Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers 2014 season report card

B QUARTERBACK : Cam Newton overcame injuries, a car wreck and a six-game stretch in which he played behind a different offensive line each week. Newton is still inconsistent with his accuracy and mechanics, but took a step forward in reading defenses and making pre-snap checks. And though he lost a step after ankle surgery, he’s still dangerous when running.

2015 outlook: Newton is under contract for next season. But Panthers need to get him better protection and more weapons, or he might not be willing to sign on for the long term.

B RUNNING BACKS : Jonathan Stewart turned back the clock to 2009. He was healthy and ran hard all season. And it was no accident the Panthers’ December winning streak coincided with Stewart’s best stretch. There was no turning back time for 31-year-old DeAngelo Williams, who was limited to six games because of injury.

2015 outlook: A year after cutting all-time receiving leader Steve Smith, general manager Dave Gettleman could decide to move forward without Williams, the franchise’s rushing leader. Fozzy Whittaker showed against Arizona he is a dangerous, change-of-pace back.

B- RECEIVERS : Kelvin Benjamin clicked immediately with Newton and gave him the big target the Panthers had been missing. Benjamin suffers from lapses in concentration and needs polish on some of his routes, but he was a huge addition, especially in the red zone. Jason Avant was cut in November and Jerricho Cotchery caught one touchdown a year after finishing with 10 for Pittsburgh.

2015 outlook: Undrafted rookie Philly Brown did some nice things after taking over for Avant. But this group needs another playmaker and more speed.

A- TIGHT ENDS : Greg Olsen finally made it to the Pro Bowl after leading the Panthers with 84 catches for 1,008 yards (Benjamin matched the yardage total), with six touchdowns. The tight ends were asked to do a lot of blocking during the two months fullback Mike Tolbert was out, so No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson wasn’t much of a receiving threat until late in the season.

2015 outlook: The Panthers need to re-sign Dickson, who is a free agent, and start working on an extension for Olsen.

D TACKLES : Byron Bell played well at times in his first season on the left side, but his inconsistency was one of the first things Gettleman mentioned during last week’s news conference. Mike Remmers was a good find after the Panthers snatched him off St. Louis’ practice squad. Nate Chandler couldn’t stay healthy, and had three surgeries after going on IR.

2015 outlook: The Panthers will have a hard time finding a franchise left tackle picking 25th. But in a deep tackle class, Gettleman will try. The GM stayed in-house after Jordan Gross retired last year. He can’t afford to do so again.

B- GUARDS : Because of injuries, the Panthers cycled through a lot of guard combinations before landing on the rookie tandem of Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner. Norwell, undrafted out of Ohio State, brought a physical presence to the line, and Turner played well after returning from knee and ankle injuries.

2015 outlook: Even if Amini Silatolu and Edmund Kugbila are healthy, it’s hard to see either one beating out Turner or Norwell.

B CENTER : Ryan Kalil didn’t get a Pro Bowl invite, but the veteran did a good job holding things together when the line was falling apart around him near midseason. He played nearly every snap of every game.

2015 outlook: Kalil turns 30 in March, and it might be time for Ron Rivera to start building in more days off for Kalil to keep his legs fresh for the long run.

B- DEFENSIVE TACKLES : It was a tough season for Star Lotulelei. The 2013 first-round pick went 16 weeks without a sack, then had two – along with a career-high seven tackles – in the division-clinching win at Atlanta. Lotulelei then broke his foot during practice before the playoff game vs. Seattle. Kawann Short made a big jump in his second year, finishing with 3.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

2015 outlook: Colin Cole, 34, and Dwan Edwards, 33, are both free agents. Edwards remains productive (39 tackles, four sacks, 15 tackles for loss ) and could be back on a one-year deal.

B DEFENSIVE ENDS : After initially struggling following the loss of Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson cranked it up late to finish with a team-high 8.5 sacks. Mario Addison added 6.5 while playing behind Wes Horton in Hardy’s former spot. Rookie Kony Ealy had sacks in each of the last three regular-season games.

2015 outlook: Ealy will be given the chance to become a starter and fill the roles held by Hardy, who would line up in any spot along the line. Johnson has a $20 million cap number, but he’s not likely to take a pay cut after another productive season.

A LINEBACKERS : Luke Kuechly led the league in tackles for the second time in three seasons, while earning All-Pro honors for the second straight season. Kuechly teamed with Thomas Davis to form one of the fastest and best tackling linebacker tandems in the league. Strongside backer A.J. Klein missed the last four games, including the postseason, with an ankle injury.

2015 outlook: Davis is under contract for another season, so the Panthers could look to draft his successor in the second round or so. Undrafted rookie Adarius Glanton showed good speed after taking over for Klein, but might be best used on special teams.

B- CORNERBACKS : Josh Norman came into his own in his third season, playing tight coverage each week on the opponent’s No. 1 receiver (see Jones, Julio) and bringing a much-needed swagger to the secondary. Rookie Bené Benwikere displayed great instincts and ball skills; his interception of Drew Brees in Week 14 helped jump-start the four-game winning streak that saved the season.

2015 outlook: Benwikere, who gave up a touchdown to Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse in the Seattle loss, showed he can play outside. But the Panthers are probably better off with Benwikere inside at nickel. That’s only if Gettleman finds a fast, rangy corner in the draft or free agency.

C SAFETIES : Like Benwikere, rookie Tre Boston’s insertion into the starting lineup gave the secondary and entire defense a spark. Boston’s 84-yard interception return for a score was the capper at Atlanta, although he gave up touchdowns in both losses to Seattle. Strong safety Roman Harper provided leadership and run support, but the 32-year-old often looked slow in coverage and in pursuit.

2015 outlook: Given Boston’s emergence, there’s no guarantee Thomas DeCoud will be back for the last year of the two-year deal he signed last offseason. DeCoud didn’t bring a lot to the special teams after he was benched. If Benwikere slides to the slot, Colin Jones can be used more as a backup safety, adding speed to the position.

F SPECIAL TEAMS : The Panthers chose not to bring in an experienced returner after Ted Ginn left in free agency. Not surprisingly, their return teams were a circus. But the coverage teams weren’t much better. Carolina had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns at Minnesota, which hadn’t been done in the NFL in a quarter-century.

2015 outlook: Gettleman indicated the Panthers might change their approach to special teams, signing several players to do nothing but special teams. They better make sure one of them is a returner.

C- COACHING : Yes, Rivera turned things around late after going with a youth movement that he admitted was done with one eye on the future. But the Panthers still finished with a losing record. Rivera took too long to recognize the lack of speed in the secondary and at wideout, and he should have moved on more quickly from Hardy.

Despite a tumultuous season, Rivera never lost the locker room.

2015 outlook: Rivera hired Richard Rodgers, his friend and former Cal teammate, in 2012 despite Rodgers not having any NFL experience. Rodgers is well liked among the players, but Rivera could feel pressure from the front office to move him into another role.

C FRONT OFFICE : Gettleman blamed economics on his inability to sign any top-tier free agents last offseason. But he knew the scouting reports and speed limitations on several of the players he brought in, from Avant and Cotchery to Antoine Cason and Harper. So he shouldn’t have been surprised when they played slow.

Gettleman gambled and lost by putting the $13.1 million franchise tag on Hardy, a player with a track of making bad decisions.

2015 outlook: Gettleman says the Panthers no longer will be “dollar store” shoppers in free agency, but the Panthers have too many needs to blow the budget on a single player. He can’t ignore left tackle again, and is already talking about the possibility of adding a pass-rusher. How Gettleman handles the negotiations with Newton could define his legacy in Carolina.

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