NFL season preview 2017: Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. (Mike McCarn/AP)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Carolina Panthers.

Head coach: Ron Rivera
Last season’s record: 6-10
Playoff result: Did not qualify

Key free agent gains: Julius Peppers is back where it all began. The second-overall pick from 2002 spent the first eight years of his career in the Panthers organization, where he registered double-digit sacks in all but two of those seasons. Now 37, Peppers is coming off three successful campaigns with the Green Bay Packers and currently ranks fifth in all-time NFL sacks with 143.5. If he can drag down opposing quarterbacks at least seven more times in 2017 he’ll pass Hall of Famer Chris Doleman for fourth on the list.

The Panthers also added two veteran pieces to the secondary in the form of cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Adams. Blindside offensive tackle Matt Kalil will look to get his career back on track after signing a five-year deal in Carolina as he joins his brother Ryan (the team’s Pro Bowl centre) on the offensive line.

Key free agent losses: Two speedy receivers in Philly Brown and Ted Ginn, the latter of whom is also a dangerous kick returner, are gone. So is veteran short-yardage running back and human bowling ball Mike Tolbert. Tre Boston, Kony Ealy, A.J. Klein and Paul Soliai are all gone on the defensive side of the ball but at the end of the day that won’t hurt them.

The team also went through some significant changes in the front office and on the coaching staff. President Danny Morrison resigned in February; former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and former assistant GM Brandon Beane are now the head coach and GM, respectively, with the Buffalo Bills; the Panthers fired GM Dave Gettleman just eight days before the team reported to training camp and then fired longtime personnel director Mark Koncz.

Key draft picks: The Panthers added two potentially potent offensive weapons in the first 40 picks of April’s draft in Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Ohio State standout Curtis Samuel.

McCaffrey was taken eighth overall and comes with high expectations. He is excellent both between the tackles and catching passes out of the backfield.

“He’s quick. He’s got shake. He’s fast,” star linebacker Luke Kuechly told ESPN’s David Newton. “The way he runs, you can tell he’s done it a few times. He’s very precise with his movements. He’s in and out of breaks quick. I think he’s going to be somebody that helps us out.”

Samuel has some similar skills to McCaffrey but naturally isn’t getting the same shine as the 2015 AP college player of the year. Offensive guard Taylor Moton was selected with the final pick in the second round. The Western Michigan product is now part of one of the stronger offensive lines in the NFC.

X-factor: Curtis Samuel. With Cam Newton behind centre and McCaffrey supporting Jonathan Stewart, the backfield is going to be in the spotlight, but Samuel isn’t getting the attention he deserves. The Panthers want to have Newton get rid of the ball quicker and Samuel, who had more than 700 rushing yards in 2016 in addition to 700+ receiving yards, is an excellent short-pass option. He will line up as a receiver but he has “star utility man” written all over him.

2017 will be a success if: They get back to the playoffs. The Panthers are one of a handful of teams with a truly well-rounded roster and should compete with the Falcons for the division title. To ensure they can be competitive once again they must do a better job limiting the damage Newton receives. Continuing to rely on a heavy run attack should aid in this effort.