Regression was Inevitable for the Carolina Panthers
Last year, the Carolina Panthers were set up for one of the biggest regression seasons in years as they had significantly overperformed in 2018. They started the season 6-2 and were on an 11-3 run in close games which had to regress. They closed the season on a 1-7 run with an 0-5 stretch in close games. It didn’t help that Cam Newton played with a banged up shoulder throughout the season. At some point, he wasn’t able to throw a 20-yard pass anymore.
The Panthers defense was as bad as advertised, finishing the season 22nd in DVOA; 24th against the pass. However, their passing offense surprised me – positively. Even though Cam Newton played with a hurt shoulder and missed the last two games against ATL and NO, Carolina finished 11th in DVOA, 19th in passing. Newton himself – probably because of the injury – wasn’t that violent as a runner, but he still finished 20th in QBR (out of 33, 200+ passes) and 16th in EPA per dropback (out of 39, 150+ passes). Against my prediction, OC Norv Turner shaped the offense towards its strengths. He also showed some smart situational play-calling like an above average pass rate on early downs. That’s the most significant driver for their potential future success in 2019.
The Panthers have some positive regression going for them. They went 7-9 but had 7.8 Pythagorean wins. Their turnover margin was a neutral 0.1, but they had a record of 3-7 in close games, tied with three other teams for the worst differential. They were injury-riddled, finishing with 103.8 adjusted games lost, the 6th-highest number in the league and 22.9 over average. Carolina should get luckier in close games and more healthy overall – starting with Cam Newton.
Bounce-Back Year for Cam Newton and the Offense?
Throughout his career, Cam Newton has been an elite runner and an above average passer. His running ability declined after 2014, along with some injuries. Since 2009, 77 quarterbacks attempted at least 500 passes in the NFL. Cam Newton ranks 26th in EPA per dropback (0.043). That is Baker Mayfield level of 2018 and ranks exactly behind Alex Smith who enjoyed five years with Andy Reid and never played extended stretches with a hurt shoulder. You can win games with Cam Newton – build around him! All reports indicate that he will be healthy going into 2019. At age 30, he got some time left to be a multi-weapon – it could be a bounce-back year.
When watching Panthers pre-season games, I always thought that Taylor Moton should get a starting gig, especially over Daryl Williams. The latter had one “good” season during which he got a lot of extra help by chips. Moton started in place of the injured Williams and didn’t disappoint. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 12th-best pass blocking tackle last season. If I’m the Panthers, I would pencil in Moton at left tackle and let rookie Greg Little play at right tackle. Make Daryl Williams the swing tackle. Center Matt Paradis is one of the better players at his position, same for right guard Trai Turner. Greg Van Roten remains the weakest spot. All in all, this unit looks improved from last season.
Improvement Across the Board
Running back Christian McCaffrey is a beast as a receiver, but he should see targets even more while Carolina should pound him less on longer downs. WR Curtis Samuel was injury-plagued but occasionally flashed whereas last year’s first-round pick DJ Moore created a lot of efficiency targets. Former Patriot Chris Hogan brings a lot of experience and should contribute as the third option in the passing game. Over the past three seasons at New England, he posted a combined stat line of 107-1651-12 while missing seven games in 2017. There could be worse options for the third slot. Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright should play complementary roles. It’s uncertain how much gas veteran tight end Greg Olsen has left in the tank, but at least he will enter the season back healthy.
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Norv Turner got creative in the run game, running a lot of options and sweeps. The Panthers finished 2nd in offensive rush DVOA but unfortunately, running the ball only gets you as far as the passing game. Efficient quarterback runs are a cheat code though, as Cam Newton has shown over his career. With him being healthy, we should expect some damage via the ground game again. Newton has averaged around 0.43 EPA per rush over the first four seasons of his career, only 0.18 last year. With an improved receiving corps, an improved offensive line and Cam Newton healthy, the Panthers should cause some havoc for opposing offenses. The passing game can open up the run game involving Newton.
The Defense Has Two Faces
Carolina is switching their base defense from 4-3 to 3-4. In today’s NFL, that isn’t much of an issue, because teams spend only about 20-25 percent in their “base” defense. It could be less next year. Nowadays, nickel (5 DBs) should be called base. IF – and it might not be small if – the Panthers can establish a quality pass rush out of their edge rush rotation, they could have a decent front seven.
With the addition of DT Gerald McCoy, Carolina features one of the better interior starting duos, along with Kawann Short. The latter had a down year, but with the addition of McCoy, Short might not face as many double teams. Nose tackle Dontari Poe will play his natural position on base downs. End Mario Addison is coming off three straight seasons with 9+ sacks but hasn’t graded well on a play-by-play basis.
Rookie Brian Burns joins the NFL with one of the best athletic profiles for an edge rusher in a long time, and he gets premature praise for his explosiveness. Veteran Bruce Irvin, who didn’t find his groove at Oakland and Atlanta last year, should be the third pass rusher in the rotation. Having him as an occasional pass rusher could make him more valuable.
However, Addison, Burns, and Irvin are going to decide whether this front seven is going to be average or good. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is still top-3 at his position. With the departure of Thomas Davis to the Bolts, Shaq Thompson needs to take his game to the next level. If Ron Rivera, who will be calling plays in 2019, can get a decent pass rush out of his new-look front and gets creative with blitzes, this front seven could be nasty. It better be. Because the secondary remains a big problem. Aside from safety Eric Reid, there aren’t guys you can bank on to be useful in coverage. Ross Cockrell missed all of 2018, S Rashaan Gaulden and CB Donte Jackson will go into their second years. CB James Bradberry remains a liability in coverage, according to target data.
According to the current Pinnacle regular season win totals (06/25), Carolina will face the 10th-hardest schedule next year. Mostly due to their competitive division, they will play the 6th-hardest schedule according to 2018 offensive pass EPA. Their technical program is no slouch, either. They will travel the 8th-most miles with games at San Francisco, Arizona, and London. Their second-half schedule is robust, with games vs. New Orleans (2x), Atlanta (2x), at Green Bay, at Indianapolis and vs. Seattle. Intriguing situational spots:
- Week 6 vs. TB: Carolina will travel to London after a home game against the Jags whereas the Bucs will be on their third straight roadie after playing at Los Angeles and New Orleans. It’s complete bullshit by the NFL, but be aware: this will be priced into the line. You better pray for the Panthers to be on a losing streak.
- Week 13 vs. WAS: this one screams LETDOWN SPOT with an inflated price. The Panthers have a sandwich game between road games at Atlanta and New Orleans.
2019 Prediction – Rising Tendency
With Cam Newton back healthy, the 2019 outlook is promising. The Carolina Panthers are healthy (for now) and will enter the season with an improved offensive line and receiving corps. Their secondary remains a question mark and will mostly be dependent on the offense scoring enough points. If Newton – for whatever reason – isn’t as healthy as it seems, and rookie Will Grier will start, their season could take a swing. Grier was Matt Waldman’s highest ranked quarterback entering the draft, though. The critical problem is the schedule with a competitive AFC South and lots of travel miles. If this isn’t going to be a successful season for Carolina, Ron Rivera might find himself unemployed next January.
However, this team is set up to march back into the playoffs, and I believe they are a 9-7 team on paper. I can see them as one of the new faces in the playoff picture. I lean towards the Over on their win total of 7.5 (-120 at Pinnacle), and I agree with the market movement thus far. But Cam Newton’s shoulder still provides some uncertainty, despite the reports – that’s why I’m staying away from futures for now.
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