The NFL regular season is just a week away. Following a decimated Carolina Panthers team’s meaningless victory against New Orleans’ second string players many questions surrounded the franchise. Would Cam Newton be ready for Week 1? Will the Panthers be able to improve their pass rush and defense as a whole?
Fast forward 34 weeks and we still may be asking the same questions from above, although with more clarity regarding the direction of the team. The Panthers spent the off-season cutting the fat and patching holes in their roster through the draft and free agency. Cam Newton had reportedly been coming along nicely, on track to start the opener against the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, before spraining his foot during his only preseason appearance. Not to put any stock into the preseason games, but week-to-week thus far the Panthers’ starters have struggled on both sides of the football.
I don’t have answers to whether Cam will ever again be the MVP quarterback we saw win 17 games in 2015. Neither do I have answers to whether this anemic, swiss cheese defense of 2018 will see any improvement, even with notable transactions. No one will know anything until a few months from now. As hard as it is to come to grips with the possible ending of the era of great defense and quarterback play in Carolina, it’s equally as fun to envision what this team can accomplish if the stars aligned like they had (for the first 18 games) in 2015.
Last year I handed out mid-season and postseason awards to recognize (or disparage) Panthers players who had earned it. Below I have preseason predictions for those same awards.
2019 Predicted offensive MVP: WR Curtis Samuel
2018 Offensive MVP: RB Christian McCaffrey
Christian McCaffrey is an easy pick here, so let’s have some fun. Let’s say that all the training camp Twitter hype has something to it. Let’s say Curtis Samuel becomes the best receiver in Charlotte since Steve Smith in 2019.
That doesn’t mean Curtis Samuel will be an All-Pro. But he doesn’t need to be. There haven’t been any noteworthy Panthers wide receivers since Smitty retired. If he was able to step in and produce for the Panthers consistently, especially in the deep passing game, he could be the most valuable player to an offense that will need to take the load off of it’s quarterbacks shoulder(s).
Samuel was electric when he got touches in 2018, but they didn’t come consistently enough. With 39 receptions for 494 yards and five touchdowns, Samuel was a solid contributor but not a huge factor in opposing defense’s game plans. This year he will need to establish his role early as a problem for defensive coordinators, which in turn could really open up the field for several other weapons who can win one-on-one match ups. If Samuel is able to double his production stats-wise from 2018, he will be the most important player in this offense as the contend for an NFC South title.
Curtis Samuel was not a traditional WR at Ohio St, and has missed time both years in the NFL. Despite these gaps in experience, he shows nuanced skill to win difficult plays. Here he manipulates Desmond Trufant in impressive fashion. pic.twitter.com/nSwu6ZPShm— J Moyer (@JMoyerFB) August 21, 2019
2019 Predicted defensive MVP: DT Kawann Short
2018 Defensive MVP: LB Luke Kuechly
Luke Kuechly would be the choice for many here, but the player who will benefit most from the off-season bolstering of the defensive line is KK Short. Since the loss of his counterpart defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, Short hasn’t had the same type of production we have become accustomed to. Kawann’s sack total in 2019 (3.0) was his least since his rookie year. A lack of edge rushing and the absence of a reliable partner to help stuff the run hurt his individual production.
After the addition of veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy among a bundle of edge rushers, Short can be expected to be back to his old ways wreaking havoc up front. It may not show up on that stat sheet every week, but Short will be demanding double teams regularly, which in turn should help feed the beasts surrounding him.
Kawann Short was once again one of the league's top interior defensive linemen in 2018 pic.twitter.com/kwuJJgD3HB— PFF (@PFF) March 22, 2019
2019 Predicted most disappointing player: OT Greg Little
2018 Most disappointing player: WR Devin Funchess
Last year, I pegged wide receiver Devin Funchess as the Panthers most disappointing player. Funchess was in a contract year and was finally given the opportunity as Cam Newton’s “number one” receiver. The former second round pick flashed, but was ultimately quite disappointing. Funchess went on to sign with the Indianapolis Colts in free agency where, after recent developments, he will be catching passes from Jacoby Brissett. I don’t believe Funchess is a bad player, nor do I harbor any resentment towards him akin to former
left guard tight end bust Kelvin Benjamin. Funchess just didn’t fit well with the direction the Panthers offense was going. Scheme and personnel-wise. In 2019, I am predicting more of a let-down (considering expectations) than a complete disappointment.
No matter where rookie offensive lineman Greg Little lines up for the Panthers, he will be thrust into a role with major responsibilities early in the season. He could possibly be asked to carry the most on the offense in keeping the franchise quarterback clean. If the kid doesn’t struggle in the first half of the season, he might just be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
I fully expect the play of Greg Little to be a roller coaster on the left side of the line, and can only hope that Cam Newton can hold his lunch through the steepest loops. Hopefully the rookie can learn quickly and assimilate to the speed of NFL pass rushers by November, otherwise we may be seeing more of Will Grier than we’d like to.
Every pass blocking rep by LT Greg Little vs Chicago in the 1st half. Mixed bag, but only 2 pressures allowed and graded decently per PFF (83.1 pass blocking) pic.twitter.com/Y3s0KRUwPh— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) August 10, 2019
2019 Most surprising player: RB Jordan Scarlett
2018 Most surprising player: OT Taylor Moton
Taylor Moton was a mixed bag coming into his second season after sparingly seeing the field in 2017. After injuries forced Moton into a starting role, he shined as one of the better tackles in the NFL, earning CSR’s most surprising Panthers player of 2018.
This year, I’ll go out on a limb with my prediction being rookie running back Jordan Scarlett. The Panthers haven’t had a true goal line back since Mike Tolbert. Chatter from training camp included anecdotes from coaches wanting to find someone to handle goal line duties in place of Christian McCaffrey (and the quarterback). Jordan Scarlett, aka “Baby Beast Mode”, might be a diamond in the rough.
Jordan Scarlett dislikes you - pic.twitter.com/6gzHfxucY8— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) November 24, 2018
Scarlett’s play style fits the description of what the Panthers are looking for in a bruiser type of back and his hands have improved steadily in his time with the team. In his preseason snaps thus far, I’ve noticed that he runs with a rare combo of power and patience that could really benefit the offense when they want to change the pace. At the very least, I expect Scarlett to make the roster and contribute early and often on special teams.
2019 Predicted comeback player of the year: QB Cam Newton
2018 Comeback player of the year: WR Curtis Samuel
Cam Newton is the obvious choice here. Before sustaining a season-derailing shoulder injury, Newton was on pace to have one of his best years as a pro. With career highs in passer rating and completion percentage, Cam was thriving under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
It may be wishful thinking, especially after another injury in the preseason, but if Newton can return to form and stay healthy the Carolina Panthers should contend in the NFC.
2019 Predicted unsung hero: James Bradberry
2018 Unsung hero: LB Shaq Thompson
James Bradberry enters his contract year with Carolina surrounded by the best secondary he’s seen since being drafted. That isn’t saying much, but like Kawann Short this speaks volumes about what kind of player he is.
Bradberry has quietly been one of the better cover corners in the NFC South. The only proof needed is the fact that he still has a job after being tasked with covering hall of fame quarterback-wide receiver combinations consistently in a division chock-full of them. Although Bradberry never really makes the splash interceptions, he’s as solid as a rock in coverage. He rarely commits penalties and keeps most plays in front of him. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers offered an extension to James before Week 8.
Agree? Disagree? I want to hear it in the comments below!
Who will be the Panthers offensive MVP in 2019?
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Who will be the Panthers defensive MVP in 2019?
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Other (comment below)