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NFC South Preview 2015: Carolina Panthers

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

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

In 2014, the Carolina Panthers ended the season with a 7-8-1 record and a 1st place finish in the NFC South.  Carolina was 4-2 in division games, including a 1-1 record vs. the New Orleans Saints.  The Panthers had the 16th ranked offense and 10th ranked defense (both in yards) in 2014.  Head coach Ron Rivera and starting quarterback Cam Newton return for their fifth season in Charlotte.

Key player acquisitions

CB - Chris Houston

CB - Charles Tillman

S - Marcus Ball

OT - Michael Oher

OT - Jonathan Martin

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Key players lost / not re-signed

DE - Greg Hardy

RB - DeAngelo Williams

S - Thomas DeCoud

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Draft selections

LB - Shaq Thompson - Washington (Round 1)

WR - Devin Funchess - Michigan (Round 2)

OT - Daryl Williams - Oklahoma (Round 4)

LB - David Mayo - Texas State (Round 5)

RB - Cameron Artis-Payne - Auburn (Round 5)

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

Carolina Panthers (Last Year: 7-8-1)


NFL Draft Team Grade: D Grade

Goals Entering the 2015 NFL Draft: It's well known which two positions the Panthers have to address in the draft: receiver and offensive tackle. They do have other needs, though. A third linebacker, an upgrade at safety and another running back have to be acquired.


2015 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I slotted Shaq Thompson to the Panthers at No. 25 in one of my final mock drafts because I knew they liked him, but I ultimately made the decision to move him to Carolina's pick in the second round because I thought he was too much of a reach with the 25th-overall choice. Other teams we spoke to felt the same way, slotting Thompson in the second frame. Thus, it's apparent the Panthers reached for him. Thompson doesn't have a truly defined position in the NFL, so using a first-rounder on him is a curious move.

Having said that, taking Thompson at No. 25 was brilliant compared to what happened next. The Panthers dealt multiple picks to move up for Devin Funchess, another player who doesn't have a real position. Funchess is too small to be a tight end and too slow to be a receiver, so where does he fit in? He was expected to slide, so if the Panthers truly coveted him, they could have obtained him (or a similarly talented receiver/tight end) with their own selection in the second round. Taking a major reach is bad enough; using multiple resources to do so is beyond disastrous.

Two of Carolina's third-day selections salvaged this grade from being a Millen. Daryl Williams was a nice bargain pick and could end up starting, while Cameron Artis-Payne provided great value in Round 6. However, neither prospect is good enough to offset what transpired earlier, as well as the fact that the Panthers made only one upgrade to their beleaguered offensive line.

Here's how Jaxon at Cat Scratch Reader graded Carolina's draft:

As it played out I like many was very confused by many of the picks. The Panthers entered the draft with 9 picks but left with only 5 players having traded away all of their tradeable late round picks (5th through 7th) to move up in the 2nd and 4th round. In doing so the Panthers did not appear to address many of their needs at first blush anyway, hence why I give them a solid B grade.

...

The national media will pan the Panthers picks as either reaches or a failure to address needs. I'm pretty sure the same was said after both of GM Dave Gettleman's previous drafts. In both cases we found out the selections played much better than expected in the coming season. Hence I'm not too worried about how the draft class is being graded right. We potentially got three starters from this draft which is about all you ask for year to year.

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How this affects the Saints in 2015

In 2014, the Panthers became the first team to ever repeat as NFC South champions.  Think about that, in the 13 year history of the NFC South division, no team before the 2014 Carolina Panthers had ever won the division in consecutive seasons.  Yet it was a team with a sub .500 record at 7-8-1 that pulled it off.  Before dumptrucking the Saints on December 7th, the Panthers were dead to rights in the playoff race at 3-8-1.  The team was a catastrophe whose only saving grace was that they were in arguably the worst single-season division in NFL history.

Carolina turned it around in New Orleans that bitter December day and turned their season around with that victory.  The Panthers would go on to win the final four games of the season, three of which were against division rivals, and it was all they needed.  Carolina would improbably go from another lame duck defending NFC South champ to the division's first repeat champs in the matter of a month.

The loss of troubled-yet-dangerous DE Greg Hardy is the big one for the Panthers this season.  Hardy transformed a good front seven into a great one, when he was on the field.  It will be up to Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy to fill the void from Hardy's departure, and they should do well although not as dominant without him.  Even minus Hardy, Carolina boasts the best front seven in the division, led by two-time defensive All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

On offense, Carolina will look to rookie receiver Devin Funchess to ease the burden off of top targets Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. In the backfield, Jonathan Stewart will finally have the starting spot to himself now that DeAngelo Williams has (thankfully) moved on from the Queen City.  Fifth round pick Cameron Artis-Payne may be the future at RB, but Stewart should see the majority of the carries this season.

The key for success in Carolina will lie directly on its greatest weakness in 2014, the offensive line.  Cam Newton played behind an absolute liability of an o-line in 2014 and they will have to improve greatly for the Panthers to defend their crown once again.  The biggest move Carolina has made to improve the o-line is the signing of Michael Oher, but that move alone, paired with free agent Jonathan Martin and 4th round pick Daryl Williams wouldn't appear to be enough to repair such a flawed unit.

The Saints' two games against Carolina in 2014 couldn't have been different affairs.  In Week 9, the Saints travelled to Charlotte for a Thursday Night game and imposed their will on a Panther team struggling to find itself.  The Saints won the first matchup 28-10, and at the time, the thought was that when Carolina travelled to New Orleans in Week 14, the result would be even worse.  As it turned out, the second matchup was worse, unfortunately it was worse for the Saints as Carolina throttled them in the Superdome, 41-10.

It wouldn't be surprising in the least to see the Saints and Panthers split their season series again in 2015.  Carolina hosts the Saints in Week 3, in what should be a relatively low-to-moderate scoring game.  Carolina has a certain ability to force the Saints to really grind things out when they travel to Charlotte.  With that said, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Saints fall in a tight divisional road contest to the Panthers.

As for their Week 13 matchup in New Orleans, almost a year to the day from the embarrassingly crushing loss to the Panthers, the Saints will look to even the score.  The Saints should take the second game and exact a little revenge as they close in on the final stretch of the 2015 season, and hopefully the NFC South division title.  I think the Saints will take it, relegating the Carolina Panthers to a 2nd place finish in the NFC South.