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NFC South Preview 2016: Carolina Panthers

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.

NFL: 2016 NFL Draft Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, the Carolina Panthers ended the season with an astonishing 15-1 record, their third consecutive NFC South title, and a Super Bowl appearance. Carolina was 5-1 in division games, including a 2-0 record vs. the New Orleans Saints. The Panthers had the 11th ranked offense and 6th ranked defense (both in yards) in 2015. Head coach Ron Rivera and starting quarterback Cam Newton return for their sixth season in Charlotte.

Player acquisitions

S - Trenton Robinson

C/G - Gino Gradkowski

DT - Paul Soliai


Players lost / not re-signed

CB - Josh Norman

CB - Cortland Finnegan

CB - Charles Tillman

S - Roman Harper

WR - Jerricho Cotchery


Draft selections

DT - Vernon Butler - Louisiana Tech (Round 1)

CB - James Bradberry - Samford (Round 2)

CB - Daryl Worley - West Virginia (Round 3)

CB - Zack Sanchez - Oklahoma (Round 5)

TE - Beau Sandaled -Montana State (Round 7)


Here's how graded Carolina's draft:

Carolina Panthers: C+ Grade

Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: In a surprising turn of events, the Panthers lost Josh Norman after franchising him earlier in the offseason. They already needed a cornerback, so now two should be drafted. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that they'll take one in the first couple of rounds. With so other few needs, Carolina can focus on taking the best player available, though a tackle should be obtained at some point.

2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: It was not a surprise at all to see the Panthers stay true to their board on Thursday night. They could've taken a cornerback or tackle at the end of the first round, but opted for Vernon Butler instead. Butler doesn't fill an immediate need, but he'll figure to be a great rotational player until Star Lotulelei moves on, allowing him to become the full-time starter. Butler, who has drawn comparisons to Muhammad Wilkerson, was just too good to pass up.

The Panthers took a trio of corners after that, and understandably so. None of them were outstanding prospects, but two were solid (Daryl Worley, Zack Sanchez). The other was chosen a bit too early (James Bradberry), but the Samford product possesses elite athleticism, so the sky's the limit for him.

Carolina had a good draft overall, but needs to be punished a bit for not addressing the offensive tackle position whatsoever. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were finally exposed in the Super Bowl, and at least one had to be upgraded. Part of the issue was having only four picks (excluding the seventh round), and that occurred because Carolina moved up for Worley, which was not a good decision.

Had the Panthers taken a tackle at some point, I probably would've given them at least a "B." They didn't, however, so because of that, as well as the trade, they get downgraded to a C+.

Here's how Dan Kadar at SB Nation graded Carolina's draft:

With questions about whether they can re-sign both Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short along the defensive line, the Panthers smartly picked up Vernon Butler in the first round. He's a powerful run stuffer who will make plays starting in a rotation. After letting starting cornerback Josh Norman leave, the Panthers decided to use multiple picks to find his replacement. They started in the second round with Bradberry, who has impressive size but needs to be coached up. In the third round, they got Daryl Worley from West Virginia. He's a risk-taking cornerback who can get beat by being too aggressive. Zack Sanchez may run hot and cold as a cornerback, but he's very good against smaller wide outs. He is good at making a play on the ball and could be a good system fit. Seventh rounder Beau Sandland has a chance to make the roster. He's a solid athlete with good hands, but he jumped form school to school, so his development is a little behind. The Panthers needed an offensive tackle in this draft and didn't take one.

Overall grade: C-


How this affects the Saints in 2015

The Panthers had both the best season in franchise history and the best regular season of any team in the NFL in 2015. The only way to improve upon 2015 for the Panthers is to go undefeated in the regular season and win the Super Bowl, that’s all, no big deal.

Although Carolina didn't add all that much to their offense this offseason, the biggest addition that they made will be the return of WR Kelvin Benjamin who missed the entirety of the Panthers’ historic campaign in 2015 with a torn ACL. The return of Cam Newton’s biggest outside target will take some pressure off of Newton and RB Jonathan Stewart, who both led Carolina’s offense in 2015 with a relentless rushing attack. Balance on offense will potentially make the Panthers even more dangerous in 2016.

Carolina’s defensive front seven has arguably been the best in the NFL for some time now, and that shows no signs of changing this season. It’s also no secret that the weakness of the Panthers defense has been its secondary, which recently had the benefit of one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks protecting the backfield. That CB is Josh Norman, who has now left Carolina for truckloads of cash from Dan Snyder in Washington.

The Panthers now look to employ a quantity over quality method (of course, hoping quantity will turn into quality) at cornerback. This is evident by Carolina drafting three consecutive CB’s in this year’s draft. They watched four veterans leave the secondary this season and have elected to go with youth in the stead of experience in 2016.

Carolina steamrolled the competition last year, and the Saints were no exception. The Panthers won both games against the Saints, although the first victory came against Luke McCown starting in place of an injured Drew Brees and was sealed by an acrobatic interception by star CB Josh Norman in the end zone during the closing moments of the game. While the Saints could split the series with Carolina should Drew Brees play in both games, I think Carolina will likely win both games even with Brees on the field. Carolina will not have another 15-1 campaign, but they will be good enough to win their unprecedented fourth consecutive NFC South championship, regulating the Saints to a 2nd place finish in the division, hopefully good enough for a playoff berth for New Orleans this season.