The Carolina Panthers will be a similarly constructed team in 2014 but the loss of veteran leadership paired with weaker receivers is being projected to hurt the team this season.
Field Yates of ESPN wrote an article outlining the teams projected to regress in the upcoming season and Carolina got hit hard, projected to fall to 9-7 on the upcoming season, one of three teams expected to lose three more games than a year ago. You can read the full piece on ESPN Insider, but here are some of Yates' talking points.
Wide reciever is a two-sided coin. The Panthers didn't really lose anything that will devestate them, but they also didn't do a great job replacing the lost players with long-term free agent talent. It's about buying time for Dave Gettleman, which he did, but that doesn't mean this path wont catch up with the team.
The notion that the Panthers have to replace a significant amount of talent at wide receiver has been overplayed this offseason, but the team has overhauled the position after cutting Smith and not re-signing Brandon LaFell or Ted Ginn Jr. Smith simply isn't the Smith of old anymore physically (though his leadership and emotion will be missed); LaFell's production has never aligned with his physical frame and skill set; and Ginn is a one-trick pony (speed).
But aside from first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, none of the new Panther wideouts project as long-term starting options; Jerricho Cotchery is a crafty find-space target with reliable hands,Jason Avant is shifty and patrols the slot, and Tiquan Underwood is an average perimeter threat. From a talent standpoint, the receiver group is comparable to last year when factoring in Benjamin's upside, but as we saw with the Patriots early on last season, a quarterback throwing to new receivers can involve an adjustment period.
Everything could work out for Carolina, that's important to note. There's a chance Jerricho Cotchery could prove to be the veteran presence the team needs and Jason Avant could fill Ted Ginn's role, but that's a risky prospect. Last season's free agent class was special and it's a stretch to believe every player will step up like they did a year ago. Expectation could be the Panthers' downfall, with a patent disconnect still existing between what the team is trying to do and where the public wants them to be.
The overall outlook for the Panthers from Yates is complementary, before you grab your pitchforks. He notes that the team has one of the league's best quarterbacks and discusses the stellar defensive line -- but notes that Greg Hardy could see discipline from the league depending on the result of his legal troubles.
Overall it's hard to argue. Early predictions like this are based on how a team looks on paper, which doesn't do the team justice. So much hinges on the ability for coaches to train up young players and quickly integrate veterans into the Panthers' systems. This offseason was a gamble, a big one -- which could pay huge dividends or blow up in the team's face.
Ultimately this is still about sustained success, which Dave Gettleman is doing great work building towards. Now it's about whether short-term results can keep fans satiated while the long goal is achieved.