NFC South Preview 2014: Carolina Panthers

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In this series we take a look at the off-season moves made by the Saints' NFC South division rivals. Today we scout the Carolina Panthers.

In 2013, the Carolina Panthers ended the season with a 12-4 record and a 1st place finish in the NFC South.  Carolina was 5-1 in division games, including a 1-1 record vs. the New Orleans Saints.  The Panthers had the 26th ranked offense and 2nd ranked defense (both in yards) in 2013.  Head coach Ron Rivera and starting quarterback Cam Newton return for their fourth season in Charlotte.

Key free agent acquisitions

CB - Antoine Cason

TE - Mike McNeill

WR - Jason Avant

WR - Jerricho Cotchery

WR - Tiquan Underwood

S - Thomas DeCoud

S - Roman Harper

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Key free agents lost / not re-signed

WR - Ted Ginn, Jr.

WR - Steve Smith

WR - Brandon LaFell

S - Mike Mitchell

CB - Captain Munnerlyn

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Draft selections

WR - Kelvin Benjamin - Florida St. (Round 1)

DE - Kony Ealy - Missouri (Round 2)

G - Trai Turner - LSU (Round 3)

S - Tre Boston - North Carolina (Round 4)

CB - Bene Benwikere - San Jose St. (Round 5)

RB - Tyler Gaffney - Stanford (Round 6)

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Here's how walterfootball.com graded Carolina's draft:

Carolina Panthers: C Grade
Goals Entering the 2014 NFL Draft: The Panthers lost a ton of talent this offseason, particularly at wideout and on the offensive line. Some contrarians think they can look at other positions, but the receiving corps and front are in such dire need of help that the front office almost has to address them early and often.

2014 NFL Draft Accomplishments: The Panthers had to obtain multiple receivers and a left tackle. They failed in both matters, which has to be frustrating for the fans. They did, at least, snag one receiver, but he was a reach. Kelvin Benjamin was a consensus second-round prospect, and one team we spoke to even had him in the middle rounds. The 28th pick was too early for him, but Carolina was at least addressing a huge hole.

I don't know what happened after that, but receiver and tackle were ignored. I don't mind the second-round choice of Kony Ealy because he presented such great value at that juncture, but one of the next three selections should have been used on a greater position of need.

Given all that's happened, who's Newton going to throw to, and how will his blind side be protected? Carolina's franchise quarterback can't be happy with what his team did this weekend.

Here's how Cat Scratch Reader's CanadianPanther graded Carolina's draft:

It's hard to really love this draft, but it's also hard to hate it. The Panthers got two potential steals in Ealy and Turner, and took a well-calculated gamble on Kelvin Benjamin, and added depth in the secondary and at running back on the third day. However, I question the the Panthers decision to pass on an offensive tackle, their greatest position of need.

Overall Draft Grade: B

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How this affects the Saints in 2014

The Saints and Panthers split their season series in 2013.  The Saints dominated the Panthers in New Orleans, then lost a heartbreaker in Carolina while starting a rookie left tackle against one of the NFL's great defensive ends in Greg Hardy, playing in a virtual monsoon for an extended period, and falling victim to a fantastic final offensive drive by Cam Newton.  Despite this, I still say advantage Saints.  For all of their troubles, the Panthers suffered the most predictable outcome of the 2013 NFL Playoffs by being skull dragged at home against a healthy San Francisco 49ers squad.

The 2014 offseason sees these teams following two completely opposite trajectories.  Since their two meetings in 2013, the Panthers have lost productivity and leadership at wideout and in the defensive backfield, while continuing to leave Newton to fend for himself with the question mark at tackle.  Meanwhile, the Saints have bolstered their team across the board during the same time frame.

Losing Mike Mitchell and Captain Munnerlyn in the defensive backfield while adding divisional rivals Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper are severe downgrades.  The trio of free agent receivers listed above, do not equal the trio of receivers Carolina lost either.  Although the addition of rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin should help, it would stand to reason that TE Greg Olson will be Cam Newton's security blanket and primary target in the coming season.  Newton will have his flashes of brilliance but will regress due to lack of protection and weapons.

From the outside, Carolina appears to be a team that has not made the moves necessary to improve upon their NFC South championship campaign in 2013.  The Saints may not have much to fear from the Panthers offense, but their defense will continue to be more than a handful.  The Carolina front seven will cause havoc to most offenses in the NFL, and the Saints will not be immune.  The Saints offensive line will have to be stout in order to give Drew Brees time to dissect the soft underbelly of the Panthers' secondary.

The 2014 season should see another Saints split with the Panthers, a tough loss in Carolina on Thursday night following a short week of rest and prep after a Sunday night game.  The Saints should pick up a solid victory at home in a late season matchup in the Dome.  Like all other defending division winners in the NFC South era, a repeat championship isn't in the stars for Carolina, as a 3rd place finish awaits the Panthers.

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