2015 Record: 15-1-0
Head Coach: Ron Rivera
New Faces for 2016 - CB Brandon Boykin, DL Paul Soliai, OL Gino Gradkowski
OFFENSE: After an MVP season in 2015, quarterback Cam Newton is back to lead the offense. Newton passed for 3,837 yards with 35 touchdowns and only ten interceptions last season. He also scored ten rushing touchdowns while amassing 636 yards (4.8 ypc) on the ground. Derek Anderson holds the clip board.
The Panthers have Jonathan Stewart (989 yards in 13 games with 4.1 ypc average and six TD) back to lead the running game. Mike Tolbert ran for 256 yards (4.1 ypc) and scored a touchdown. Fozzy Whittaker (108 yards and one score) and Cameron Artis-Payne (183 yards and one TD) round out the second leading rushing team in the NFL last year.
Tight End Greg Olsen (77 receptions for 1,104 yards and seven TD) led the team in receiving a year ago, but with top wideout Kelvin Benjamin expected back this year after missing the entire season in 2015, that should change.
Along with Benjamin, either Ted Ginn, Jr. (44, 739, ten TD) or Devin Funchess (31, 473, five TD) will start. Also in the mix is Philly Brown, who had 31 receptions for 447 yards and four touchdowns.
DEFENSE: Playing in the 4-3 set, Carolina will go with Kawann Short (11 QB sacks) and Star Lotulelei at the tackles with Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy (five sacks) at end. Rookie Vernon Butler (Louisiana Tech), Mario Addison (six sacks), Paul Solial and Wes Horton will fill in when needed.
The linebackers are Luke Kuechly (four interceptions, one for TD) in the middle while Thomas Davis (5 1/2 sacks and four picks) and Shaq Thompson are the outside linebackers.
In the secondary, the corners look to be Robert McClain and Bene Benwikere along with Tre Boston and Kurt Coleman (seven INT, one was a pick six) at the safety spots.
Rookies James Bradberry (Samford), Daryl Worley (West Virginia) and Zack Sanchez (Oklahoma), along with Brandon Boykin, will look to make an impact in the absence of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, who is now with the Washington Redskins.
OUTLOOK: The Panthers have the pieces in place for another Super Bowl run with Cam Newton leading the way on offense and Luke Keuchly on defense.
This team is loaded and they expect wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back in the fold in 2016 to go with a solid running game. Another option for Newton to get the ball to will wreak even more havoc on enemy defenses.
Speaking of defense, the Panthers were sixth in total defense last year, ranking fourth against the run (88.4 ypg) and eleventh against the pass, giving up 235 yards per game. They were sixth overall in scoring defense, allowing 19.3 points per game while topping the NFL in interceptions (24) and the turnover category, where they were a plus-20 for the season.
Head Coach Ron Rivera has survived numerous "hot seat" rumors in his tenure in Carolina and is now reaping the benefits of a superb team that can very well make it back to the Super Bowl. That isn't always so easy as many teams that lose the big game have a "Super Bowl hangover" the following season.
Don't count on that happening with this team unless Newton or perhaps several other key players on offense or defense go down with major injuries.
Whether or not the Panthers do get back to the Super Bowl depends on the health of Newton and others throughout the season. There are very good challengers in the NFC and it will not be easy.
Fearless forecast - 12-4 this year (playoff team)
2016 TEAM SCHEDULE
Week 1 - at Denver
Week 2 - vs. San Francisco
Week 3 - vs. Minnesota
Week 4 - at Atlanta
Week 5 - vs. Tampa Bay
Week 6 - at New Orleans
Week 7 - BYE
Week 8 - vs. Arizona
Week 9 - at Los Angeles
Week 10 - vs. Kansas City
Week 11 - vs. New Orleans
Week 12 - at Oakland
Week 13 - at Seattle
Week 14 - vs. San Diego
Week 15 - at Washington
Week 16 - vs. Atlanta
Week 17 - at Tampa Bay