Carolina Panthers

Panthers offense analysis, depth chart: It’s time Carolina protects Cam Newton

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, right, hugs wide receiver DJ Moore, left, prior to action against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass on Thursday, August 22, 2019. The Panthers lost to the Patriots 10-3.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, right, hugs wide receiver DJ Moore, left, prior to action against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass on Thursday, August 22, 2019. The Panthers lost to the Patriots 10-3. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

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It’s unreasonable to assume Cam Newton will ever again be the quarterback he was in 2015. He doesn’t have to be.

Newton was NFL MVP that season. With a 3-to-1 ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions and 10 rushing touchdowns, he was at the height of his craft in leading the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl 50.

Now, after two years of season-changing shoulder problems, Newton, 30, enters the 2019 season having to prove he still has an NFL arm that will hold up through 16 games.

The former first overall pick finds himself surrounded by playmakers.There’s a running back in Christian McCaffrey, who could be an accomplished slot receiver, and a wide receiver in DJ Moore who runs with the ball like a tailback. Also, tight ends Greg Olsen and Ian Thomas offer the potential to combine for 10 touchdown catches.

And then there’s the rare combination of speed and quickness in wide receiver Curtis Samuel. Entering his third NFL season, Samuel’s football acumen appears to be catching up to his exceptional athleticism. Samuel wasn’t just the best player at Panthers training camp, he consumed the debate. If Samuel stays healthy — and that’s no given at 5-11 and 195 pounds — he presents a spectrum of possibilities for offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

Once a running back at Ohio State, Samuel should be a constant threat on reverses; he has averaged nearly 15 yards on 10 NFL rushing attempts. But it’s how he can stretch defenses downfield, opening gaps in coverage for teammates, that coach Ron Rivera mentioned multiple times this preseason.

When Newton told NBC Sports’ Peter King he doesn’t have to be Superman anymore, this wealth of playmakers is what he meant. As Newton told King, “When you get old, you have to change certain things.”

If that means relying more on those around him to preserve his health through the four-month regular season, then the injury that robbed him of a special second half of last season brought wisdom.

Quarterback

Newton gave Panthers fans a shudder in his only preseason appearance when he walked off the field in the first quarter against the New England Patriots with a slight limp. He was diagnosed with a left mid-foot sprain. General manager Marty Hurney said he’s “cautiously optimistic” Newman will be recovered in time to start in the season opener Sept. 8 against the Los Angeles Rams.

The Panthers went seven drafts without selecting a quarterback after grabbing Newton No. 1 overall in 2011. Finally, they used a third-round pick in April on West Virginia’s Will Grier. It was unreasonable to think Grier would immediately solidify the quarterback depth, but he has had a bumpy preseason, including three interceptions — the second a 70-yard pick-6 against the Buffalo Bills.

Kyle Allen, an undrafted free agent who started the final game of the 2018 season, has performed only somewhat better. He gets through his passing progressions faster, but he never moved the offense against the Bills and Patriots.

That amplifies the imperative of keeping Newton healthy without stripping him of what makes him special; the threat that at any time the 6-5, 245-pounder could run over a linebacker for a touchdown.

Before the shoulder injury blew up the second half of last season, Newton was thriving in Turner’s offense. He was willing to check down more, but was still dynamic as a two-way threat in the red zone. As he hinted in his comments to King, keeping Newton on the field is about acknowledging his age, and that’s really a reflection of mileage: He has nearly 1,000 NFL rushing attempts, which entailed numerous collisions other NFL quarterbacks might not experience.

He doesn’t have to become Peyton Manning, but “selective” is a word that should guide Newton at this juncture.

Depth chart

QBRBWRWRWRTEFB
1 Cam Newton22 Christian McCaffrey12 DJ Moore10 Curtis Samuel13 Jarius Wright88 Greg Olsen40 Alex Armah
7 Kyle Allen20 Jordan Scarlett15 Chris Hogan11 Torrey Smith

80 Ian Thomas

3 Will Grier39 Reggie Bonnafon





82 Chris Manhertz



21 Elijah Holyfield









Running backs

McCaffrey said at training camp that he welcomes every snap and every touch the Panthers send his way. That’s a great attitude, but not necessarily a plan for longevity.

In his second NFL season, McCaffrey had nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage. His touches — 326 — were third-most in the league among running backs. His versatility as a rusher and a receiver make him nearly as valuable as Newton. Like Newton, the balancing act between utilizing McCaffrey and keeping him healthy could be paramount.

Rivera said in Spartanburg he’d like to reduce McCaffrey’s snaps this season without necessarily reducing his touches. That seems to mean having him on the field less in situations that amount to him being extraneous to the play. But that works only if Turner has trust in the alternatives at the position. The Panthers had a veteran backup to McCaffrey last season in C.J. Anderson, but he was seldom used before asking for and receiving his release in November. Anderson went on to sign with the Rams, where he was productive.

The Panthers went to youth to attack this problem by drafting Jordan Scarlett from Florida in the fifth round. Rivera said one of the biggest agenda items of the last two preseason games was exploring what Scarlett can do to relieve McCaffrey of some snaps.

Receivers

The Panthers have shifted significantly over the past couple of years in the model for their receivers: From big targets with limited ability to gain separation (Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess, now both elsewhere) to smaller, more elusive speedsters (Moore and Samuel). Moore and Samuel also offer major potential in yards-after-catch with running-back instincts.

The open question is the nature of depth behind those two starters. What’s the mix between Jarius Wright, Torrey Smith and former Patriot Chris Hogan?

Tight end could hinge on the health of Olsen’s right foot, broken each of the past two seasons. The question is never Olsen’s ability — he’s one of the most prolific pass-catchers ever at his position — but rather his availability in his 13th NFL season. Olsen believes the surgery he had in 2018 fixed the injury.

If any good came of Olsen playing only nine games in 2018, it was accelerating the development of then-rookie Thomas. Thomas missed a week of training camp with a rib injury, but prior to that he was making acrobatic catches that suggest he’s now a solid backup.

Offensive line

It has been so long since Ryan Kalil wasn’t the Panthers’ center (12 years), it’s hard to recall what they looked like without him. Kalil retired, then chose to sign with the New York Jets. The Panthers replaced him with former Denver Bronco Matt Paradis.

The new starting group didn’t get a lot of snaps together, in part to avoid injury risk. Still, the preseason performance was worrisome, full of holding and procedure penalties that disrupted drives. As Rivera said after his team scored just three points against the Patriots, “You can’t expect to have success when you make silly mistakes like that.”

The Panthers searched hard for depth in the offseason. They used a second-round pick to draft a tackle in Greg Little (he left the Patriots game with a possible concussion) and another rookie, Dennis Daley, has been plugged into numerous positions looking to make him a utility player.

Which winds this back to Newton. Some of keeping the quarterback healthy comes down to how he manages risk. But it depends just as much on how the line protects him.

Depth chart

LTLGCRGRT
60 Daryl Williams73 Greg Van Roten61 Matt Paradis70 Trai Turner72 Taylor Moton
74 Greg Little75 Brandon Greene69 Tyler Larsen65 Dennis Daley74 Greg Little
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