This is not a homer post. This is not me looking through rose colored glasses even. The Carolina Panthers are a team on the rise and although they may be a sexy pick to make the playoffs next season, I still don't see many experts pegging them to win the NFC South. Making the playoffs should be the expectation going forward, but with the recent developments taking place with the division favorite New Orleans Saints it's time to reexamine expectations heading into this upcoming season.
The Panthers will be returning a potent offense that will be on par with the best in the NFL next season and will feature an even better running game with the addition of Mike Tolbert. Tolbert may not see a ton of carries but he will only help in goal line situations and will give the Panthers another weapon out of the backfield. Rising star Cam Newton will have a full offseason under his belt and will be working with the same coaching staff in consecutive seasons for the first time in a long time.
The offense isn't the problem. When it comes to the defense there are areas that need to be improved. The Panthers signed three defensive players in free agency starting with DE/OLB Jyles Tucker, FS Haruki Nakamura and LB Ken Onatalu. With the exception of Nakamura, none are expected to compete for a starting job but instead will be relied upon to provide depth and help strengthen the special teams unit that struggled last season.
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While none of the signings will necessarily get fans excited they were smart and reasonable cost additions that should help. The biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball was LB Dan Connor who was a valuable player but he is replaceable. Looking forward to the draft the Panthers are going to have an opportunity to add an impact player and most assume that it will come on the defensive side of the ball. Many draft pundits have Carolina selecting a variety of defensive tackles with the ninth pick but I wouldn't say it's a sure thing.
Regardless of who the Panthers add it will be a player that should be able to step in from day one and help the squad out next season. Add in the return of Jon Beason, Ron Edwards and Thomas Davis and you are looking at an already improved defense, although we haven't seen what Edwards can do yet and Davis is more of a wild card with his health issues. But going into Week 1 of next season the Panthers will already have a better defense than what they finished with in Week 17 of last season.
As long as the offense continues to progress, the defense isn't as pitiful as it was last year and Newton is able to make smarter decisions there's no reason the Panthers can't win the NFC South. The Atlanta Falcons appear to have peaked and while they will definitely present a challenge I don't see them being any better than they were the past two years. We all know what has happened to the Saints and without Sean Payton running the show this team could easily fall apart.
Drew Brees is the Saints' only chance of holding this thing together. He's the leader and the face of the franchise, yet he is currently without a long-term deal and has made it known that he isn't happy. With all that is going on in New Orleans it wouldn't be surprising to see this upcoming season be a lost one, which opens the door for the Panthers.
The wild card out of the division is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coming off an awful season they brought in stud OG Carl Nicks and WR Vincent Jackson to give Josh Freeman some much needed help. If Tampa Bay drafts RB Trent Richardson with the fifth overall pick the Panthers defense will be looking at a completely different offense next season.
It's going to be a battle for the South next season but if the Panthers are able to get their defense into the top half of the league they have as good a shot as anyone in the division to walk away with the crown. Below you will find the projected wins and losses for the Panthers this season.
New Orleans--W, Dallas--W, Atlanta--W, New York Giants--L, Tampa Bay--W, Denver--L, Seattle--W, Oakland--W
Atlanta--L, Philadelphia--W, New Orleans--W, Washington--W, Tampa Bay--L, Kansas City--W, Chicago Bears--L, San Diego--W
Projected record: 11-5
11 wins would definitely get the Panthers into the playoffs as a wild card, but I think it will be enough to secure the division title this year. As I mentioned earlier I expect the Saints to fall off this season and I don't think the Falcons are going to be any better. I have Atlanta finishing with a 10-6 mark, New Orleans 8-8 and Tampa Bay 7-9. These are just early projections based off of free agency and the recent bounty penalties. But as of now I have the Panthers walking away with the division.