Reporter Joseph Person grades the Carolina Panthers’ performance over the first half of the season.
C+ QUARTERBACK: Just when it looked like Cam Newton had turned the corner in his development, the last two weeks happened. Newton completed a career-low 10 passes Thursday against New Orleans, and his 22 completions in the losses to Seattle and the Saints were his fewest in a two-game stretch. It should be noted the cold streak coincided with the Panthers using a makeshift offensive line because of injuries. But Newton still has lapses in his mechanics and throws high to open receivers.
C RUNNING BACKS: The backfield tandem of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams looked good against the Saints. Unfortunately, it was the first time the two had played together since Week 1. Injuries continue to hurt this group’s effectiveness. The loss of fullback Mike Tolbert, out until Week 13 with a leg injury, has been felt especially in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
C RECEIVERS: Kelvin Benjamin runs hot and cold, capable of terrific catches in traffic and inexcusable drops when wide open in the end zone. But he’s the only big-play threat in a rebuilt receiving corps. Jerricho Cotchery had been dependable, but has yet to catch a touchdown pass after finishing with a career-high 10 last season with Pittsburgh. Defenses are paying more attention to tight end Greg Olsen, who remains Newton’s most reliable receiver.
D OFFENSIVE LINE: The line the Panthers started against New Orleans was not suitable for primetime. French-Canadian left tackle David Foucault was thrown to the wolves because GM Dave Gettleman didn’t sign a veteran tackle in the wake of Jordan Gross’ retirement. Starters Byron Bell and Nate Chandler are ranked among the four worst pass-blocking tackles by Pro Football Focus. Undrafted rookie guard Andrew Norwell has been a pleasant surprise.
B- DEFENSIVE LINE: When Greg Hardy went on the commissioner’s exempt list in Week 3, the pass rush went with him. Defensive end Charles Johnson has played better of late, and speed rusher Mario Addison shows up in spurts. Dwan Edwards is tied with Johnson and Addison for the team lead with four sacks, and second-year DTs Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei have played well inside. But no one has filled the big-play void left by Hardy.
B LINEBACKERS: Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly leads the NFL with 97 tackles through nine games. Kuechly also has a sack and a forced fumble. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis is second on the team with 59 stops. Even at 31 and having had three ACL surgeries on his right knee, Davis looks fast when zeroing in on running backs in the flat. Veteran Chase Blackburn is on IR with a knee injury, and second-year LB A.J. Klein has had limited snaps.
C- DEFENSIVE BACKS: Third-year cornerback Josh Norman brought a swagger to the secondary when he returned against Seattle after missing two weeks following a concussion. Rookie nickel Bené Benwikere was playing well before spraining his ankle. But the play of the three free agent acquisitions – CB Antoine Cason and safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper – has been spotty.
C SPECIAL TEAMS: Graham Gano, who signed a four-year, $12.4 million contract during the offseason, ranks among the league leaders in field goals (17 of 19) and touchback percentage (76.2). Punter Brad Nortman’s 39.7-yard net is 2 yards lower than his average last season. The return game has been an adventure with rookie Philly Brown, who has missed the past two games with post-concussion symptoms.
C COACHING: The Panthers started 2-0 after a Week 2 win over NFC North-leading Detroit. But they’ve been spinning their wheels since. Ron Rivera’s team is 0-3-1 during its five-game stretch vs. 2013 playoff teams, a gauntlet that concludes Nov. 10 at Philadelphia. The Panthers are still in the running in a weak NFC South. But offensive coordinator Mike Shula needs to re-establish the running game, find ways to get Olsen open and get back to ball-control football.