How did the Panthers become one of the NFL's more dangerous teams?
As the No. 8 overall pick by the Carolina Panthers in the 2017 NFL draft, running back/receiver Christian McCaffrey stepped into a high-pressure, high-expectation role last fall and hardly missed a step.
McCaffrey, 21, finished the regular season as one of five finalists for NFL Rookie of the Year honors after recording 435 rushing yards (with two touchdowns) and 651 receiving yards (with five touchdowns).
He was the top receiving target of quarterback Cam Newton with 80 catches, a franchise record for a rookie, and caught passes out of the backfield as well as in the slot and out wide.
McCaffrey’s versatility was a weapon for Carolina, especially when the Panthers lost tight end Greg Olsen and speedy receiver Damiere Byrd to injury throughout the season.
Still, head coach Ron Rivera and recently fired offensive coordinator Mike Shula admitted they had not found the rookie’s “ceiling” in 2017, and also spent a large portion of the season figuring out the ways in which McCaffrey could be most effective.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Panthers’ 2017 draft class was all but nonexistent on Sundays.
A player-by-player look:
Round 2, pick 40: Curtis Samuel (receiver, running back)
Samuel was expected to work in with McCaffrey in a shifty, speedy offensive attack. But Samuel struggled in the spring and summer with hamstring issues, missing all but a few training camp and preseason workouts.
When Samuel got healthy, it took time to get him into the rotation at receiver and running back.
Samuel went on injured reserve with an ankle injury on Nov. 24, and he required surgery. He finished with 64 rushing yards and 15 catches for 115 yards. Unfortunately, his most memorable play was a bobbled, fumbled pitch in a sour loss to Chicago in Week 7.
Samuel said he expected to get most of his work in the slot for Carolina, and that plan is unlikely to change in 2018. Staying healthy will be crucial, since he is already a year behind.
Round 2, pick 64: Taylor Moton (guard, tackle)
Moton was expected to compete with right tackle Daryl Williams for the starting spot in 2017. But Williams had one of the best years of his career, giving Moton a chance to develop as a depth piece and as an extra tackle in the team’s “jumbo” package.
When starting guard Trai Turner was in the concussion protocol for three weeks late in the year, there was some surprise when Moton was not the go-to replacement as the staff had touted his versatility when he was drafted. Rivera then mentioned that Moton had been receiving the bulk of his practice snaps at the tackle position.
Moton played just 5.91 percent of the Panthers’ offensive snaps, and 17.08 percent of special teams snaps.
Carolina may not be able to give All-Pro starting guard Andrew Norwell the big-money contract he is due in free agency. Moton could step into Norwell’s role, if Norwell leaves.
Round 3, pick 77: Daeshon Hall (defensive end)
Another promising Panthers rookie who saw his development stall because of injury, Hall looks to be on the “Wes Horton” trajectory as an edge rusher with the starting and backup roles already clearly defined on the roster.
Hall was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 6 with a knee injury.
Round 5, pick 152: Corn Elder (cornerback)
Elder was projected to back up Daryl Worley on the outside, as well as Captain Munnerlyn at nickel after playing both nickel and outside corner while in college at Miami.
The Panthers rely heavily on their nickel package, making Elder all the more valuable as a prospect. But a patella stress fracture caused him to miss training camp.
Elder also had to have a “cleanout” surgery on his knee in the fall, but should be rehabilitated in time for 2018’s minicamp sessions.
Round 6, pick 192: Alex Armah (fullback)
Remember the surprise when Armah was drafted? A product of West Georgia, Armah played defensive end, tight end and linebacker in college and was scooped up as a fullback by Carolina.
Carolina likes to use two and three-tight-end sets as well as a versatile fullback/tight end as a lead blocker in the run game, and Rivera thinks that’s where Armah shows promise.
How much of a factor Armah will be in 2018 depends largely on whether Carolina decides to re-sign tight end Ed Dickson in free agency this spring.
Round 7, pick 233: Harrison Butker (kicker)
Carolina drafted a kicker for the first time in franchise history, with Butker brought in to compete with starter Graham Gano.
It worked out for both: Gano, who missed eight field goals in 2016, kept his job and went on to lead the league in field goal percentage (96.67), missing just one field goal in the regular season. Butker was signed off the Panthers’ practice squad by Kansas City and made 38 of 42 field goal attempts with a 53-yard long.
Don’t forget about the undrafted guys...
Two undrafted free agent pickups to keep an eye on in 2018 are defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. and cornerback Cole Luke.
Luke, another inside-outside corner, had a stellar training camp and preseason, especially when Munnerlyn was sidelined with hamstring problems (and Elder was out, too). He made enough of an impression on the staff to make the original 53-man roster, but had to go on injured reserve on Sept. 14 (ankle).
Cox Jr. was active for seven games in 2017 and had six tackles. He also recovered a fumble in Week 16 against Tampa Bay.