Just a year after being 15-1 and going to the Super Bowl, Carolina struggled to a 6-10 record in 2016. Several things fell apart, including Cam Newton, who struggled through an injury- and inconsistency-riddled follow-up to his MVP season.

Can the Panthers get things back in order and make another deep postseason run? Or was the year as runner-up the outlier? Brian Beversluis, a staff writer with Cat Scratch Reader, joins us with some thoughts.

Zoneblitz: The Panthers followed up a Super Bowl season with a 6-10. How would you assess what went wrong in 2016?

Beversluis:  Injuries were obviously a big deal. Losing Michael Oher to a concussion all year was a major issue that threw the offensive line into shambles. In 2015, Oher stabilized the line and left only right tackle Mike Remmers as a weak link. In 2016, Remmers had to play left tackle, something he’s definitely not cut out for long term. Remmers has value as a swing guy (why he got paid in Minnesota) but he has no business there at LT all the time. Then their back up RT Daryl Williams got hurt too, forcing Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner to play RT. They also eventually lost Ryan Kalil and his back up at center. Obviously for an offense that likes to take shots down field, that’s a problem. It caused Cam to take a lot of hits and allowed teams to load the box.

On defense, losing Josh Norman and having to field two rookie corners and unproven commodities at nickel threw the secondary into disarray, and the front seven struggled to get pass rush early on due to teams taking advantage of that.

Zoneblitz: Cam Newton wasn’t terrible in 2016, but despite the return of Kelvin Benjamin, he didn’t come close to matching his magical 2015. What happened there?

Beversluis: Kelvin Benjamin did not return to his rookie form completely, there’s people who wonder if he was 100 percent healthy yet. The team wanted to ease him in but he ended up playing more snaps than any other receiver most of the time. Obviously as I mentioned above, the pass rush was stifling for Newton. He also took quite a few helmet-to-helmet hits that should have been flagged. Cam doesn’t play very well when he gets rocked a few times.

Cam has learned to stand in the pocket and throw, and is less likely to take off running. While that’s a good thing, when the offensive line is in such disarray it resulted in lots of sacks and hits on him. With the rushing attack not doing great and the offensive line allowing rushers, it’s not a good formula for them.

Zoneblitz: The offense went from first in scoring (500 points) to 15th (369) – is it mostly attributable to Newton or is there more going on there?

Beversluis: The Panthers are designed to hold onto the ball, by rushing the ball and draining clock. Teams who got way out ahead of them were able to force them away from that mentality, and the offensive pieces around Cam simply couldn’t step up at times. Cam also had a tendency to force the ball. I don’t remember where I read this, but apparently the Panthers receivers were pretty darn close to worst in the league at getting truly open for him as well.

Zoneblitz: The run game dropped off by a good 500 yards in 2016. Is Jonathan Stewart nearing the end? Is the offensive line the culprit? Something else?

Beversluis: Mike Tolbert finally fell off the talent cliff in 2016, providing little to no value as a rusher. Cam was so dinged up that the coaches didn’t want to risk his health by running him too much. And as I mentioned, O-line struggled. Stewart also had his usual few games on the bench due to injury.

All in all, they need something new at running back soon. Stewart is still a good running back, he has far less mileage than his age suggests. However, he can’t be counted on to be an every down back and so far nobody else has really showed to be anything more than a change of pace guy. The Panthers will definitely be looking at running backs this year in the draft.

Zoneblitz: The defense also struggled, giving up 94 more points in 2016 than 2015. Josh Norman was the high-profile loss off the Super Bowl defense – how much of the problem was his loss and what else contributed?

Beversluis: Losing Norman took away that shutdown corner presence. Charles Tillman also retired, and Bene Benwikere was slated to be the number one guy. As you may know, he’s now a practice squad/depth guy somewhere else in the league, and the Panthers cut him after that abysmal game against the Falcons where they set darn near every passing record for their franchise.

Eventually the secondary stabilized a bit once James Bradberry and Daryl Worley got their feet wet, and I think both of them will be much better next season. The front seven also had its issues with injuries, such as the loss of Luke Kuechly for the year roughly midway through the season.

Zoneblitz: How big of a loss is defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who moved on to become Buffalo’s head coach? Do you have a sense for how things might change under Steve Wilks?

Beversluis: McDermott was a great D.C., and I think he will do well in Buffalo. That said, the scheme isn’t going to change and Steve Wilks had a hand in a lot of it as an assistant. Ron Rivera was also a former D.C. so I don’t see it being a big problem. Between those two minds and the ever-fantastic presences of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, they should be fine.

Zoneblitz: Luke Kuechly is a fantastic player, but he’s had some injury issues, including the concussions. How concerned are you about his long-term future in the league?

Beversluis: I’m glad the Panthers pulled the plug on Kuechly for the year following his injury. He’s only suffered two known concussions, though obviously every single one is unique. Kuechly doesn’t seem to be expressing any concern and he is a solid form tackler. One of the reasons some LBs suffer so many is due to poor tackling form. Kuechly is the model of how players should tackle. I don’t see it being a problem, but if he were to suffer another one that kept him out several weeks one would have to wonder how long he would want to put himself at risk.

Zoneblitz: What do you think of the early free agency activity, including the trade of Kony Ealy and the additions of Julius Peppers, Captain Munnerlyn, Mike Adams and Matt Kalil?

Beversluis: I still don’t quite get the trade of Ealy, though he’s never consistently been a presence as a defensive end. I think Gettleman may have made the decision already that he wasn’t going to bring him back following the 2017 season, so I guess having an additional second round pick is a way of getting something for a relatively unproven commodity. I think they may use their picks to try and move back into the first round.

I liked all of the signings though. It was great to see Julius Peppers return as a fan, and he appears to have plenty left in the tank. I think acquiring him and re-signing Charles Johnson and Mario Addison also factored into the Ealy move. Now the Panthers can draft a pass rusher and allow him to be involved but not out of necessity. Captain Munnerlyn was probably the best of all, as the Panthers haven’t had a good nickel cornerback since he left. Munnerlyn should thrive there. Mike Adams will also bring back that veteran presence to the secondary, and they desperately needed somebody who can start if Tre Boston continues to struggle at strong safety.

Matt Kalil was certainly questionable, but every tackle signing was expensive. Kalil says that he hasn’t felt this good in a while following hip surgery and got his speed back. We will see there, but I believe he is a better left tackle than Remmers would be and he still has a high ceiling in this league. Plus, if Oher doesn’t make it back this season they needed SOMEBODY who could play left tackle.

Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the Panthers focus on through the rest of free agency and the draft?

Beversluis: They need to grab a tackle, even if that is just for depth. They also will likely look at a running back who could take over as the lead guy once Stewart leaves. I think you’ll see an emphasis on pass rushers, receivers, and defensive backs in the draft. They may go for a complimentary tight end for Greg Olsen as well.

Zoneblitz: This team has twice rebounded from less than stellar seasons to post big win totals the following year under Ron Rivera – Will that pattern continue in 2017? How far is this team from again being a contender?

Beversluis: Well the good news is that for the most part this team hasn’t changed too much. Their secondary is mostly intact and the defensive line will feature a great rotation once again. On offense, they addressed some holes. If the protection is there we’ve seen how good Cam Newton can truly be. I think this team from top to bottom is as good as they were in 2015, but they gotta have things go well for them and they need to nail some high impact draft picks.

Zoneblitz: What do you think of the jobs Rivera and GM Dave Gettleman have done?

Beversluis: I think Rivera may be getting close to being in the hot seat if the team once again finishes below .500. That said, when injuries and cap room issues haven’t hamstrung the team he’s maximized on the talent with some strong showings.

I think Dave Gettleman finally got to a point where the low risk, low cost signings were no longer going to be enough, and I really like the sense of urgency he addressed Free Agency with. He’s done a fine job as the Panthers GM. People criticize him for not taking a tackle or signing one for years, but so far a lot of those guys didn’t pan out for other teams.

Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Beversluis: Come check us out on Catscratchreader.com for more Panthers info. We have a few big time draft guys who provide some excellent coverage there. This draft will be interesting for the Panthers too, who hold four picks in the top 100. They tend to be very aggressive pursuing players they like in the later rounds, but they could make a move to go back into the first round for one of the top RBs, if they don’t take one at 8.

Follow Beversluis on Twitter at: @brianbeversluis
Follow Cat Scratch Reader on Twitter at: @catscratchreadr
Follow Zoneblitz on Twitter at: @ZoneblitzCom

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