Carolina Panthers

Ranking bests, worsts for Panthers at midseason — and predicting where they’ll finish

What a half a season it has been for the Carolina Panthers.

Franchise quarterback Cam Newton, who spent all offseason rehabbing his surgically repaired throwing shoulder, instead saw his year end prematurely thanks to a nagging foot injury.

Undrafted second-year quarterback Kyle Allen, who wasn’t even a lock to make the roster, reeled off a 5-1 record as a starter in Newton’s place.

And running back Christian McCaffrey has catapulted into “superstar” territory after a record-setting first eight games.

There’s even been more to digest than that. But at the midway point of this 2019 season, let’s dissect some of the best, worst and wackiest moments from the season so far:

Defensive MVP

Brendan: He’s not flashy, but James Bradberry has been as key to Carolina’s defensive success this year as anyone. He already has a career-high three interceptions, and he’s neutralized elite receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans. His steady play has been the foundation for a takeaway-happy secondary.

Scott: Luke Kuechly. The Carolina Panthers’ do-it-all inside linebacker has done it all again. His consistent excellence has gone on for so long it’s taken for granted, and the new 3-4 alignment doesn’t do him a lot of favors. But he’s still had two interceptions and leads the team in tackles, as usual.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey leads the NFL in multiple categories at midseason. Jeff Siner

Offensive MVP

Brendan: Christian McCaffrey, and it’s not close. He’s had at least 150 scrimmage yards in six of Carolina’s first eight games, and his stats midway through the year compare to all-time greats like Jim Brown. He’s on pace for more than 2,000 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns.

Scott: McCaffrey. The most obvious choice on this entire list, McCaffrey has had a half-season worth of stats that boggle the mind. He’s having the best year any Panthers running back has ever had in 25 years. This is an NFL player at the peak of his powers. Enjoy.

Most Improved

Brendan: Shaq Thompson. Thompson is second on the team in tackles (69) behind Kuechly, but he’s still in the Top 15 in the entire NFL. He also has three sacks this season, more than anyone in the league with more tackles than him. He’s been a more-than-solid replacement for Thomas Davis.

Scott: Kyle Allen. No one could have fathomed that Allen – an undrafted free agent who had barely played as a rookie – would be 5-1 as an NFL starting quarterback at the midway point. At 23, he’s efficient and surprisingly accurate as long as he gets time to throw. And having McCaffrey helps.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Mario Addison (97) sacks Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) on Sept. 29th. The Panthers upset Houston, 16-10, behind the defense’s six sacks. David T. Foster III

Best Panthers Win

Brendan: Tennessee. That has much less to do with the Titans being good than the timing of that victory. After a 51-13 throttling the week before by San Francisco, Carolina needed desperately to beat Tennessee to avoid a Pittsburgh 2.0 situation from last season — and it did.

Scott: Houston. The Panthers’ 16-10 win at Houston on Sept. 29th came over a likely AFC playoff team led by one of the game’s most dynamic quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson. It was all about defense, as the Panthers recorded six sacks and two turnovers to make up for Allen’s three lost fumbles.

Worst Panthers Loss

Brendan: San Francisco. The Panthers approached their game against the undefeated 49ers as a “measuring stick” — and then promptly got blown out of the water. Allen threw the first interception of his NFL career and Carolina’s defense was gashed for more than 200 rushing yards.

Scott: Tampa Bay. The Panthers’ 20-14 home loss to the Buccaneers on Sept. 12th was the season’s low point and exposed how out of sorts the offense was with Cam Newton hobbling around. The Panthers didn’t score a single TD against a team they would slice up for 37 points under Allen one month later in London.

First, Cam Newton couldn’t run. Now he won’t play for the rest of the 2019 season. The preseason injury to the franchise quarterback’s left foot threatened to undermine the Panthers’ season. Carolina, though, has gone 5-1 since Newton last played, and now the player’s future in Charlotte is in question. David T. Foster DTFOSTER@CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM

Biggest Surprise

Brendan: McCaffrey as an MVP candidate. The third-year runner wanted to be the third player in NFL history with 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season, but what he’s accomplished instead has been even more impressive. He’d be the first RB to win MVP since Adrian Peterson in 2012.

Scott: Cam Newton going on injured reserve. Who would have thought that Newton – who had missed only five total games in the previous eight years – would go on IR for a new injury altogether, after he rehabbed his shoulder the entire offseason? Newton’s Lisfranc foot injury, and its many reverberations, was a stunner.

Weirdest Stat

Brendan: The Panthers turned the ball over — either on downs or from a true turnover — on their first offensive possession in each of their first five games. Joey Slye snapped that streak with a 49-yard field goal in London following a Bradberry interception.

Scott: Carolina ranks first in the NFL with 34 sacks through eight weeks, and 13 different defensive players have contributed to that total. With the Panthers ranking 27th in the same category in 2018 (when they had only 35 sacks for the year), the improvement has been dramatic.

Carolina Panthers tackle Dennis Daley, right, spikes the football that running back Christian McCaffrey (22) used to score against Tennessee. Daley, a rookie, is starting at left tackle for the Panthers. Jeff Siner

Best newcomer

Brendan: Brian Burns. Carolina took The Florida State product in the first round of the NFL Draft, hoping he’d be a speedy, pro-ready pass-rusher. But he’s been even better than expected. His 4.5 sacks are second on the team, even though he’s played with a club on his hand the past few weeks.

Scott: Rookie left tackle Dennis Daley has been the most significant over-performer on this team so far. No one could have known that Daley, a sixth-round pick out of South Carolina, would be tabbed so early by head coach Ron Rivera as Carolina’s best option at this key position.

Strangest Moment

Brendan: Newton’s entire injury timeline. He clearly wasn’t right in the two games he played this year, but the team didn’t put him on injured reserve until seven weeks later. The whole situation dragged on much longer than it needed to, and it wasn’t the best look.

Scott: Up 17-7 in the third quarter against Tennessee on Nov. 3, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-4 from their own 36. You’re supposed to punt there. But “Riverboat” Ron ordered a fake punt, the direct snap to Colin Jones worked (barely) and the Panthers scored on the drive. It was sweet – and strange.

What’s missing?

Brendan: Explosive passing plays. Allen has had DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel open deep, but more often than not he’s underthrown Carolina’s two young receivers. Connecting on even one of those bombs a game will open up more running room for McCaffrey, not that he needs it.

Scott: Run defense. Uncharacteristically, this turns out to be the Panthers’ biggest sore spot — and the area they most have to shore up. Carolina allows an average of 5.06 yards per rushing attempt in 2019, which is 31st in the NFL. San Francisco showed how vulnerable the Panthers’ run D can be.

Where this team ends up

Brendan: I originally picked Carolina to go 9-7, and I’ll stick with that. The back half of the schedule is much more daunting, with games remaining against Green Bay, New Orleans (twice), Seattle and Indianapolis. Carolina stays in the conversation until December, but ultimately will come up short of the postseason.

Scott: I picked Carolina to go 7-9 before the season began, but that may have been a bit pessimistic. They’ve won five games already and still have three contests left against one-win teams. Still, the second half of the schedule is tougher. I’m figuring on 8-8 and no playoffs.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.