Healthy Cam and Revamped Defense Make Panthers the Dark Horse of the NFC in 2019

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJune 6, 2019

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton warms up prior to the start of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Mike McCarn/Associated Press

It all started so well for the Carolina Panthers.

They went 6-2 and looked the part of Super Bowl contenders over the first eight games of 2018. But a blowout loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10 started a seven-game skid that only ended with a meaningless Week 17 win over the New Orleans Saints reserves.

Because of that 7-9 campaign, and with questions swirling around star quarterback Cam Newton's health, there hasn't been a lot of playoff buzz around Carolina in 2019. Per ESPN.com's Joe Klingele, the Panthers have longer odds of winning the Super Bowl (60-1) than the likes of the Cleveland Browns (16-1) and San Francisco 49ers (30-1).

However, news regarding Newton's surgically repaired shoulder has gotten better of late, and the team just continued a defensive overhaul with the addition of a six-time Pro Bowler.

In other words, this long shot is looking more and more like a dark horse.

That latest defensive addition was veteran 3-technique Gerald McCoy, who joined the Panthers on a one-year deal that could be worth up to $10.3 million.

Ian Rapoport @RapSheet

The full breakdown of Gerald McCoy’s deal with the #Panthers: 1 year, $4M to sign, $3M base, $500K camp roster bonus, $500K in 45-man per game bonus. Plus, 6.5 sacks for $500k, 8 sacks gets him $1.5M. 250K for Pro Bowl, $250K for playoffs. Just $4M guaranteed. Total: Up $10.25M.

McCoy, who amassed six sacks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, was courted by a number of teams after he was released in May. He said signing with a contender was a priority and told Max Henson of the team's website he's confident the Panthers fit that bill.

"No question—this team can contend," McCoy said. "Led by No. 1 [Newton]. I believe in him. The addition of me and all the things they've built, I believe we can take this division."

Head coach Ron Rivera told Bryan Strickland of the team's website he expects McCoy to fit well in a defensive front that already featured a pair of Pro Bowl beefeaters in Dontari Poe and Kawann Short.

Mike McCarn/Associated Press

"You can feel very good about having those guys on the field together," Rivera said. "What he does is he's a very good complement to KK. He's a different player than Poe; he's a pass-rush type of guy that's going to get vertical quickly.

"He's going to command some double-teams, which is going to take some of the pressure off of KK as well."

McCoy is not the only new face on defense. The Panthers spent a sizable amount of their free-agent and draft capital on overhauling a pass rush that finished 27th in the NFL with 35 sacks last season—a massive drop-off after Carolina led the NFC with 50 in its march to the playoffs in 2017.

Like McCoy, veteran edge-rusher Bruce Irvin (who had 6.5 sacks for the Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons in 2018) signed a one-year deal. And the Panthers made athletic Florida State edge Brian Burns their first draft pick at No. 16 overall.

Jason E. Miczek/Associated Press

In addition to the new faces, there's also a new scheme under second-year coordinator Eric Washington. The team is incorporating more 3-4 looks into its base defense, and superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly told Strickland the players have taken to the new philosophy.

"Guys are adjusting well," Kuechly said. "There is a lot [of] new stuff we have going in. ...

"It's a little different, but there are a lot of the same principles. There's new spacing, new run fits. The ball hits in different spots. Those are the things you've got to get used to a little bit, but it's still football."

Oh yeah—the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year is still manning the middle of the defense.

Prior to last year's so-so ranking of 15th in total defense, the Panthers under Rivera consistently fielded the best defense in the NFC South. Getting that defense back on track will be key.

Carolina, however, will go exactly as far as Newton takes it.

Mike McCarn/Associated Press

The biggest reason for last year's second-half swoon wasn't hard to pinpoint—as Panthers owner David Tepper recounted to Bill Voth of the team's website, Newton's throwing shoulder was nowhere close to right:

"On the offense side of the ball, listen, that is obvious to anybody who watched this team. There's no secrets there: Cam's shoulder obviously was an issue later in the season. ... I think it's pretty well known that he wasn't throwing at practices. That was probably a problem that threw off his rhythm. At the end of the season, we couldn't throw the ball downfield, which was a big problem."

Not long after the 2018 regular season ended, there was speculation Newton could miss the 2019 season. Then Newton had surgery, and the speculation turned to his rehab. Comparisons were made between Newton's injury and the one that cost Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts the 2017 season.

Recently, however, reports regarding Newton's rehab have been more positive. A month ago, Newton said things were progressing well, per ESPN.com's David Newton.

"I'm feeling great now," Newton said. "I feel like I do have full strength right now. But me telling the doctor, that is different than, you know, whatever the clearance process may be."

Panthers fans received even more encouraging news in the form of a video of Newton throwing at OTAs.

Carolina Blitz @KeepBlitzin

Salute to Jeremy for breaking this early this morning. It’s now been confirmed that Cam Newton has begun throwing. https://t.co/mNa3QxFkdG

Per Voth, Rivera tried to downplay the significance of the event.

"I continue to feel good about him, but again, we're going to listen to what Cam has to tell us," he said. "I'll listen to what the doctors tell me and the trainers. He's going through the process of his rehab program. At some point, he's going to have to throw the football. It just so happened that the other day he did."

Now, a few throws in shorts and shells hardly guarantee Newton will be 100 percent when the Panthers kick off the regular season at home against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams (talk about an early test). But all indications are Newton's rehab is on schedule.

The Panthers have promising young skill-position talent in tailback Christian McCaffrey (who showed up to OTAs looking like he's about to fight Thanos) and wideouts DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. Carolina made an underrated free-agent signing when it inked veteran wide receiver Chris Hogan. Tight end Greg Olsen is back and healthy (at least for now). And because they retained right tackle Daryl Williams and added veteran center Matt Paradis and rookie tackle Greg Little, the Panthers should field a significantly better offensive line.

But none of that will matter unless the 2015 MVP is out there to take advantage of it all—and it's looking more and more like he will be.

David Richard/Associated Press

There are still questions surrounding the Panthers. That young wide receiver corps is talented but unproven. The defensive backfield is good but not great. And until we see that new-look defense and Newton in action, there's going to be lingering doubt about just how good each will be this season.

But it's important to remember that as recently as November, the Panthers looked like Super Bowl contenders. Before the wheels came off, three of Carolina's six wins were against teams that made the postseason. And the issues that caused the Panthers to crumble appear to have been addressed.

Is Carolina a Super Bowl favorite? Not even close—it isn't the favorite to win its own division. Both New Orleans and Atlanta have better odds.

But with a retooled defense and a quarterback who seems to be on his way back, the Panthers are better than they're being given credit for.

And as 60-1 Super Bowl long shots go, you could do a lot worse.