived.
I think Remmers, with his NFL experience, will start the season at right tackle, but it's only a matter of time before Williams takes over the role. Williams projects to be a great run-blocker, which is great for a team that wants to run first and foremost.
While I question if he has the ability to handle pass-rushers in the NFL, he also was a very solid pass protector in college, as well. While most teams would stick him inside as a guard, Williams has every chance to become a long-term starter at tackle for Carolina, considering how bare the cupboard is there.
Imagining Williams and Turner opening massive holes on the right side is incredibly tempting. Jonathan Stewart would have acres of space to run behind that pair, in all likelihood. By the end of the 2015 season, I expect to see Williams regularly starting at right tackle.
CB Garry Peters
For the last slot, I'm going to highlight an undrafted free agent—a bit of a longshot but one with massive potential.
Garry Peters finished the 2014 season as one of PFF's highest-graded cornerbacks, allowing only 233 yards in coverage. His 0.62 yards per coverage snap was third behind only Collin Brence and Jacoby Glenn, his 43.4 completion percentage ranked in the top 10, and opposing quarterbacks had an NFL QB rating of just 58.5 against him. He had only one interception in 2014, but all of his surrounding per-play numbers were tremendous.
So, why did he go undrafted? He's a bit scheme-dependent; he doesn't have the speed or burst needed to cover fast receivers and can get beaten when he has to turn and run with a back. With the Clemson Tigers, he basically always had safety help over the top. He also is a very physical cornerback, meaning he might be a beacon for holding and pass interference flags in the NFL.
Despite all that, he was one of the top bump-and-run cornerbacks in the draft this year. He's not going to let opposing receivers get a clean break, manhandling them in the legal bump zone and throwing off the timing of routes. For all his physical limitations, he hasn't allowed a touchdown pass in his past 58 targets, according to NFL.com.
Unlike the other four names on this list, Peters isn't going to earn a starting spot this year in all likelihood. I fully expect him to make the team, however, considering the lack of depth at cornerback.
Keep his name filed away for future reference—Peters has a very good chance of becoming the most productive undrafted free agent not named La'El Collins that any team picked up this year.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the Carolina Panthers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.