Their star power is intense. Their name recognition is immense. But will the 2017 Carolina Panthers make any sense?
We won’t know the answer to that question for awhile, but it is undeniable that very few Panthers teams have loaded up a movie marquee like this one.
By my count – and I’ve covered all 22 previous Panthers teams for The Charlotte Observer – this 2017 squad will have six of the top 10 Panthers of all time playing on it at the same time.
No other Carolina team has ever boasted more members of my personal top 10. The 2003 Super Bowl squad had four. The 2015 Super Bowl team had five. The 2013 playoff squad also had six.
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This is all subjective, of course, but I thought it would be a fun midsummer exercise to rank the top 20 Panthers of all time and see how many current players would make that list. The answer to that question? Eight out of 20.
Even more impressively, the list is front-loaded with six current top-10 players – as well as four of my all-time top five – who will go to Spartanburg later this month and suit up for Carolina in the broiling oven of training camp. Without further ado, here’s my top 20 list, with active Panthers players in ALL CAPS. See how it would compare to yours.
1. Steve Smith: The most mesmerizing and absolute best player the Panthers have ever employed, Smith electrified Bank of America Stadium for 13 years. Smith holds every receiving record worth holding for Carolina. He had 43 100-yard receiving games and scored 75 touchdowns in his Panthers career – more than 20 TDs ahead of the rest of the Panthers pack.
2. CAM NEWTON: The only Panthers player to ever win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award, for his unbelievable season in 2015, Carolina’s quarterback for the past six years is still only 28. Newton is coming off a disappointing 2016 season and shoulder surgery, however, so in 2017 he has a lot to prove – and a few more weapons to play with on offense. Expect big things; he certainly does.
3. LUKE KUECHLY: The originator of the most popular chant in Panthers history – "Luuuuuuuke!" – has the instincts of a shark hidden behind the smile of a manager at Best Buy. Carolina has never seen a middle linebacker like this. Kuechly seems set to patrol the center of the Panthers’ defense for years as long as a concussion does not sideline him again.
4. JULIUS PEPPERS: Here’s the reason the Panthers of 2017 have one more top-10 all-time player than the 15-1 Panthers team of 2015 – the prodigal son has returned. Although he’s 37, Peppers has always been an athletic freak and I think he will be helpful again at least as a situational rusher on third downs.
5. THOMAS DAVIS: Beloved and gritty, Davis is as close to “Mr. Panther” as you will ever find this side of Sam Mills and an absolute lock for a statue outside Bank of America stadium one day. He has played 12 years for Carolina, and the best of them came after he returned from his third – yes, his third – ACL surgery on the same knee. Davis also is the only Panther to ever win the NFL’s Walter Payton “Man of the Year” Award for his community service.
6. Sam Mills: What? The man who led the 1996 Panthers to the NFC Championship Game and invented the Carolina slogan “Keep Pounding” only at No. 6? I assure you I mean no disrespect to the only former Panthers player currently residing in Carolina’s Hall of Honor (expect a handful more to be added by or before 2019, when the team celebrates its 25th anniversary). The No. 6 ranking comes simply because Mills, who died of cancer in 2005, only played three seasons for Carolina.
7. Jake Delhomme: He wasn’t drafted. He didn’t have a big arm. But Delhomme won five playoff games as a Panthers quarterback, and no one else has done that. Delhomme took Carolina to its first Super Bowl in the 2003 postseason and would have been the game’s Most Valuable Player – he threw for a staggering 211 yards in the fourth quarter alone – except for the fact that Carolina’s defense couldn’t stop Tom Brady.
8. RYAN KALIL: A five-time Pro Bowler for Carolina at center, Kalil is also artsy, funny and the older brother of Carolina’s new left tackle Matt. Kalil is the Panther most likely to quote “Hamilton,” as well as the one most likely to order a last-minute shift of the offensive line that saves Newton from another hit.
9. Muhsin Muhammad: After Muhammad retired in 2009, Delhomme said: “When I think of what a picture of a pro football player would look like, I think of Muhsin Muhammad.” The player everyone calls “Moose” ranks No. 2 to Smith in most of the team’s receiving categories.
10. GREG OLSEN: The veteran security blanket for Newton is the first NFL tight end to catch 1,000 yards worth of passes for three straight seasons and has made the Pro Bowl each of the past three years as well. Carolina’s trade for Olsen in 2011 for a third-round draft pick was one of the best personnel moves in team history.
11. Wesley Walls: He actually made more Pro Bowls than Olsen (Walls had five) and was fantastic near the goal line. Walls never had a 1,000-yard season, but tight ends weren’t thrown to as often in his era.
12. John Kasay: The Panthers’ all-time leading scorer by a country mile, Kasay was a clutch placekicker who stuck around so long that he was known as “The Last Original Panther” for about a thousand years.
13. Jordan Gross: The best left tackle the Panthers have ever employed, Gross’s value was perhaps only fully understood once he retired.
14. Kevin Greene: The only current Pro Football Hall of Fame member on this list, Greene would be higher except for the fact that the outside linebacker played only three of his 15 NFL seasons with the Panthers. In those three years in the 1990s, however, Greene averaged 13.7 sacks.
15. Michael Bates: Do you remember how good Bates, a five-time Pro Bowler, really was? It’s incredibly rare to have a player who can both return kickoffs with blazing speed and also rank as one of the NFL’s best gunners on punt coverage.
16. JONATHAN STEWART: The best pianist the Panthers have ever employed is also a bruising running back who should surpass DeAngelo Williams this season as Carolina’s all-time leading rusher.
17. DeAngelo Williams: For years, Williams was the darter and Stewart the grinder in Carolina’s backfield. Williams didn’t leave the Panthers gracefully, but he had a couple of great years while he was in Charlotte.
Jonathan Stewart needs 209 yards during the 2017 season to surpass DeAngelo Williams as the Panthers’ all-time leader in rushing yardage.
18. Mike Rucker: Third all-time in sacks for Carolina behind only Peppers and Charles Johnson, “Ruck” also made a Pro Bowl at defensive end in the 2003 Super Bowl season.
19. Mike Minter: A safety with a nose for the ball, Minter left the Panthers as Carolina’s all-time leading tackler. He now is the head coach of the Campbell Camels.
20. CHARLES JOHNSON: Known for his steadiness, Johnson has played defensive end for Carolina for a decade. Although he’s never made a Pro Bowl, Johnson ranks No. 2 all-time for the Panthers with 67.5 sacks in his career.
Honorable mention: Eric Davis, Stephen Davis, Steve Beuerlein, Lamar Lathon, Chris Gamble, Jon Beason, Kris Jenkins, Mike Tolbert, Kerry Collins, Josh Norman, KAWANN SHORT and Dan Morgan.